I’m Sorry But You're Not Scawdish
And You’re Not Irish Either
On my first day in Sunny So Cal, back in the 90s, a friendly lady with a nasal Californian accent showed us around our apartment complex in Newport Beach. Well, to be honest it was Costa Mesa calling itself Newport Beach, which I can understand as it probably bumped the rent $200 a month.
As we perambulated she asked me about my accent. Little did I know this was to be my fate for the next 20 something years, and I daresay the rest of my life. My Scottish cadence is an endless source of small talk and quite useful for breaking the ice. I try hard to remember that the person asking me where I’m from or saying I love your accent does not realise I’ve had this same conversation literally thousands of times, it’s brand new to them. I always trot out one of my stock responses with a smile and I remind myself it’s nice to be noticed in a positive way.
But this was my first taste of “Oh, what’s that accent?” Upon hearing I was Scottish she proclaimed brightly “Oh I’m Scawdish!” I was genuinely confused. Raised to be polite I smiled “Oh really? You’ve lost the accent then”. To which she replied “Oh no I mean my father was Scawdish”. I paused, unsure of what the hell was going on. “Oh really?” I scrabbled for a response. “What part of Scotland was he from?” “Oh, I dunno” she shrugged, and changed the subject.
Nonplussed, I wandered vaguely after her, and filed it away in the “people are weird” box. Sadly, she was not an isolated case.
There is an epidemic of Americans claiming to be Scottish, Irish, Polish or whatever their ancestry is. And they seem utterly oblivious as to the fact that no, they’re not.
Long ago, when on Twitter in my first incarnation, I learned to dread St Patrick’s Day. All the wannabe Irish whose dad’s cousin’s dog twice removed had a hint of the Celt would
would start with begorra and top of the morning, change their profile pics to leprechauns and begin posting breakfast photos of green bear, which a true Irish person would drink only on a bet.
One year, I made this helpful flowchart for them:
For some reason, the flowchart was not a hit.
I’m not Irish, but it amused me to point out to the Americans that they weren’t Irish either. As a Celt I do find the appropriation of a Celtic nationality by North Americans genuinely offensive. I say by North Americans, because I know of no other country which partakes in this ritual. Every other country, from the tiny and insignificant to the large and boisterous seems content with their own nationality.
Now the thing about offence is, you can just say “fuck you I don’t care”. That’s a perfectly valid response to me being offended. However, I am going to make my case against Americentrism anyway, and fuck you if you don’t like it.
I’ve talked a little about Americentrism before. Medium is rife with people making claims about racism and political and cultural assumptions which are only relevant to North America. They seem genuinely not to realise that the rest of the world, largely, either doesn’t agree with or hasn’t even heard anything about a lot of what they’re claiming.
The Donna Syndrome
I used to have an American friend on Facebook called Donna. She was, as is the way of Facebook, a friend of a friend. She wasn’t really my cup of tea, but she was endlessly fascinated by me and all things UK related, and was mostly polite to me, so I was happy enough to chat to her in comments and DMs.
One day I posted something about Scotland, can’t recall what. Donna immediately replied something something something “I’m Scottish”. I immediately replied, no you’re not. I explained that saying “I love Scotland/My heart belongs to Scotland/I consider myself American-Scottish/I feel a great affinity for Scotland/I feel connected to Scotland/My ancestors are Scottish” etc are all relevant and pleasing comments to make.
“I’m Scottish” however is factually incorrect and can be quite offensive to actually Scottish people. It’s cultural appropriation writ large — which is apparently fine so long as the person is white.
She continued to argue. On my wall. On my comment. Growing exasperated, I suggested that any American walking into a Glaswegian pub and shouting “I’m Scottish!” had better hope the inhabitants were in the mood to humour the yank, and I wouldn’t bet a glassed face on that. She continued to argue.
So, I deleted her final comment. Enough was enough. It wasn’t a discussion, I wasn’t asking for her opinion which had not been relevant in the first place. I was telling her a fact and I was sick of repeating said fact because an over entitled woman was insistent upon her feelings overruling reality.
Immediately, she went radio silent. Normally commenting on everything I wrote, she was notable by her absence. It was lovely, actually, as she was a fairly pessimistic person anyway. Then I forgot all about it.
A few weeks later I came across something she’d written. To be courteous (one of the reasons I regularly deactivate Fakebook is that it encourages such witless behaviour from me) I liked her post and made a polite, agreeable comment.
This was the moment Donna had been waiting for. Aha! She pounced - and deleted my comment.
I realised only then how enraged she must have felt when she'd been forced to accept a firm No to her nonsense. I’d tolerated her feelpinions long past the point of no return, but eventually my patience was depleted. One of the mottos I try to live by is “You can have your own opinions but not your own facts”. I don’t generally argue with my friends about opinions, of course. We don’t have to agree on everything. But that goes both ways. You do not get to argue with me on my own post on a subject about which I am knowledgeable and which is dear to my heart. Particularly when I have reality on my side.
Not appreciating how exquisitely rude not to mention ridiculous it was for an American to argue with me, a Scot, about what constitutes a Scot, perhaps Donna had not realised that I had been particularly patient and good-humoured with her on that day. I have a deceptively approachable face and demeanour. Because I normally let friends speak their opinions in peace and without making a fuss, she mistook me being nice for me being a doormat. It’s a mistake a lot of people make, but not usually twice.
She must have been lying in wait for weeks, fuming, waiting to take her revenge. And since I am far too well mannered to argue with someone on their own wall on their own post on Facebook, she had to take what she could get, a tit for tat deletion despite my comment being positive and affirming.
Reader, I laughed. I mean I really chuckled.
I thought about it a while, and then I blocked her. Not, I hasten to add because I was offended — I found her deleting my comment genuinely funny and a bit sad. But because I don’t like drama llamas in my life, or chaos fairies as the Penguin would have it. Because if she was so bitterly entitled about a subject she'd no right to feel entitlement over, what next was lying in wait? She was such a negative Nancy anyway generally, that my timeline cheered right up once she was off it.
The only way to escape the drama llama is to remove all access.
A learning curve
You can’t, of course, generalise about any group of people, not even North Americans. However, there are tendencies that you can note, over time. Living in California and travelling to a few other states over 4 and a half years, I came across the phenomenon of North Americans claiming “I’m Scottish” repeatedly.
I realise that the USA is a youngish country, and that perhaps some of the immigrants were homesick and wanted to feel close to their roots. I realise that amongst other Americans it may quickly have become standard to say “I’m Scottish” instead of “I’m of Scottish descent”. I understand that it’s a turn of phrase normalised to American ears. I understand it’s a cultural norm there.
I understand all the reasons why it’s become normalised in the USA. But that doesn’t make it any less aggravating to me — or any less factually incorrect. Words mean things. You’re not Scottish because you identify as Scottish. Or Irish. Or Whatever. See flowchart for further assistance.
I’m not asking Americans to change a thing, but I am saying this, once and for all, loud and clear, for my own catharsis.
You’re not Scottish. I don’t care if your mum, gran, great gran or all your descendants from day dot to right now are Scottish. See the above Irish flowchart and replace with the word “Scottish”.
These days, my family and friends could make a case for me not being truly Scottish, though I was born, raised and spent the first 25 years of my life there. I have Australian citizenship, I haven’t been home in years. I’d consider that argument from my ain folk. But I do know I know what a Scot is. And a North American, generally, isn’t.
A rule of thumb might be that if you can’t say Scottish without a North American accent, you’re probably not.
So to all the North Americans who indulge in this passtime I say this — you can and will continue to call yourself whatever you wish. Of course you will. I doubt very much you’ll care what I have to say.
That it is impolite at best is not something I expect you to care about. That it marks you out as more truly North American than you can imagine is neither here nor there. Perhaps it is not a peculiarly North American trait to be determinedly oblivious to other cultures or considerations, but as a country you’re certainly good at it.
In the grand scheme of things, I know it doesn’t really matter.
But know this. The people you are descended from obviously matter to you, since you’re referencing them as part of your identity. So please be aware that every time you say “I’m Scottish” a Scot somewhere is raising their eyebrows, rolling their eyes and muttering “Oh no he’s not” and every time you say “I’m Scottish” you paint yourself as more obliviously American than any other phrase I’ve ever heard. If you try it in Glasgow you’re risking a battering. If you try it around me, you’re risking a blocking. Nothing says I’m North American like appropriating another country’s nationality.
Do as you damn well please, you will anyway. But you should realise that no matter how much you associate yourself with Scotland, every time an American says “I’m Scottish” a haggis turns in a stomach. And not just the sheep’s.
For anybody who has found this article offensive, may I direct you to something I prepared earlier:
Alison Tennent, Queensland, Australia, June 2021 Copyright Alison Tennent 2021, all rights reserved. Scottish by birth, upbringing and bloodline, Australian by citizenship. If you’re reading this anywhere but The Garrulous Glaswegian, Vocal+ or Medium, this work may have been plagiarized.