#indyref – part 5 – national identity

An anecdote: I once sat beside a fellow American ex-pat on a flight from Amsterdam to Edinburgh, on the final leg via Schiphol when I was returning home from a visit to my family in the US. The woman beside me had married a Dutchman, and settled in the Netherlands, with dual citizenship (US and EU.) This was in 2005; her story hinged on the quagmire of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She told me that she had decided to reject her American citizenship, as a mark of protest for the American-led invasion. She had attended the US embassy in the Netherlands, and handed her passport over to the official behind the glassed-in counter with a brief explanation of her reason. The clerk stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded, and then slid the passport back across the counter with the words “You don’t want to do that.” The woman slid it back again, over to the official, saying “Yes, actually, I do,” and walked out. Interesting choice of words used by that clerk, I think. Why should the state know better than the citizen what the citizen wants? In any case, it is very unusual for Americans to revoke their citizenship on grounds of principle.

As a young American citizen, I was taught to hold deep pride for my nation’s role as a destination for immigrants from all over the world. We were the melting pot of the world, I was told. People from all over the globe left their homelands and travelled, often through great hardship, to our shores in search of a better life for themselves and their children. The melting pot served as the metaphor for the process of integration, from the language and customs of one’s country of origin to the English language and American culture. The melting pot implied that American culture allowed for a multicultural diversity which reflected and encouraged its democratic tolerance of all people. Ironically, then, the country presided over nearly a century of black slavery and indigenous ghettoisation followed by enduring racial segregation, and has pioneered the concept of mass market monoculture, using it to exercise western cultural colonialism around the globe.

Another anecdote: I once met a Scottish man of Indian ethnicity; he was the child or grandchild of immigrants to the UK. He had lived briefly in Chicago, and he described it as the most racist city he’d ever been in – which surprised and appalled me. His reason for this view was that the ethnic populations of the city reside geographically: European people live on the north side of the city, Hispanic and Latino and Indo-Asian people on the west side, and African and Caribbean people on the south side. (Lake Michigan serves as the ‘east side’ of the city.)

Strictly speaking, it’s not divided that clearly. For example, the west side originally developed through Polish and other Eastern European immigration, and many of their descendents (including my own relations) still live there beside the more recent Hispanic and Asian communities. As in many cities around the world, neighbourhoods have developed on ethnic lines due to global immigration patterns; Chicago is no different. But broadly speaking, my acquaintance had a point.

The American melting pot of course includes those of Scottish and Scots Irish descent, people whose ancestors were uprooted from their original homes by the Clearances. The Scottish Diaspora brings a brisk trade in tourism, clan merchandise and genealogical research at the National Archives. Many of these visitors would say that they’re American or Canadian, yet they also take pride in being Scottish. My acquaintance would likely call himself Scottish and Asian both. I’m American, with ethnic roots in Poland, England, Wales, Ireland and Germany; I think of myself now as belonging to Scotland where I have made my home and where some of my daughter’s ancestors lived.

National identity simply cannot be pinned down to ethnicity; our world’s populations are too diverse and too mobile to draw such firm lines – if in fact they ever did. Think of all of our human history: when has there ever been a time which didn’t involve boundary disputes, migrant narratives and cultural fusion? Scotland’s strength – whether independent or not – lies in welcoming diversity, not thwarting it or excluding others; the contributions of incomers are national assets.

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