My family has had links to Shetland since the 70s. My grandparents have lived in Unst for over 30 years. I will always think of Shetland as home. It is a beautiful place. Shetlanders are amongst some of the finest people you could hope to meet. Their sense of community is second to none. I am proud to say that some of my best friends are Shetlanders. Despite this, however, there has always been a dark side to Shetland for me.
‘Soothmoother’. A pretty innocuous word, right? A term of endearment? A word which I had never heard until I arrived in Shetland, aged 6, in March 1995.
It was first said to me in the playground of Mossbank Primary School. It was a word that I would come to understand in time. A word that would follow me through all my school years and into the workplace, with negative connotations attached. It wasn’t the only term used. Others included:
“You’re fae sooth.”
”Du dusna spik lik wis.”
“Du is different fae wis”
”Du dunsna keen da Shetland wye.”
The most creative one was “du’s a plastic Shetlander”. Like I am some sort of cheap version of the original product. A Poundshop Barbie doll.
You are welcome to disagree with me and say “soothmoother is a term of endearment”, “it’s harmless”, or “don’t be so sensitive”.
However, until a term like “soothmoother” has been used to define your existence, to separate you from your peers, and has been spat at you like an insult, you cannot begin to understand the true impact of the word on those to whom it is directed.
I am also not suggesting that my experience of Shetland speaks for all “soothmoothers”, but I am willing to bet that I am not alone.
My overriding point is: it is not about how something is intended; it is about how it is received and interpreted.
Prejudice is alive and kicking in Shetland, whether or not you acknowledge its existence. Highlighting this is particularly important just now, given the rise of the BLM movement [Black Lives Matter] and the resulting debate about blackface at Up Helly Aa. Which, by the way, should not even be a debate. Leave that hellery in the past where it belongs.
I was saddened to see that those who stood up for the BLM movement at the weekend were met with derision and cries of “all lives matter” amongst the support.
The opposition that many Shetlanders are often met with when trying to stand up for a good cause, like BLM, speaks of a fear of change.
Yet, change is needed. We all need to look at our actions and think about whether they are appropriate for the 21st Century. It is difficult, perhaps even intimidating, to modify behaviours which are so ingrained into our society but it is necessary. Whether it is on a local or an international scale, or a big or small issue. Just because it has always been said or done, it does not mean it is right.
I leave you with two suggestions:
- If you are not sure where to start, begin with thinking about the language you choose to use.
- If you read this and thought “I don’t act like that”, then speak out against those who do.
Everyone should be treated with kindness and respect. Maybe we could retire the word “soothmoother” (ok, maybe that’s a bit too far).
Let’s stop discriminating against people. Let’s look out for those who have been marginalised. Let’s all stand up for each other and make Shetland a place to be proud of.
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