The year of the kilt: a lesson in appreciating difference

Scott in Kilt

To celebrate a landmark birthday, my husband Scott decided to wear a kilt. Every day. For a year.

Not to worry, he said. I have six kilts.

Monotony wasn’t my chief concern. Weather was. Minnesota clocked 52 straight days of sub-zero temps that year. I was worried about his knees.  

Turns out, the year of the kilt was a lesson in appreciating difference.

Some people embrace difference. When Scott wore a kilt to an arts event, he was a cause celeb. Attendees peppered him with questions, starting with the most pedestrian: What’s worn under a kilt? He responded as any Scot would, with a non-answer. There’s actually a book on how not to answer that question. He owns it.

In this age of over-sharing, the Scots got it right. It’s fine to keep some things to yourself.

Some people ignore difference. When he wore his plaid to the grocery store or coffee shop, neighbors pretended not to notice. They’d see the swoosh of color, quickly look away, dart another look, then fix their attention on something, anything, at eye level, so as not to encourage him.

Ignoring difference is a subtle but powerful way of silencing it.  

Some people are threatened by difference. When we went to family gatherings, relatives rolled their eyes and took photos from the waist up. That’s just Scott being eccentric, they said. One older aunt pulled me aside and implored me to make him stop. It was indecent, she said. Somehow, she’d conflated kilt wearing with flashing. We chalked it up to an addled brain, but she was not alone in sullying what she didn’t understand.

When people feel threatened, they try to shut down the perceived threat.  

Some people are drawn to difference. Kids, for example. They loved that a man wore a skirt in public. And they weren’t shy about asking why, despite their parents’ shushing. They share what Apple celebrated in its 1997 manifesto:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Here's to the crazy ones.

Some people bond through difference. While we waiting to catch an airport tram, a woman approached us and asked about Scott’s tartan. Her question told us she knew something about kilts because she didn’t call it an outfit, a costume or a getup.

He explained that he wore the colors of Clan Innes, his mother’s clan from east of Inverness. She replied that she wore the colors of Clan Gordon.

There was an awkward pause.

It’s okay, she said. People are often surprised that a Black woman wears a kilt. My relatives were slaves to the Gordons, who brought them to the States when they emigrated. Despite that legacy, I celebrate both sides of my family heritage.

We chatted for a few minutes before the tram whisked us back to our separate lives. We never would have had that encounter, and many more like it, if Scott had been wearing jeans. She never would have shared her family history with a stranger if he hadn’t been an “other” himself. 

While difference can divide, it can also connect in profound ways. Difference is the language of the innocent, the curious, the creative, the entrepreneur, the poet, the innovator, the thought leader, the changemaker, the crazy.  

How do you approach difference?