Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Have You Heard the One About the Polack?

I hadn’t been in Santa Fe more than two weeks. “I guess we won’t be telling many Polack jokes now,” one of the members of my new congregation quipped. I grinned and responded, “No, not telling many Chopin jokes either,” I remarked.

Of course I had to smile. To do otherwise would indicate I didn’t have any sense of humor. Dago jokes, kike jokes, nigger jokes, chink and wop jokes are considered to be in bad taste now. But somehow Polack jokes still pass under the radar.

Really, I consider myself more American than Polish. My father died when I was five, and I was never really encouraged to stay in touch with the Kowalski side of my family. Why should I? They were Polish.

They were Polacks, like Copernicus. Like Marie Curie. Like Joseph Conrad. Like Lech Walensa, the leader of Solidarity who as much as any single individual brought down the hegemony of the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War.

Or like Tadeusz Kościuszko, whose fortifications of Saratoga in New York during the American Revolution led to the defeat of the British General Burgoyne and the turning point in the colonists’ war for independence. 

I don’t even know where my father’s family originated in Poland. I’m a fully assimilated, non-ethnic, generic U.S. citizen. But I wish I knew more about my national heritage.

And I wish I didn’t feel still so small—belittled--whenever I hear a Polack joke.


Paul Oakley said...

Oh. People still tell Polack jokes? One hears all manner of insensitive jokes, but Polack jokes? I haven't heard one in thirty years.

They were, of course, all the rage when I was in elementary school, and, yes, I laughed at my share of them. But no one I knew that was telling them in my settled, rural, Anglo-Teutonic county had (to their limited knowledge) ever met a Polack other than the highly revered (award winning) football coach the high-school playing field was named for twenty years before, on the occasion of his retirement. Since he didn't fit the joke profile, Polack was a category of the imagination, the jokes were artifacts of a culture and conflict they knew nothing of.

Might as well have been telling Martian jokes.

Within the narrow system of that rural community, the harm that was done was done to the telling community, not to the feelings of the absent people who were the butts of the jokes nor to the harmonious workings of the community. However, even in the absence of an intergroup history or any hint of actual animus, the telling of the jokes perpetuated the cultural belief that people can be and are inferior or superior based on the identity to which they were born.

Good luck educating your congregation!

ms. kitty said...

Oh, Gary, I'm sorry for the pain those and other ethnic jokes still carry. I hope you find a way to remind your congregant that these are not just "politically correct" guidelines that we teach but ways to avoid hurting each other.

For the record, up here in the PNW, it's Scandinavian jokes that sting.

Best wishes for a good sojourn in the MDD!

Holly Jones said...

I hadn't realized people told Polish jokes until last summer when I was in Palestine. People there tell jokes about people from the city of al-Khalil--or in Hebrew, Hebron. These are called "Khalili jokes". I was asking about them, and someone compared them to Polish jokes. Until then, I hadn't known that people made Polish jokes. Maybe it's a sign of changing times, or maybe it's a sign of a privilege I didn't know I had with the name Jones (of course, I doubt Noah, with the last name Kowalski, got many polish jokes either ;-)