CN: Ableist Slur, Xenophobia,
Did you hear the one about the dumb Polack?
- He thought his wife was trying to kill him because he found Polish Remover.
- He tried to ask out a Lesbian by asking where in Lesbos she was from.
- When a plane crashed into a cemetery, he recovered over 4000 bodies.
- He locked his keys in the car and had to use a coat hanger to get his family out.
- He crashed his helicopter when he got too cold and turned off the fan.
I’ve been hearing them as long as I can remember. It seems whenever someone finds out I’m Polish I get to hear a new one, or another variation of an old one.
Why don’t they make Ice in Poland? They lost the recipe.
If it’s not jokes about cognitive disability, it’s jokes about alcoholism. When I was staying in France on exchange, my host family couldn’t help themselves but to mention the famous French expression “drunk as a Polack” as soon as they found out my heritage. My father comforted me by telling me that it originated from Napoleonic times, when Polish foot soldiers would drink before battle to take away inhibitions. It made them terrifying in battle he said.
When I started school, I proudly introduced myself as Ania. The kids teased me, turning my name into an Onion. In shame I started going by Anna. If I really cared about you and trusted you, I gave you my real name. I told you that you could call me Ania. Few ever did. Not until I stopped introducing myself as Anna. Ania was just too hard to say, too hard to remember, too strange to feel comfortable. So for years I hid myself as Anna. Four letters and yet so difficult for people to say. Same with my last name. Bula. Pronounced Boolah. More often people call me Beulah. One memorable trip to the hospital had them calling me Bola, which certainly made for some very tense patients and a couple startled nurses.
I send out two resumes sometimes. I notice which name they call me when I speak to them.
My parent’s names are even harder for English eyes and tongues to comprehend.
They came to Canada in 1986. I was born just 9 months later, and thanks to Canada being one of the few countries that grants citizenship to those born on its soil, I became a citizen. This makes some people hate me. My birth meant my parents got to stay here.
They called my mother Sausage Queen. Pierogi Princess. She is ashamed of her accent. How many times has she worried that it made her sound unintelligent. Too… Polish.
In grade 5, I told my class with pride about my heritage. I am Polish I said. The teacher looked at me with disapproval when I did. Suddenly, my grades started dropping no matter that I was working twice as hard as usual. I stopped being called on for fun tasks and assignments no matter how much I volunteered. I started being put in groups with the other outcasts in the classroom; the black children, the brown children, the other foreigners. At the age of 10 I called it racism. I know better now. It was Xenophobia, a close cousin, a little more privileged then some. Not as bad as if my skin were darker. If I was more… identifiable.
Family Guy lists me among the not real whites. Maybe that’s why I always had such a hard time feeling like one of them. Though I recognize my privilege now, I still feel too ethnic to really belong.
At school, the kids would mock my food. The liverwurst was declared gross. Who would put that on a sandwich? Topped with tomato and pickle, it was one of my favourite things, but the kids at school would screw up their faces and make disgusted noises as I ate. I had to pay a classmate to try Miseria (a cucumber, and yoghurt dish). People ask me if I taste like cabbage, they complain of the smell of sauerkraut at Christmas.
They ask me why I would bother being proud of being Polish? My country didn’t even exist for over 200 years. They don’t know that my great-grandfather risked his life to spread word of the Silesian Polish identity. They don’t know that many of our heroes were stolen from us. Credited with the countries they lived in rather than the countries their hearts belonged to.
Chopin, whose music is filled with call-backs to Polish Folk music. Who poured his longing for his homeland into his compositions. Whose heart is literally buried in Poland at his request.
Maria Skłodowska, who so loved her country that she named one of the two elements she discovered after it. She thought it would be the more useful element, so she named it Polonium, hoping to put her motherland on the map. Recognized finally for the worth it produces. Instead, Radium gave birth to Radio, Radiation, X-Rays.
Did you know Copernicus was Polish? Mikołaj Kopernik.
In Europe, xenophobic ideas around Poles are common. In Scandinavia and the World, there are jokes and references to Polish thieves. When I ran into some German students while working in a Tie store, they jokingly told the management to look out for me: Polish people are thieves they said. In many places, the stereotype of the illegal, the hired hand, the labourer, the same stereotype represented by “Mexicans” in the United States, is represented by Polish people. Hard workers, but not someone you want your daughter marrying. Don’t believe me? Watch Under the Tuscan Sun.
When my Uncle was escaping being drafted into the army by the communists, he came to England. He worked, illegally, in a Fish and Chip restaurant. He was arrested in a raid, and almost sent back where he would have faced either mandatory service or prison. A last minute intervention had him sent to Canada instead.
It’s not the same thing as racism. It’s less deadly. It’s easier to avoid if you just pretend you’re not who you are. There are less consequences. But xenophobia can hurt. It does isolate. It does lead to hatred and to fear.
Did you hear the one about the Dumb Polack?
An entire country was so afraid of him, they voted to shoot themselves in the foot just to keep him out.