On April 12, 2005, The Plain Dealer published an article entitled Be yourself and laugh at hearty ‘Polish Joke,’ written by Tony Brown. In reviewing David Ives’ play Polish Joke, Mr. Brown wrote that “big laughs and even bigger kielbasa are the rewards for those venturing (…) for the hilarious area premiere of David Ives’ excoriating satire…” We learn from the review that the play contains lots of jokes that “deprecate and insult” those who trace their origin to Poland. And there are “a few snide references about the Vatican as well.”
Apparently, “the point of the play is one of self-acceptance, of being comfortable with who we are.” This statement by itself sounds unoffending. However, Mr. Brown gives us some hint what our self-acceptance should entail by including in his article one special quote from the play. “All Polish jokes are true,” proclaims his favorite and the only quote from David Ives’ work. Apparently according to Mr. Brown, this self-acceptance simply means that we have to accept that we are stupid. Such explicit public message would be considered offensive if directed at any ethnic group. We also learn from Mr. Brown’s review that the play includes a nurse who strips down to negligee in the colors of the Polish flag, and that a partition map of Poland is on display during the performance.While some members of Polonia raised objections to this portrayal of the Polish Americans, others apparently liked the play so much that they went to see the show several times. In fact, the play enjoyed such success that it ran longer than originally planned. “The play is good,” some of the Polish-Americans argued. “It has a positive ending. One of the characters in the play decides not to change his name!” they explained.
So, do we really enjoy polish jokes or do we feel so powerless that in accordance with the proverb “if you can’t beat them – join them” we give up the fight and swallow the insult?
I would argue that hardly anyone “who traces their lineage” to Poland enjoys polish jokes. Hate crime jurisprudence recognizes that bias speech aimed at any ethnic group stigmatizes that group and brings about humiliation, isolation, and even safe-hatred. Such ethnic stigmatization tends to result in a loss of self-esteem.
For the youth, it has a particularly damaging effect that may cause withdrawal, depression, lack of trust in people, or excessive anger. It has also been proven that the hate speech does not go away by itself. It not confronted, it tends to escalate. The American public recognizes this problem. That is why in this country we come across ethnically offensive public speech relatively rarely.
So, the question arises how the Polish-American community should deal with Mr. Brown’s article, with insulting and deprecating plays, articles, and with polish jokes in general. We have three choices: to ignore them, to enjoy and promote them, or to object to them.
In the social context when our boss tells a polish joke, we would probably smile. This is the easiest way out. Some of us would even return another polish joke to show how cool we are. We tell polish jokes on the assumption that of course they don’t apply to me, just to my other compatriot, or that it used to be that way but not anymore. Only a small percentage of us would actually object to polish jokes, saying that they offend us and we do not wish to hear them. This is the hardest stand to take. After such an assertion, we are a not-fun-person to be with.
Some would argue that it is nonsense to worry about polish jokes. They are above such prejudices. Great! However, even if we are above such stigmatization, our American friends with whom we deal everyday may very well be biased against us. As we see, even those who pretend to represent intellectual elites of this country, like Tony Brown or David Ives, demonstrate this bias and prejudice quite openly.
Accordingly, even if we are emotionally resistant to ethnic stigmatization, polish jokes are always detrimental to the growth and professional opportunities of each and every one of us. We never know when others can be motivated by this ethnic bias in making their decisions regarding us. If we all strive to object to polish jokes, we will close many channels of promoting them. It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to musters the courage to object to polish jokes. Only our united effort to extinguish a negative stereotype in conjunction with the promotion of the positive image will allow us to forge a new, better image of Polonia in this country.