The Case Against the Polish Joke
Polish American Journal, February 2014


Editor's Note: Decades of “Polish jokes,” deemed “harmless,” have created a culture that makes such degrading humor acceptable. Sadly, it takes a toll on the self esteem of its victims, sometimes tragically.

To wit: Bart Palosz, the 15-year-old Connecticut boy who shot and killed himself in August 2013 after years of being harassed (See “A Polish Boy’s Struggle with Bullying”). Palosz, a Polish immigrant, was the target of bullies due to his size (the teen was 6 feet, 3 inches tall) and Polish accent.

by Richard A. Pacer

Beneficial changes in society occur slowly, but they do occur. Long-term change is positive, but such change has its peaks and valleys, much like the stock market. Thus slavery is no longer acceptable, as it once was. Many countries in Europe no longer invade one another, as they did for thousands of years, but have united in mutual defense (NATO) and economy (European Union). Years ago, physical and verbal abuse was commonly used in disciplining children, but now Society knows that such methods are wrong. (Discipline is still as important as ever, but it need not be abusive.) Society does learn and does make progress, albeit slowly.

Ethnic, racist, and sexist humor is gradually coming to be viewed by the more intelligent segment of society as simply wrong. In most cases, such humor is yet another form of abuse. Why is such humor wrong? Decisions made about whom to hire, or promote, or strongly encourage, are based on more than just academic credentials and experience. There is always an intangible element which plays a major role. Part of that element is rooted in a general impression, often subconsciously arrived at, of that person simply based on that person’s sex, race, or ethnic heritage. How is this impression nurtured? Humor, which may portray the members of a group by means of a negative stereotype, unfortunately still plays a role and has a crippling effect.

Here’s an example to consider: “Equal pay for equal work” has long been regarded as a desirable goal for society. Yet when all of the usual factors (academic credentials, years of experience, and so forth) are taken into consideration, women still earn less, on the average, than men. Why? One of the reasons for this lies in the negative stereotypes about women which were propagated in years past by means of cruel jokes, jokes in which women were presented (all in supposedly good fun, mind you!) as inferior to men. Thank goodness women no longer put up with this kind of abuse. Women (and even some men) are to be commended for speaking out. Yet the effects of such discrimination still linger, and are only very slowly dying out. Unfortunately, a “glass ceiling” still exists.

Yet, one such type of abuse still remains and is widely propagated. I’m referring to the Polish joke. Such humor is not innocent. It is a form of bigotry which results, in most cases, in anger, depression, and anguish. We know, for example, that when children are told that they are stupid or that they won’t amount to much, this verbal abuse truly has a debilitating effect. Obviously, when children of Polish heritage are bombarded by Polish jokes, it cannot help but have negative consequences.

At this point the reader may protest, “But I would never tell such jokes to children.” Granted, but the perpetrator is helping to disseminate such jokes among the population at large. Certainly, children are bound to hear or overhear such jokes. Either the people who tell such jokes are ignorant or they have no regard for the consequences of their actions. How can otherwise decent and intelligent people, who tell Polish jokes, not realize that they are attacking the spirit of an entire group of people? If they do realize this, how can they possibly be so cruel? A lie, when repeated widely, comes to be accepted by a certain segment of the population as true. When the message is presented in the form of a joke, it still has an impact, and some people will believe this message is true.

Unfortunately, a few people of Polish heritage are partly to blame for the present state of affairs. They need to speak out whenever they encounter the abuse of a Polish joke, and follow the lead of other groups who, by speaking out or working with anti-defamation organizations, have been more effective at combating abuse. Polish jokes are not innocuous, although the person telling such jokes may look upon them as good-natured ribbing and nothing more. The intention might be to just “break the ice” by supposedly innocent humor. But again, like the misguided abusive treatment of children in past years (but with the best of intentions), the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Some people of Polish heritage will actually laugh at Polish jokes. They are in denial, much like the person with chest pains refusing to believe he could possibly be having a heart attack. They may pretend that they are totally unaffected by such jokes. They will never admit that such jokes have affected their spirit or sense of well-being. They may even go so far as to tell such jokes themselves. This is sad.

Society changes slowly and moves, in the long run, in a positive direction. But it can be prodded along by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Do your part to help the process along. Oppose bigotry wherever it exists. Educate the public about the harmful effects of Polish jokes, and all jokes which portray any group of people by means of a negative stereotype.

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