I recently watched Bob Einstein’s last appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with my teenage daughter.
In it, he tells a Polish joke about three men – an Irish man, an Italian man, and a Polish man – who are all going to the electric chair.
When Einstein refers to the Polish man, he uses the derogatory word for a Polish person, “Polack.”
As I was listening to the joke, which I thought was very funny, I looked at my daughter, through my own laughter, and realized she wasn’t laughing. When I asked her why, she said, “What’s a Polack?”
Have you ever had someone ask you one simple, innocent question, and it brought about a rush of articulations and revelations?
She had never heard the word “Polack” before. Growing up in Wisconsin, Polish jokes were as common as blonde jokes, and were just one of a steady stream of ethnic jokes about everybody (including whites).
What made them funny was not that I explicitly had known or met any Polish people (that I was aware of), but the word “Polack” was a stand in for “stupid person,” and the joke was funny because of what the dumb guy said.
I’ve no idea how much region of the country was in play here. Wisconsin is predominantly German, and it was the Nazis who get some credit for the invention of the Polish joke. (Though not any more credit than anywhere else for finding a nearby region to make the butt of “stupid people” jokes… People all over the world have had a chosen region/state/county/nearby country to make the butt of “stupid people” jokes.)
Not only had she never heard the word, she’d never heard anyone refer to Polish people as the butt of any joke. In fact, pushing further, she’d never really heard anyone refer to Polish people by ethnicity.
Then I started to wonder, how did we evolve past the Polish joke? I’m sure they’re still be told somewhere, but probably not enough that they’d be recognized as normal, the way they were when I was growing up.
So, how did the Polish do it? I don’t remember either political party taking on the mantle of eradicating all Polish jokes. I don’t remember the Polish Anti-Defamation League stepping to raise awareness about the harm of the Polish joke. (It wasn’t even started until 2013, if they were, in fact, successful, it only took them a few years to accomplish what black and gay groups have been trying decades to stop.)
I’m not aware of any large groups of Polish people demonstrating to be treated as equals. I don’t recall any Polish rights legislation being considered or passed in our Congress.
Yet somehow, Polish jokes are largely a thing of the past.
How did this happen without huge activist organizations, marches, movements, and hundreds of Hollywood movies depicting the harm Polish jokes have on the Polish community? How come the word “Polack” never became the “P-word?”
How did the Polish make the Polish joke extinct without any fuss?