“Did you know Barack Obama has Polish blood? Yes, his grandpa ate a Polish missionary”
This is a ‘joke’ I heard in Poland last week. It was attributed to Poland’s Foreign Minister (!), Radek Sikorski. The politician later had to explain that he did not actually tell the joke, he only used it as an example of racist jokes he claimed Polish people made.
Whether he did say that or not, a ‘joke’ like that should not be associated with any high government dignitary, let alone with a top diplomat. And this is I think the problem with Polish racism – despite appearances, it’s probably not more widespread than anywhere else, but it’s more visible due to a shocking lack of appropriate examples and guidance from Polish leaders.
Poland is – and has always been – a very welcoming and hospitable country. But it also is – or was – dominated by one religion and one race. Under the Communist rule it was also very isolated and to a degree it still is suffering from the destructive influence of such isolation. Most people have not had enough exposure to different religions, different races, different sexual preferences etc. And even though the nation in general is nowadays a bit more aware of the fact that certain comments are perceived as racist, homophobic or xenophobic, it will still take a long time – and a lot of work – to make people respect any differences more than they do now. Particularly, when political and religious leaders themselves allow for such cock-ups to happen.
When Barack Obama was announced as president-elect, one of Polish opposition MPs called it
‘the end of the white man era’.
Last week, a Polish Catholic magazine for children distributed a leaflet which read:
“A lamp without oil is dark. So is man without prayer”.
The leaflet was illustrated with a picture of a dark-skinned child saying “Pity prayer doesn’t brighten the skin”.
In both cases, apologies were issued after a widespread storm in Polish media. In both cases, the people responsible for the offending quotes/materials explained their actions, saying that ‘it shouldn’t have happened’ or that it was ‘a technical error’. A technical error?
It took just a couple of minutes to explain to the person who told me the Obama ‘joke’ why in a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-race society such a joke would largely be considered racist rather than just in bad taste. They understood that, even though a few minutes earlier it was still funny and ‘innocent’. And I guess many, if not most people would understand too – if they had more exposure to other faiths or races or beliefs.
Or if their leaders were less ignorant and less arrogant.
UPDATE: The minister in question is not going to step down, Polish PM is not commenting and the joke might have been originated by the brother of the current Polish president, says the Daily Telegraph. No culprits, no victims. No issue. 7b2fc9179318d4f9935422422a02092a