To be a real Pole?

Do you tick all the boxes?

Bozena Zakrzewski, University of Sussex

What stereotypes come to your mind when you think about Poles? Vodkaholics? Catholic fanatics? Or maybe hard-working? These are just some of the stereotypes debunked in several widely read articles. Indeed, vodka was the main alcohol drunk in communist Poland but did you know that after the fall of communism beer slowly took over the nation’s taste buds to gain absolute dominance around 1996? True -  most Poles are Catholics. Yet, according to some studies such as the one done by the Pew Research Centre, only some attend mass, while half of them support the right to abortion [Read more in Berenika Balcer’s article in the 1st issue]. What makes someone a part of a nation is then far more complex than just some ideas imposed upon them. 

Who stereotypes? ‘Them’ vs ‘us’

Stereotypes are over-generalised ideas about a specific category of people that can include negative or positive traits and characteristics, while most often being untrue and unfair. Usually, when it comes to stereotypes, we tend to think of heterostereotypes; the perception we have of another group that usually pigeonholes individuals into ethnic characterizations. However, stereotypes can also revolve around us and our own group, and this is known as autostereotypes. 

 

The scholars from the University of Ljubljana conducted a study to examine how language perpetuates gender stereotypes (what is femininity and what is masculinity) by focusing on the cultural stereotypes of Poles as stated by Polish and Slovenian respondents. The research showed that both auto and heterostereotypes are similar. While Polish women were positively described by two groups of respondents as attractive, slim, well-groomed, fashionably dressed, usually blonde with light/blue eyes and fair skin. Polish men were perceived rather negatively - with, for instance, a beer belly. Although they are also often described as handsome and well dressed, falling into two extremes with no between. Therefore, both heterostereotypes and autostereotypes were similar, yet different. Moreover, The Guardian states that Brits perceive Poles as hardworking and reliable. However, in Poland, such perception is not shared. 
 

Ticking all the boxes?

Although the above-mentioned study focuses on the perpetuation of gender stereotypes in language, it also stresses that stereotypes, although generally known, they do not have to be shared nor real. By their very nature, stereotypes are characterised by unrightful generalisation, selectivity and subjectivity. And as such, they also try to draw an imaginary vision of being a ‘real’ member of a community. However, to be a ‘real’ Pole is a concept highly impossible to define. 

 

According to the 2011 census – the first census to ask about nationality or ethnicity, only 2,17% of the surveyed people declared they have both Polish and non-Polish national and ethnic identity, and 1,44% non-Polish national or ethnic affiliation. There may be a common misconception that to be ‘real’ equals ‘native.’ Yet, drawing upon the definitions, the term ‘native’ is closely related to one’s place of birth or associated with such a place, with no references to how one should look like or act, upon which stereotypes thrive. Since the fall of communism in 1989, and especially since Poland joined the EU, Poles emigrate all around the world and in many instances start families. It is logical to think that there are plenty of biracial – and even multiracial – kids with Polish roots all around the world whose physical appearance does not fit the stereotype.

 

Still, a case of people born in Poland - and most importantly being Polish - being discriminated because of their physical appearance that does not fall into the general understanding of being a ‘real’ Pole is still prevalent. There is no doubt that national stereotypes based on race and ethnicity are particularly biased and harmful. In this case, to ‘tick all the boxes’ in the imaginary ‘Polishness questionnaire’ is impossible only because of general perceptions based on the so-called ‘folk knowledge.’ Take my case as an example - my Polish father came to Peru in 1967 and married my Peruvian mother in 1993. I am Polish but I do not necessarily ‘look Polish.’

 

For instance, when I was studying in Wrocław, my blonde blue-eyed Spanish friend would often get mistaken as Polish. Poles on the street would usually approach her and talk to her, but they would immediately walk away once she would say she does not speak Polish. In my case, however, despite being brunette and brown-eyed, Poles would also approach me on the street to ask for directions and, unlike my friend, I was able to hold a casual conversation. However, making any kind of mistake or forgetting a word would have somehow promptly made them decide that I was not Polish after all (‘Ah, pani nie jest Polką’ - ‘Ah, you are not Polish’). 

 

To be a ‘real’ Pole

Categories are vital as they allow us to keep our cognition organised. However, when we overgeneralise ideas about the members of a category or our own community, we fall into the risk of having a cookie-cutter mentality. In other words, we might not be able to see beyond stereotypes and pay attention to individual traits that make a person unique which could be harmful. Moreover, stereotyping can impose expectations that, if not met, could lead to disappointment not just for the person who stereotypes, but also the one being stereotyped. 

 

Some studies show that, as a coping mechanism, individuals tend to disidentify or disengage from their group because of the stereotype threat. In my case, not being a stereotypical blonde-haired blue-eyed girl and not speaking Polish fluently has put a strain on me for many years. Sometimes, I would omit stating my nationality whenever I would introduce myself which felt wrong because, despite the way I look and the fact that I lived most of my life in Peru, I felt mainly Polish. I was raised in a Polish bubble where I would hear my father and his friends talk in Polish on a daily basis, while I would eat Polish food. Even if I could communicate in Polish, felt Polish and ate kaszanka occasionally, opting to be silent about whom I am meant neglecting my heritage.

 

There are many cultural traits such as food, language, symbols, and rituals that bond us as a nation; however, we must remember that there is no prototype of how to be a ‘real Pole.’ If we judge people based on how they look or assume how they should act and what to believe in, we are perpetuating those stereotypes and losing the opportunity to get to know other people as what they truly are: human.