White Americans, at least in the Northeast, like to hyphenate themselves. There are German Americans, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, and every other variety of American not descended from the British Isles. Asking someone his ethnicity isn’t a “micro aggression.” It’s a form of salutation.
Rogouski? What kind of name is that? Russian?
Polish, but they mangled it at Ellis Island so I have no idea what the original was.
Having a very identifiably Polish American name also means I’m no stranger to ethnic slurs. I’m often a little surprised at how little hesitation even my friends feel about telling Polish jokes. I suppose it’s because there’s little or on discrimination against Polish Americans in the United States. Homeland Security isn’t going to put a tap on my phone to determine whether or not I’m ordering too much kielbasa from Pulaski’s Meats. The NYPD is no more likely to stop and frisk someone with an “ski” at than they are someone who can trace his ancestor back to the Mayflower. Security guards don’t follow me though expensive department stores because they’re afraid I’m going to shoplift an expensive article of clothing. I actually do all my shoplifting at Walmart, but that’s another story. In the age of Donald Trump, the name “Rogouski” might even make it easier for me to get a job or an apartment, since it very obviously means I’m not black or Latino.
It’s different in the United Kingdom. After Hillary Clinton’s friends subjected Poland to a harsh program of “shock treatment” in the 1990s, and destroyed its economic safety net, the country was admitted to the European Union in 2004. That allowed the newly minted Polish oligarchy to export its unemployment problem to Western Europe, a good deal for the British ruling class, since it meant over half a million cheap Polish laborers could come to the United Kingdom. It was a bad deal, however, for British workers, who either wouldn’t, or couldn’t work as cheaply as the typical migrant from Eastern Europe. Xenophobic organization like UKIP and Britain First have exploited the neoliberal turn of the British Labor Party to gain votes by scapegoating Poles and other foreigner workers. If I moved to the United Kingdom, I suspect that in addition to having to spell out my name, it might get me a few dirty looks, at least until I revealed myself as a native English speaker.
So why am I going on about anti-Polish bigotry in the United Kingdom?
For the past few days, Yahoo has been feeding a story into my news feed about a 16-year old Polish girl named Dagmara Przybysz, who committed suicide at her school in Cornwall, supposedly because she was the victim of the kind of racism illustrated by the tweet I inserted above. There’s only a very tenuous connection between what happened to her and anti-Polish bigotry – she complained about “racism” online a few years ago – and I suspect that her death had more to do with clinical depression than ethnic bigotry. People have pointed out pointed out that Dagmara Przybysz suffered from xenophobia, not racism. Poles and British people are more or less the same color. What they missed, however, is how ethnic slurs work. Anti-Polish ethnic slurs might not be “racist,” but they are a challenge, a test. It’s a bit like calling someone a fag. If you respond to that kind of disrespect by ignoring it or by laughing it off, you’ll be considered a weakling and subjected to even more ethnic slurs. If someone calls you a dumb Pollack and you punch him in the mouth, it will probably be the last time he calls you a dumb Pollack.
High schools in the United Kingdom and the United States are more about finding your place in a social hierarchy than they are about education. There are nerds. There are jocks. There are cool kids. There are people like me. If you don’t learn how to bully the weak, you won’t succeed under capitalism. As Lindsey Anderson pointed out in his classic film “If..” there’s only one solution to high school bullying, revolution. Made before school shootings become common in the United States, “If…” ends with the bullied lower-form boys at an English “public school” on the roof, with machine guns, picking off the faculty, the alumni, and all the upper-form boys who bullied them. Teenage girls express aggression in a different and perhaps more damaging way from teenage boys. Girls won’t come right out and say “you dumb Pollack” or “you slut.” They’re more likely to give you the silent treatment, to “ice you out,” as my ex-girlfriend used to say, referring to the kind of social discipline she was subjected to in he upper-middle-class high school, to refuse to let you join their cliques. If Dagmara Przybysz had been a boy, she would have shot up the cafeteria. Instead, she committed suicide, and tarred her school forever as a cesspool of racism and bigotry.
Calling someone a “dumb Pollack” is basically an ethnicized version of calling him “white trash.” If Anglo Saxons are divided into WASPs, bourgeois people who can trace their ancestry to the British Isles, and “white trash,” working-class people who can trace their ancestry to the British Isles, then all Americans of Polish descent are “white trash,” working class. There’s no need for the modifier. For black Americans the only division that counts is the division between black and white. All white people, WASPs, dumb Pollacks, white trash southern crackers clinging to their guns and their religion, Jewish bankers, Italian mobsters, Greek diner owners, and Irish cops all have “white privilege.” The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates may be able to afford to invest $2,000,000 in a tax shelter in Brooklyn, and none of my ancestors were involved in the slave trade, but he still thinks I owe him “reparations.” To be more specific, I personally don’t owe him reparations, but as a white American, I have the same ethnic and racial advantages as Chelsea Clinton or one of the Rockefellers. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Hillary Clinton asks, the implied answer being no, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” That speech got her the black vote. Bernie Sanders, in turn, lost the black vote when he failed to respond quickly enough to the idea that class in the United States is mediated through race. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton, has spoken of the class struggle in terms of nationality and religion. If Hillary Clinton promises to protect blacks and Latinos from angry, working-class white men, then Donald Trump promises to protect the American working class from Muslims and from Mexican immigrants. Surprisingly, Trump has won, not only the nomination of the Republican Party, but also the grudging praise of black leftists like Glenn Ford.
I personally can’t vote for an American version of Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen. Somewhere, in Arizona, there’s a Mexican version of Dagmara Przybysz who feels the growing American bigotry against Latinos as keenly as Dagmara Przybysz felt the growing English bigotry against Poles. I could also support Ta-Nehisi Coates on the idea of reparations, if and only if those reparations were a part of a larger struggle socialist revolution that would liberate the entire working class, but that won’t happen. Coates came out and said he’d vote for Bernie Sanders, but he was being disingenuous. He emerged during the Winter just before the Democratic primaries in the south, knifed Sanders in the back, then disappeared back into his apartment in Paris. Next January, the President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Someday we may overcome but it won’t be today. Our next President will inevitably be one of two people who race baited their way to the White House. Let’s hope we make the best of it, but who am I kidding, we won’t. Teach your kids how to punch people in the mouth. It’s a skill that’s going to come in handy.