Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Lessons in multiculturalism

Hate  or ignorance? As I was contemplating what drove a Polish politician to say those offensive, mean spirited things about Paralympics and people with disabilities, another story made the headlines back home. A black media personality spoke out against use of the word "Murzyn", an emotionally neutral term describing his race and color. Used in proper Polish in literature, humor and culture for centuries now, it has a somewhat patronizing feel, because of how it was brought up in the  stereotypical context of African tribes and cultures some viewed as 'primitive". It's the word used used in the 1920's children's rhyme "Murzynek Bambo" known to all Polish kids, as Wikipedia explains: "Etymologically, 'murzyn' comes from the same root as the English word 'Moors'." Yet, he considered it offensive. And it got me thinking: Post World War II Poland really doesn't have many experiences in multiculturalism. We are almost exclusively white, 95% catholic, we never really had to stop and think how others felt, because when I was growing up there were no others. If there were classmates of another religious persuasion we didn't know about it, as we all took religion classes together. "Jew" was  a word you primarily heard in jokes growing up, just as you did "American", or "Russian" or "Scott". The first black person I've met in real life probably was Krystian Legierski, who studied law at Warsaw University as did I but was one year older. He was also I believe the first gay person of my generation to cause a stir in the late 1990's when he appeared on the cover of the cult rock  magazine "Machina" with another man and his face graced billboards throughout the country.  Not that it was  big deal, or that people didn't behave properly. It's just that it wasn't that common.

 Culturally we didn't have the time to adapt. We never analyzed our vocabulary, I think, because there was never any reason to. We were all the same. We looked the same, we joked the same, we grew up in the same cultural circles, shared similar experiences, books, music and references. Some say it's the word we have always used and this new wave of political correctness is forcing us to revisit our heritage. I say, the fact that we've been doing something for a really long time is no excuse to continue doing it. If someone tells me that they are hurt by some word that describes them, they are probably right and they have a right to do so. It is not that I grew up sheltered. But in Poland the only people of other races you would see when I was growing up really were foreigners, exchange students and their children and very few TV and radio personalities. This was not something you talked about or thought on day to day basis. We've had some minorities. But those cultures and religions felt exotic and foreign and it's not something I would be exposed to outside of mass media, quite frankly. One thing that hits you when you move to America is that everyone is from somewhere else. They may have views don't agree with or cherish values that you don't necessarily relate to, but you really need to watch how you phrase things and how you come across. Not because of political correctness- you just really don't want to offend anyone.

One of the other issues you didn't see on the streets was disability. I've written about it before. The communist system kept people in wheelchairs away from public view. It clashed with its propaganda image of a happy and healthy society. There was no need to built ramps. There was no need to adapt buses. There was no need to put in elevators. Individuals with disabilities were not included in public life, so people on the street were never exposed to them. The government had no interest in me getting a proper education. Officially, I was homeschooled for a number of years. In reality, my parents carried me on their backs to classrooms up the stairs every day. Disability was a social problem. It was something you pitied. It was a burden  on the family. It was something that prevented people from being functional. Kids with disabilities were at home or in special schools, "integration" was never a word you used until the collapse of communism. Even later there seemed to had been so much  planning and design, technicality and talking and debating about what to do and how to do it it would've given you a headache. All I could aspire to do is assemble dolls or pens when I grew up or work at a designated labor workshop, if I could get to it.  Decades of communism has done a lot of harm to the society, separating people, affecting how they view each other. But mostly, if you don't see something, when you're  not exposed to it, you really don't need to think about it. It's not that you think that those things don't exist. But they feel far away and not affecting your life in any way. All of a sudden, something hidden from public view now reappears as if to say: Here I am, deal with me. Of course you will have some people will be shocked, uncomfortable, not know what words to use. Because they didn't have to. And I wish i could say that things in Poland have changed over night. I have three law degrees. In America, I'm licensed to practice in two jurisdictions. Back home, I'm certified as permanently unable to work. How can I have any expectations for the society, if the government finds me useless? If they prefer to pay me money to stay at home and do nothing rather than find ways to let me be productive and use my actual skills? When you read Polish forums one other thing seems really upsetting. I can deal with people not understanding the idea of Paralympics, not keen to revise their vocabulary or even not fighting the sight of people in wheelchairs all together. It's the pity. It's the patronizing and pity that get me, that seem to come from all directions, even from people that have an opposing view. It's the lingering "yes, but". Yes, but you have a disability. The lead singer of a Polish pop group Varius Manx was in a car crash a few years ago that rendered her paralyzed. And yet most of the comments you read to articles about her music talk about how sorry everyone is and how they feel for her.

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