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A quick glance at Wikipedia's list of Polish people demonstrates the stereotype as false. Poland has produced notable minds in such diverse areas of knowledge as Astronomy (Nicolaus Copernicus), Chemistry (Marie Curie), Music (Frédéric Chopin and Henryk Górecki), Literature (Stanisław Lem), Religion (Karol Józef Wojtyla AKA Pope John Paul II), and Politics (Lech Wałęsa). A deeper look into that list reveals a number of highly intelligent Polish people who are less well known.

Yet, there are an innumerable jokes and unfair stereotypes regarding Polish people being of inferior intelligence in American culture.

Where did this stereotype originate?

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@stevvve - Polish is pretty much a US thing, in the UK it's the Irish, in France the Belgians. –  none May 23 '12 at 16:06
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Let's be honest - the source of any such stereotype is simple bigotry - and close this question as a matter of totally uninformed opinion. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 29 '13 at 20:15
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@PieterGeerkens wrong: some stereotypes still have strong roots in reality, if distorted. For instance "greedy jews" is a stereotype, but jews have managed money and gold for centuries, so that stereotype isn't "just random". Of course it may be wrong and insulting, but hiding under the sand and pretending it doesn't exist isn't exactly a good idea. –  Lohoris Dec 29 '13 at 22:14
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Note: there is a meta discussion concerning this question. –  Jon Ericson Jan 1 at 1:38
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As much as I'm unfortunately late for the party, I want to express my gratitude for asking this question. It resulted in answers on a matter that I as a Pole was also curious about. From time to time it's me who's asked by people of other nationalities - why does such a stereotype exist, and usually I just shrug my arms, not knowing what to answer (except for the obvious "they just needed somebody to play the role of the dumb one"). –  Darek Wędrychowski Jul 25 at 13:51

5 Answers 5

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Personally, I suspect this is mostly an American (USA) stereotype, which chiefly originates from a couple of factors.

  1. We had a couple of large waves of East European immigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which brought large numbers of Poles who knew little or no English. As human beings, we tend to perceive those who have trouble expressing themselves in our own language as possessing substandard intelligence. This is particularly a problem with Americans, as the vast majority of us don't know any language besides English, so the roles are never reversed for us. The exemplar here is Psychology professor Carl Brigham, who in 1923 published a very influential study that made this exact mistake (using English aptitude tests on immigrants to measure intelligence).

  2. Immigrants of the era tended to enter at the lowest stratum of society. Polish immigrants were no exception, and in fact tended to get work primarily in menial jobs that even other immigrant groups avoided. Anti-Catholic prejudice of the era tended to act to keep Polish families there for an extra generation or two. It's fairly common to believe that those socially below you are of lesser intelligence than yourself. (If you don't believe that, you might start to believe that you don't inherently deserve your own lofty status. Not a pleasant line of thought there.)

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How would only knowing one language make a person less likely to experience the situation of being unable to express themselves? –  Joe May 22 '12 at 20:39
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@Joe - In an extremely monoligual society, it pretty much ensures it. –  T.E.D. May 22 '12 at 22:16
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"the roles are never reversed for us" - Not back then but now there are areas you can go to a be at a significant disadvantage if you don't speak Spanish. –  jfrankcarr May 23 '12 at 1:11
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I think part of the first point T.E.D. notes comes from the latter part of the 18th Century when Social Darwinism was in place, as well as much anti-immigrant fever from "non-acceptable" areas in Europe (read central or the UK). Eastern Europeans were already coming into a society with an influx of immigrants who were already looked down upon, the Italians and Irish were already feeling this, so it was just an extension of existing cultural attitudes. The language barrier was also a factor as well, as noted. –  MichaelF May 23 '12 at 11:57
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@Anixx I'd argue that the origins of the stereotype for USA and for the neighboring countries are totally different. It's a common thing to think of your neighbors like that, not only in the history of nations, but in all history of society - how many people think "I'm smarter than my neighbor and my cat is smarter than his dog". –  Darek Wędrychowski Jul 25 at 13:59

It's common for nearby groups to have jokes told about them, from gentle ribbing going on to more serious X-ism, where X is race, or national, or whatever. Inside the US, there are jokes about Texans, New Englanders, Vermonters. Ohio has jokes about neighboring Kentucky. I imagine that most nations have the same thing with countries alongside.

Since there was a large amount of US immmigration from Germany in the 1800s, followed by a lesser, later influx from Poland, that the US has taken on a bit of the German attitude towards their neighbors to the East.

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Derogatory racial (for lack of a better word) stereotypes tell much about the people who spread them. For instance, in my field - software development, you are not likely to come across "Polish jokes", because some of the best developers in top tech firms are Polish and Polish universities regularly outperform US teams in international programming contests. If you hear such jokes at work then it probably means that you aren't working in a cutting edge technology corporation.

That being said, I like the answer given by TED, because it explains the issue in terms of a self defence mechanism of a society which experiences mass immigration. I would like to add to this though as there are additional factors at play, all revolving around the image of Poles and Poland in the US, which shed some light on why the derogatory stereotypes haven't died so far.

I think much of the problem boils down to the fact that Poles as immigrants have been an easy target.

I think a large part of the people who tell Polish or Irish jokes would like to make derogatory comments about "blacks" or Jews. But with the level of protection those groups enjoy in a modern state, it's hardly possible. Polish look, on the other hand, is not much different from the Anglo-Saxon one (which traditionally has been the look of the US establishment) and their culture is also quite similar. Thus Poles don't deserve protection in the eyes of the anti-racist lobby.

The observation of what recently happened in the UK seems to corroborate this theory. After 2004 UK experienced mass Polish immigration. This time there was no "dumb Polacks" stereotype, but the attacks aimed at Polish immigrants were frequent - from typical ("Poles take our jobs and send all the money home") to very ridiculous ones ("Poles hunt for swans in public parks") and even physical attacks. The interesting thing though is that at the same time UK has been dealing with a very large immigration from Africa and Asia. Under other circumstances those immigrants would be the primary target of discrimination as they were more culturally alien than the Poles (not to mention the very different physical appearance). But that never happened as the political culture of the UK would result in the immediate stigmatisation of the attacker. Instead, the suppressed anger was directed at "Eastern Europeans", without consequences.

Secondly, at the time of the mass Polish emigration to Americas there was no Polish state. Poles were second class citizens of Germany, Russia and Austria. It is hard to be proud of your nationality when your country has been conquered. And it is common not to respect a nation that has failed. Nations that are likely to be respected are nations that have demonstrated their strength via powerful statehood. I think the Irish experienced that too.

Thirdly, Polish emigration to USA, Brazil and Argentina was mostly economical. They were mostly impoverished peasant. The wealthy and politically active Polish intelligentsia stayed in Europe. So it took time before the US Polonia could produce leaders able to represent their interest within the US.

The final blow came when Poland got into Soviet sphere of influence after WWII. For over 50 years there was no Polish ambassador which could defend Polish American while acting as a representative of a US-friendly state. Quite the contrary, as a Warsaw pact member, Poland became de facto an enemy of the US. If Cold War was to escalate into WWIII, American troops in Europe would likely face Polish People's Republic troops. American media of that period must have taken note of that. Another aspect is that USA was a strongly pro capitalist country and as such it promoted the image of communist economy as inferior. So the news coverage from Poland for a very long time stressed the backwardness of the Polish economy. This message was so strong that to this very day people in the USA have an image of Poland that is very removed from reality.

Paradoxically, Poland and Poles had already been deliberately negatively depicted in the US during WWII, while being an ally of the USA! This has been well documented and explained in the book "Hollywood's War with Poland, 1939-1945". To cut a story short, it takes some bad luck to be negatively portrayed twice: first because of being anti-Soviet and later because of being pro-Soviet. That's what happened to Poland though.

There is also one, often overlooked, factor that I personally think had a big impact on Polish image in the USA - the never ending Polish - Jewish conflict. It's too complex to even attempt to describe it here - the important thing though is that media have become a weapon in this conflict and so Poles were doomed to lose it, since Poles didn't engage in media at similar frequency as the Jews. This has resulted in some polonophobic ideas leaking into popular American culture, as described in the book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture".

(In contrast, I think it was the long lasting media involvement that was the primary factor which catapulted the Jewish minority into upper echelons of American establishment. Which is ironic because the bulk of Jewish immigrants came to the USA from the territories of former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and so they too were often called "dumb Polacks" upon landing on American soil.)

Finally, Polish Americans have not been numerous and influential enough to be a force to be reckoned with for politicians. A presidential candidate won't put up a Polish American as vice president just for the sake of securing votes of that minority, since there are more numerous groups to appease.

Last but not least, Polish language is extremely difficult for a foreigner. Learning it requires much more time and dedication than for example Italian or Spanish. That's a barrier that very few people are ready to overcome, so Polish culture and literature is little known. This leaves space to assume that it is somehow inferior.

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Ironically the same C20th circumstances gave the opposite stereotype in Britain. Poland was the brave little country that fought the Nazis and then the USSR. When a British far-right party used an image of a Spitfire in a campaign and it turned out to actually be a Free Polish Airforce ace, they lost all their support by implying that attacking the role of Poland in WWII was in any way "British". –  none Aug 11 '12 at 20:37

Mostly good old fashioned racism. The target is different for different cultures (Polish people in USA, Irish people in UK, etc.), but the general idea is to insult the people you don't like.

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The origin of the stereotype that Polish people have inferior intelligence came from Nazi German propaganda that ironically NBC-TV/Hollywood introduced into the US in the 196O's (despite NBC-TV claiming to be against the Nazis) in many of its TV shows like the "Tonight Show" and any other show where the word "Polish" would be mentioned and maligned. NBC-TV's George Schlatter bashed Polish people a lot in his show "Laugh-In" which ridiculed Polish people with subhuman intelligence jokes.

The Polish American Guardian Society, The Polish American "Post Eagle" newspaper and the Polish American Congress Anti-Bigotry committee hold Anti-Polish TV Bigots mostly responsible for using the power of TV to malign the image of Polish people.

Chet Grabowski, the editor of the "Post Eagle", was credited with much of the decline in so called "Polish jokes" from mainstream TV media, according to the Polish American Singer Bobby Vinton.

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Welcome to History.SE. I think you provided an interesting perspective. Also thanks for providing a source for Chet Grabowski. Are there any other sources in regards to the first section of the answer? If you could provide a few more sources I would give +1 (currently all votes cast till tomorrow) –  E1Suave May 25 '12 at 10:46
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Agree with E1Suave on sources. IMHO the logic here fails Hanlon's Razor, so I'd really like to see where it came from. –  T.E.D. May 25 '12 at 15:22

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