Very often, especially when I talk to my friends and acquaintances I have to face pitiful smiles and more or less interesting remarks when I categorically challenge people using certain terms and expressions they use to describe people of different nationality, religion or colour. Each time I get accused of being too politically correct and lacking sense of humour. I am told to relax.
Yet, relax I cannot.
I am not a fan of excessive political correctness. It is not just us, but the whole world that still has a problem with establishing the boundaries of freedom of speech: should we comply with them or should they exist at all; if they do exist and are somehow translated into law, how are we to comply with them or punish non-compliance? It is a very broad and fascinating subject for which you can find a plethora of arguments either supporting or rejecting our theses, a great material for a long and possibly heated debate which does not necessarily have to lead to any consensus.
I shall leave theoretical discussions aside. I will express my personal opinion and back it with a description of something that happened one January evening.
I do not consider using words like ‘asfalt, ‘bambus’, ‘mosiek’ or ‘ciapaty’ (names I have heard being used by some Polish people to describe Black people – the first two – Jewish or, in the case of the last word, anyone who is not white, but may be of mixed race or Asian – the word was ‘invented’ by Poles living in Britain, it does not exist as such in Poland itself). These words are used to describe individuals and groups of people. People who use these expressions very often do it without really thinking what they are saying. They just repeat what is commonly heard in conversations because they do not know any other expressions they could use.
I am not in a position to lecture anyone on how we should communicate and I am not going to offer anyone politically correct synonyms. What I am on about here is raising awareness that by using such expressions we may be hurting other people.
One beautiful (and freezing) evening I went to a supermarket. I was just approaching the trolley area when I heard a conversation by three people fetching their trolley: two women and a little girl. I caught a few Polish words, however, as I did not know these people, I decided quietly to wait until having inserted a pound into the slot they get their trolley and head for the entrance.
No sooner had they done it than on the right hand side of me I heard a loud remark by a thirty something British man standing with his trolley full and accompanied by a sixty something woman:
- They are bloody Polish foreigners taking away our jobs!
One of the women turned around, but she did not say anything. Tpgether with her friend and the child they moved towards the entrance.
I had a quick look at the two people who indulged themselves in using the opportunity to express their opinion. Golly, it is not what I had expected. Ordinarily looking couple, I would never have expected they could behave like that. I admit to have followed a stereotype: well dressed, ‘decent’ and to be honest, quite ordinary people…, not drunk or the ‘usual suspects’, God forbid! For a moment I thought I must have misheard it…, but…no…
After he noticed they had an audience the man, this time looking straight into my eyes, repeated:
‘They are fucking Polish people. They come here and steal our jobs’
‘I’m sorry, what is your problem?’ – I asked.
‘Pardon’? – he was visibly taken aback.
‘I am one of them. Is there any problem?’ – I repeated feeling my stomach turning upside down. I managed a smile, I do not know what I was really expecting him to do or say.
A moment of silence following which I smiled again and turned around to reach for my trolley. From behind my back I heard the man’s voice:
‘Go back home where you belong. Bloody foreigners!’
A moment later the woman joined him:
‘We should send KGB to get them.’
On hearing those words, already equipped with a trolley, I turned back to face the decently dressed couple. I smiled again and said:
-‘I am really sorry for you. Really.’
- ‘Oh, you love your Jewish blood’ – said the woman.
- Sorry? – I was dumbstruck.
- ‘I said you love your Jewish blood.’ – she repeated.
- ‘I lack words. I really feel pity for you’. – I said and entered the shop.
I am told to relax... As I said earlier, I just can’t. Something is boiling inside me and does not allow me to forget about this incident. At the shop, a few minute afterwards tears started coming to my eyes. I walked slowly along the aisle and looked around without seeing anything. After some time I heard a girl’s voice. It was the child I saw at the entrance. She shouted to her guardians: ‘Pozor, pozor!, which by no means is a Polish expression. She may have been Slovak, Czech, Bulgarian or Serbian*.
Loudly expressed opinions of the two British people did not really need to bother their adressees. They may have been understood, but not necessarily so. Generally they should not really upset me, because at first they were not directed at me at all. The fact that I heard them was a coincidence. Only after I got involved I experienced direct verbal abuse and witnessed that ‘decent couple’s’ ignorance at the least. It was something stronger, they were filled with hatred. The most striking thing to me was the fact that the whole conversation was a coincidence.
Let me go back to the words I generally do not utter and the use of which in a conversation makes me cringe. Of course there is an objective difference between such ‘innocent’ expressions and a direct verbal attack. There is a difference between a casual phrase which unfortunately has become very commonly used and shouting abuse, cursing or beating them up. In the United Kingdom all of the above may be persecuted by law.
Leaving the debate on what is allowed and what is unacceptable I would like to focus on another aspect of the whole phenomenon – an individual’s feelings. Before we use our right to express our opinions why don’t we take into consideration someone else’s feelings.
Words, as well as deeds, can hurt. It may be a coincidence that they are heard.
The above text is not a debate. It is rather a personal opinion, which I allowed myself to express since we do not have many volunteers to publish their texts in our newsletter or on our website. It may, however, be treated as an invitation to a debate and presentation of your views and sharing experiences.
*The Polish language and other Slavic languages share many words. Some of them have very similar meaning, some don’t. ‘Pozor’ means ‘attention’ – in this case ‘Look!’ – in Czech, Serbian, Croatian etc, but there is no such word in Polish.
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