INFORMANT INTERVIEW # 2 "Inherently Comic Janitors."
Informant was Jewish American and male.
I grew up in a town where there was a very large Polish population. There were two separate Polish parishes and a whole part of town was inevitably referred to as the “Sout’ End” in tribute to Polish-Americans accents.
It was assumed, and acted on, that Polish people were 1) inherently comic, 2) naturally janitors, auto mechanics, mill workers, etc.--but the women made great, meticulous and conscientious, almost comically so, secretaries, and 3) hopelessly provincial/dumb.
If you directly asked the people who lived by these assumptions whether Polish people were inherently comic, natural janitors, or hopelessly provincial, they would be horrified. “No! Of course not! Don’t be ridiculous! There are many Polish doctors and lawyers. Our janitor Stash (i.e., all Polish men whose names they don’t really know) has a nephew in med school” (Subtext: Of course WE don’t happen to know them) “but it’s silly and wrong to have such prejudices about people.”
Twenty years ago, in Bloomington, Indiana, I conducted informant interviews with Jews and Poles* for my book Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype.
My goal was to discover how "the folk," that is, average Jews and Poles, thought and felt about their own identities and the identities of ethnic others.
I solicited informants by hanging signs in public places in Bloomington. IU Bloomington is a major research university and informants came from across the US and Canada. Informants ranged in age from the teens to the sixties.
I told informants that I was working on my dissertation and would eventually publish, and include some of their quotes. They signed a form permitting this.
Informants mostly came to my house and sat across from me on a couch. I served tea and homemade cookies. I audio-recorded the interviews and transcribed them by hand at the same time. I later typed up these transcripts while listening to the tapes.
My questions were mostly open-ended. For example, I asked, "Have you ever looked across a room and thought to yourself, 'That person is Polish' or 'That person is Jewish,' and, if so, why?"
At the end of the interview, I asked more directed questions, such as, "You need brain surgery. You have a choice between two brain surgeons, both of whom have comparable resumes. One is named Dr. Smith. The other is named Dr. Kowalski. Which do you choose, and why?"
And I also asked, "You are on a TV game show. You have just won an all-expenses paid trip to Poland. How do you feel?"
I ended up having much more material than I could use in the book. I'll be posting some of the material on the blog. Informants will remain anonymous. Names are changed and some locations will be changed (to nearby locations) or removed.
The reader should understand that I offer these interview excerpts as reflections of how average people think and feel in a given moment. Nothing here is carved in stone. Informants told me that they could change their mind about the topics, or debate either side.
Sometimes informants told Jewish jokes, Polak jokes, or made other racist comments. I don't share this material to endorse it, but to offer insight into what one person was thinking on one day in 2000 in Bloomington, Indiana.
* Regarding the terms "Jews" and "Poles." I conform to standard usage in scholarly and popular discussion of Polish-Jewish relations. "Jew" means someone whose ancestors were Jewish, even if the person self-identifies as an atheist. "Poles" refers to someone whose ancestors were Polish but not Jewish. I do not use these terms to be exclusionary, and neither do most scholars. Of course we recognize and honor Jews who identify as Polish as well as Jewish.