The Unbearable Banishment: My name was once a racial slur

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My name was once a racial slur

When I was growing up, before I got married and took my wife's name, my last name was Polak. (It feels funny to type that. It’s been so many years.) It’s Polish and pronounced “poh-lahk.” The more traditional spelling for that pronunciation is “Polack.” As you might or might not know, Polack is a derogatory term for someone of Polish descent. The most common slander is “dumb Polack.” It’s no different than calling someone a kike or nigger. The only difference is that those pejoratives had better press agents.

Because of the terrible weight that word carries, my uncles all changed the pronunciation to “Pollack,” as in the painter Jackson Pollack. One of my uncles went so far as to actually change the spelling to Pollack so there would be no mistaking. But my father was a proud fool. He said the name was good enough for his father, good enough for him, so it’ll be good enough for us. I went through elementary school, junior high and high school being called by my last name. Nobody ever used my first name. Mr. Colburn, my 5th grade teacher, never once called me by my first name. I can remember when I was about 11 years old I came into an understanding of what that word meant. I could feel my ears burning when someone on the other side of the playground would yell, “Hey, POLACK!,” and I had to turn and answer because that was me. I was the Polack. You'd think you'd get used to it after a year or two. Or five. But you don't. A boy named Sue had it easier.

When I left home at 19 and joined the Coast Guard, the first thing I did was abandon the pronunciation. Thereafter, no one ever knew me as “Polack.” I was “Pollack.” When I got to New York City, I was often mistaken for being Jewish, which was fine with me. When I go back to Cleveland and see someone from the old days and am called “Polack,” it’s kind of jarring.

When it came time to get married, I had no feeling for the name whatsoever so I took my wife's name. It’s probably the only thing I’ve done that pleased my father-in-law. We were visiting my brother and sister-in-law back in Cleveland and when I informed them of my decision, my sister-in-law told me I was a renaissance man. My brother called me a big pussy.

At our wedding, when the priest introduced the new, happy couple as “Mr. and Mrs. Cxx,” you could hear an audible a gasp from the audience. Many of our guests had not been informed and they thought the priest committed a terrible gaffe. I also remember sitting at our dining room table on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and practicing my new signature. I wrote it over and over wondering, “When did I become a girl?” I realize that women have been doing this for generations, but If I had known how complicated it was I might not have done it. New passport. New social security card. Driver’s license. Credit card. Bank accounts. Utility bills. The list is endless. And how should I refer to my old name? I'm not a maiden, so it isn't my "maiden" name. They need to invent a new word.

My brother and I have a theory that when our grandfather immigrated to America from Warsaw and passed through Ellis Island, some wise guy government cog with a rubber stamp couldn’t make heads or tails of his last name — too many C’s, Z’s, Y’s and K’s — and simply said, “You’re a Polack so that’s your name.” It might or might not be true. We’ll never know for sure. He and I are the end of the lineage and since he didn't have a son and I dumped it, the name, as it relates to our family tree, is dead. An irrelevant loss to the world.

Incidentally, when my niece was born, she was given my sister-in-law’s last name. NOW who’s the pussy?


Blogger Pat said...

' A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'
I think you did the right thing. What right has some immigration bod got the right to christen your family. Appalling cheek!

July 19, 2012 at 7:59 AM  
Blogger Sausage said...

Having gone through a family name change in the 70's I can feel your pain. This is going to sound harsh but my grandmother shall we say this - impregnated by a foreign visitor, the family had a bed and breakfast in Dundee and this was the 1940's so after my father was born he was given the surname of the visitor! after years or torment and guilt my father changed the family name, this took place when I was in primary 5 and of course the teacher had to announce it to all who would listen.

July 19, 2012 at 8:03 AM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

Pat: I'm not even sure that's what happened. For all we know, that was the name he arrived with. It's just a theory.

sausage: That was a delicate way to put it. Your tale is as harrowing as mine! We should start a club. Or a cult.

July 19, 2012 at 8:18 AM  
Blogger Sausage said...

What will we call our club?
Polish Sausage....

July 19, 2012 at 8:41 AM  
Blogger Kono said...

This is understandable, from all i've gleaned from the relationship you've had with your father why would you want his name? i've always loved my last name even if my first name is straight outta the trailer park, of course i was the end of the line, the last male, but not anymore, now there are 2 more...

July 19, 2012 at 8:43 AM  
Blogger Eryl said...

Your theory sounds spot on to me, a Godfather fan. My surname, before I married, was slang for a smoker's cough. Growing up with it was torture. My man's surname is Dick, his brother has taken their mother's maiden name, but Dave carries valiantly on.

July 19, 2012 at 8:47 AM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

sausage: HA! You are so funny.

kono: I always wished my last name had been Bond. That would have opened some doors, don't you think? Good that you have a kono jr. and a spare.

Eryl: Here's what's funny: my father's first name was Dick. Richard, but he, perhaps fittingly, preferred Dick. Your maiden name is a verb.

July 19, 2012 at 8:52 AM  
Blogger Gorilla Bananas said...

What a pity you didn't change your name to Poldark, after the fictional captain who made the ladies swoon. You can change it to Bananas if you leave me your nipple clamps in your will.

July 19, 2012 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger dinahmow said...

Polish sausage-haha!
The surname you know me by is my father's.I see no reason to change it. Even after all these years I still sometimes have to tell people my name is not Patricia More!It used to annoy me; now I have other, better things to do.
But I can understand your feelings.

July 19, 2012 at 5:39 PM  
Blogger Ms Scarlet said...

I've had so much more fun being a Blue.
I think that at the age of 18 we should all be given the chance to choose our own names.

July 19, 2012 at 5:43 PM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

GB: I don't need no stinkin' Poldark alias to make the ladies swoon. And I will leave you not only my nipple clamps, but also the ball + gag, a leather mask and a pint of vanilla ice cream.

dinah: I know! He's so funny, isn't he?! It certainly doesn't bother me much anymore, but it was touch-and-go for a while there.

SB: I should have legally shortened it to just my first name. Just like Madonna did. Or Cher. Or Sade. Or Rhianna. Or Shakira. Or...waitaminute...those are all girls. Never mind.

July 19, 2012 at 8:25 PM  
Anonymous daisyfae said...

i was married at 22 years old - before i finished my undergraduate degree. took my husbands name - but made a half-hearted argument that perhaps i should keep my family name, as i'd already had one lame technical publication as an undergraduate. after dad died, i regretted changing my name... may change it back when i retire, and those publications/business cards really don't matter any longer...

"polish sausage"? hellz yeah!

July 19, 2012 at 11:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's very unfortnate Mr C--a surname coinciding with a racial insult.

It was certainly possible for immigration officials to change a name. A friend of mine's surname is Jerdan, and there's a family tale that the English immigration official write it down like that because that's how her Irish immigrant forebears pronounced Jordan.

July 20, 2012 at 7:10 AM  
Blogger savannah said...

none of the women who married into the krewe took our surname, but super nana (our only daughter) took mr. matrix's when they married...interesting, but then you know my last name and sometimes, i think i should change it! *sigh* xoxoxoo

July 20, 2012 at 10:10 AM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

daisy: It's such a hassle. What a load of work it was! Why bother at this point? I say you ride that name train through to its logical conclusion.

looby: The immigration official theory was so outlandish that we initially invented it as a joke. But who knows. It could contain the root of the truth. No matter. We showed them. We killed the name.

sav: I was thinking about you when I wrote this. What a load of trouble your name must cause in certain circumstances! Change it to Smith. It's boring but trouble-free.

July 20, 2012 at 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to split hairs on really great post but wasn't your name an ethnic slur vs. a racial one?

July 20, 2012 at 11:40 AM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

Anon: Actually, you're absolutely correct! Well done, sir. Can't believe that got by me. In a display of fallibility and humility, I'm going to leave it as is and not correct it.

July 20, 2012 at 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Michele said...

best. post. ever.

July 20, 2012 at 3:19 PM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

Michele: Interesting. I thought you might be pissed. Glad I was wrong!

July 20, 2012 at 3:34 PM  
Blogger savannah said...

you know we changed it TO the current one! wtf, right? the former name was so easy. xoxoxo

July 20, 2012 at 4:01 PM  
Blogger Jenny Woolf said...

I think you were right to change your name - it wasn't something you were attached to and there is no reason to keep it. I think it's a kind of evolution, that's how embarrassing or difficult surnames fade away. I knew a girl once whose surname was Smellie, that was hard for her in a class of 10 year olds, but she stood up for herself pretty well. Mind you, she might have been glad to change her name when she got married!

July 20, 2012 at 6:19 PM  
Blogger mapstew said...

Almost everyone who knows me calls me Stewart, or Stew, including my wife. (I always introduce myself as Stewart!)Only my Ma & siblings call me by my christian name Martin. You folks in Bloggeritaville call me Map, or Mr. Maps. One of my pals always calls me Marty. Another Pal (the taller one) calles me Marteen (pronounced Morcheen). My oldest friend Jim calls me Fred. My kids call me too early in the morning! :¬)

July 20, 2012 at 9:49 PM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

Jenny: Smellie is pretty bad. I worked with a guy named Raymond Bimbo who was married. How'd you like to be Mrs. Bimbo your whole life?

Map: What a slew of pseudonyms. (Ha. See what I did there?) What's in a name people ask? Plenty. Trust me.

July 20, 2012 at 10:20 PM  
Blogger Young at Heart said...

I had an ugly maiden name and ran the last name of every boy I met along side mine from about the age of 4......... I didn't keep my American husband for long but I did keep his name and I love it, it's Italian and with my first name I sound like a hood from the Sopranos!!!!

July 21, 2012 at 5:25 AM  
Blogger Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

What's in a name?

Nicknames are worse.

I wemt through school as Yob, the backward boy.

PS Pollock is a well known Scottish fish,
not to be confused with Pillock, a stupid person.

July 22, 2012 at 3:40 AM  
Blogger The Unbearable Banishment said...

YAH: I like my new last name as well. I can't reveal it in a public forum, but it sounds like the kind of name an author might give to a fictional spy.

TSB: Actually, there's PLENTY in a name. As referenced in my post, give a listen to Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." He almost killed his father! I have eaten Pollock. The fish. A mild flavor.

July 22, 2012 at 9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's cool what you did....

July 23, 2012 at 5:50 PM  

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