Joe Kaczynski remembers when the term “Polack” was in pretty common usage on the streets of Schenectady.
“Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said, “I was part of a big Polish community in Schenectady. You’d hear it on the street. ‘You dumb Polack.’ ”
Polack, a generally derogatory word for people of Polish descent, is a bit less common now. That’s why Kaczynski, a leader at the historically Polish congregation of the Church of Saint Adalbert, was so surprised to learn that CBS sports broadcaster and Albany resident Andrew Catalon had used it on air.
“I thought we were past that sort of thing,” he said.
During the second half of an NCAA men’s tournament game between Gonzaga and Oklahoma State on Friday, Cowboys players began fouling Gonzaga Bulldog Przemek Karnowski. The strategy was similar to one employed against now-retired NBA player Shaquille O’Neal, who had a chronic problem shooting free throws. Opposing players would intentionally foul O’Neal, which would send him to the free-throw line. When he missed, which was often, the team committing the foul had a chance to grab the ball and score points while preserving time on the clock. It was known as the “Hack-a-Shaq” defense.
Catalon called the Cowboys’ strategy against Polish-born Karnowski a “Hack-a-Polack.”
Catalon, who for years served as a local sportscaster at WNYT, has since apologized publicly and personally to Karnowski for using the word. Karnowski even tweeted graciously to smooth the whole thing over.
The situation was largely resolved over the weekend — and Kaczynski was only slightly offended to begin with.
“I don’t think Catalon knew what he was saying,” he said.
That said, Kaczynski is very familiar with the negative connotations of the slur Catalon used. Half a century ago, Kaczynski was a school kid just two generations removed from Poland. At the time, he said there was still some residual resentment between the large Italian and Polish communities of Schenectady.
Masses of immigrants from both countries came to Schenectady in the early 1900s looking for work, he said. With Italians and Poles all competing for the same jobs at General Electric and Alco, he said, the groups tossed slurs back and forth with surprising regularity.
“The thing with racial slurs, people use them to make themselves feel superior,” he added.
There was a set of slurs for Italians, too, and they sometimes still cause controversy.
Last summer, the popular Wandering Dago food truck was kicked out of a spot at the Saratoga Race Course after a few people complained about “dago,” a derogatory term for Italians.
“Every nationality has their derogatory term,” Kaczynski said.
For the Polish, that term came from a nonoffensive source. According to Mark Pastuszak, when speaking in the Polish language, the word “polak” is used to refer to a single Polish person.
“It’s basically the same word,” he said. “So it comes down to context.”
Pastuszak’s parents moved to Amsterdam from Poland in the 1970s. For years his father led the Good Shepherd Polish National Catholic Church in Amsterdam. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Pastuszak heard adults in the church use the term “polak” in totally respectful ways while kids at his school shouted the same word to the opposite effect.
Years later, Pastuszak is still a member of Amsterdam’s large Polish community. While he didn’t see the sportscast in question, he said Catalon’s word choice would at least have gotten his attention had he been watching.
“I would have raised an eyebrow,” he said. “I would have wondered if I should be offended.”
These days, Kaczynski said, Polack isn’t a very common slur.
“It’s always the new people on the block that bear the brunt,” he said.
In the Capital Region, the Polish population is no longer new — there have been waves of more recent immigrants. But Polish festivals stocked with golumpki and polka bands are still common across the area. Kaczynski organizes one every year at Saint Adalbert. There are still many Polish people, but their festivals are attended by people of nearly every nationality.
For that reason, Kaczynski figured the Polish slurs from his childhood were about dead. Friday’s sportscast was more a disappointment than true grounds for offense, he said.
“Maybe in 100 more years we won’t hear that word anymore.”