By Storyteller Carol Birch
Carol believes this statement: “To build a bridge from one culture into another and make pluralism a cause for celebration, we have to have one foot firmly planted in who we are.” However, in exploring her Polish and Scottish roots, Carol wonders if she’s really been living what she teaches.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Passing-for-WASP
- What is a WASP and why is that word part of American history?
- Why are many students who are identified as “white” unaware of their ethnic heritages? It seems from the story that there is a hierarchy of “whiteness;” is this accurate in your experience?
- The storyteller accepted many last names in the story – her original name, her father’s name-switch, her husband’s name. Finally, she went back to what name and why? Why is so much consideration given to a name?
- How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev
- Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel
- Crossing Cultures
- Education and Life Lessons
- European American/Whites
- Family and Childhood
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, there. I’m Carol Birch. And you know I think I must’ve been 27, 28 years old before a woman said to me, “I have no idea why people are ashamed of being Polish. It’s such a rich culture.” And I didn’t know that I was ashamed of being Polish but I certainly never claimed that I was Polish. I never advertised that I was Polish.
My father was born in 1905. His name was Edmond Paul Buczkowski, B-U-C-Z-K-O-W-S-K-I. And when he went out as a young man to look for work, the only thing he found were signs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that said, “Polish need not apply.” So, he changed our name. He changed it from Buczkowski to Birch.
What’s Birch? So interesting because, you know, my mother… If you met my mother, and you told her your name, after she said, “Oh, hi, Carol Birch. Birch, what kind of name is that? My mother always asked that. Mm, Pittsburgh’s a very ethnic city.”
Well, my father, I thought, you know what, it was just like a WASP name. Nobody really knows what Birch is. And I never really thought about it.
Now my brother Bob was born in 1938. He went to Arsenal Elementary School, right in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And he was sitting in class one day. It must have been like second or third grade. He was young and the teacher was going around, “What nationality are you? What nationality are you?”
Well, he was sitting beside his best friend. Mm, his best friend was Manny. Manny had come from Greece so Manny said, “I’m Greek.”
“Robert, what are you?”
“No, you’re not!” She pounced on him; she sneered. He remembered feeling very attacked by her.
“You. What are you, an Indian? Uh, ha! If you don’t tell us what you are tomorrow after you’ve gone home to see your family, you’re gonna go to the principal’s office.”
So, my little big brother came home and asked Daddy, “Who are we? What are we?” I wasn’t born yet so this is all hearsay. You know, it’s all a story.
And my father said to my brother, “You’re an American. If you tell that teacher you are anything but an American, when you come home, you’re going to get a beating.” This is not a child abuse story.
Anyway, um, my brother, rightly, I think, chose to oppose this teacher, not our father. And when he went to school and he didn’t say that he was anything but an American, the teacher was so offended by his defiance, she sent him to the principal’s office. (Now I wish I knew this principal’s name and I am going to find it out again because he was a wonderful man. All my first attempts have failed.) When my brother went into the principal’s office, my father was already there and the principal said, “Bob, you go back to class. Don’t you worry. I’monna take care of your dad. And I’m gonna take care of your teacher.”
Well, I went to Arsenal Elementary School. I didn’t have that teacher. Didn’t have anybody who asked me what nationality I was but I was there in 1954. In fact, I was there when Salk had the first polio vaccine. That was my class. I was standing there on that day in February 1954. But that’s another story.
Anyway, um, my life changed. I went to Arsenal Elementary School. But when I was in the fifth grade, we moved from the inner city to the suburbs.
Now it seems to me that the Irish and the Italians and the Polish were always jockeying for position, some idea of hierarchy, who was closest to being a WASP. I really don’t think any of my friends would have been my friends in middle school or high school if my name had been Carol Buczkowski. I never heard anyone say anything slanderous against those whose names ended in S-K-I but my friends were Nancy Davis, Sharon Nixon, Susie McGregor, Christine Larson. Huh! Now, I went to college. I got married. The man I married first, ha, ha, ha, was a man whose last name was Norwegian.
I always felt like Carol Birch sorta sounded like clip clop, just such a nn… bitey sort of name. And now my name was Carol Nermo. Huh! I thought that was so wonderful. You know, there’s no stigma in being Norwegian and, and aren’t all Norwegians beautiful and tall and clean and good. And now maybe was I all those things, suddenly tall, suddenly beautiful, suddenly good.
And when that marriage ended in a divorce, who was I? I wasn’t Miss Nermo. I wasn’t Professor Nermo so I put my family through all kinds of misery. I was gonna change my name for a short time to legally just Carol ’cause you have to have two names to own property and I hoped someday I’d have property. And then I said to my mother, “You know what? I’m a storyteller and, oh, Mother, ethnics in. I’m gonna go back to being Carol Buczkowski.”
And my mother said, “You’ll kill your father.” My mother was Scotch Presbyterian. My mother and my father had what was then known as a mixed marriage. I don’t think it would have killed Daddy and here’s why.
I divorced in 1975. Not long after that, my father who left school in the fourth-grade ’cause he punched a nun and climbed out the window. My father didn’t have a formal education but he was smart and he read a lot. And he was on a senior citizen’s cable show. The cable show, hav…, it was a kind of trivial pursuit, asking questions and then a panel from this senior center or panel from that senior center would compete at getting the right answers. There was a very, mm mmm… well, she was very flirtatious, very attractive young host and she asked a question and the answer was Paderewski. And she went over to my daddy and she flirted with him and she went, “Oh, Mr. Birch, you must feel a little bit Polish to know that answer.
And my father, my father looked at that pretty, young girl and he said, “I’m not a little bit Polish, I’m all Polish!” with his arms thrown wide.