In November 2018, FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) released a report on ‘Being Black in the EU’. The report analyses the lived experiences of people of African descent and their children in 12 EU Member States: Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom, showing that racial discrimination is a common phenomenon across the surveyed countries. Whilst these are popular destinations for African immigrants and account for a long-standing tradition of racialisation, Poland, a less popular destination for African immigrants has a different pattern of racialisation that has been neglected in FRA’s report. It is a pattern of racialisation that I seek to unpack in this piece.
Evidently, a lifetime of homogeneous life does blur many Poles’ insight into the ways in which race shapes their assumptions, identity, community and politics, therefore, many are raised to see themselves as ‘innocent’ of race. Like many white people, some Poles are raised to be racially illiterate. To understand this assertion, one needs to accept the fact that people are products of a culture and society, where neither their education nor culture provides them with understanding of ‘race’ and racism, but simply told that racism is wrong. However, when confronted with racist acts, many often go into denial or racial illiteracy or choose to adopt ‘white ignorance’ mode.
Polish racial illiteracy rests on the above simplistic societal assumption, as well as the idea that a racist could only be an individual who does not like a person of another ‘race’. From this standpoint, a racist is seen as an individual who is a bad person, an aggressive individual or right‐wing nationalist, therefore, well-intended Polish people cannot be racists. This assumption appears delusional because it hides the structural nature of racism in which the conventional Polish understanding of a racist is set up in such a way that for a Polish person, race has no meaning, no advantage, and that Polish society has no absorbed racist messages.
Rather than just asserting the above, it is important to demonstrate it. It’s not often that Polish people see a melinated (black) and white couple with a bi-racial kid walking the Polish promenade. Despite the freedom of movement within the EU, many Polish people have never seen a melinated person, let alone have personal contact with one. Therefore, the Polish seaside, although a public space, is the place least likely for Poles to see melinated people because the presence of a melinated body at the Polish seaside seems to raise some racial ambiguities.
In order to understand the lived experiences of people of colour in Poland, I interviewed more than 30 people of sub-Saharan African background, with a small cohort of mixed-race population between the ages of 21 and 58 from various cities in Poland. As a person of colour, I’ve met many wonderful, so extraordinary Polish men and women. Yet, there are instances many people of colour find the Polish gaze objectifying, demeaning, and narrow, as if to ask, ‘what are you doing here?’ – presenting the Polish seaside as well as the cities as the preserve of white people. It’s a feeling of being in the right place with the wrong body that triggers an existential question – ‘what’s wrong with my body?’. This is a form of racial-microaggression that Wilson, a black male from the UK, experienced when he was on holiday at Polish seaside, where a Polish woman tried to urge her son to walk past Wilson on a busy promenade, but the son quietly exclaimed in Polish – ‘I can’t, he’s a black man’. In another situation, Wilson found himself being physically examined when another Polish woman had to stop her entire family, telling them to have a good look at Wilson’s melinated-skin and whether it looks good or bad. At first glance, all this may appear as some sort of curiosity.
What the People of Colour are saying in Poland
The lived experience of Wilson, the respondent introduced above, isn’t an isolated event. People of colour are seen through the prism of Africa. Elsa, a mixed-race Pole, was once asked at a Polish seaside – ‘which of the parents was a monkey?’ It was a situation that makes Elsa’s black body seems out of place. Gloria from West Africa felt that this perception was extended to her once on a tram where two young Polish boys told a commuter: ‘no, we can’t sit in front of that black person, can’t you see she’s a black woman, how can we sit in front of her’. Hearing that people didn’t want to sit in front of her or next to her puts Gloria in an uncomfortable situation on the tram. For Gloria: ‘I don’t think it a pleasant thing…it’s degrading really’.
What was more frequent were conversations between elderly Polish couples, making hidden gestures at the appearance of a Murzyn (Negro) at the Polish seaside. It is a kind of experience that raises all sort of questions about Poles in relationships with non-whites – ‘You love a black man? Are you crazy? Aren’t there any Poles around? maybe none will have you?’. ‘There are so many Poles around, why did you have to choose a bloody black?’; ‘How can you do it with a golliwog?’ ‘What is this lass doing with him? Either he’s with her for her money, or she’s with him for sex’. According to Wilson: ‘The excuse is usually – ‘Oh, they’re elderly, never seen a black person before’. Most of my respondents believe that this shouldn’t be an excuse for objectifying gaze, constant head turning and passing comments especially at the sight of Polish women with melinated men. Whilst I think not all Polish people engage in these incivilities, there is a consensus among my respondents that there is a sense in which every day-Polish people believe that there is something really special about their whiteness, especially in the presence of a black person. This not only put melinated body out of place, but subject the body to ‘a process of ‘confiscation’ through the phenomenon of the white gaze, which is a form of learned embodied seeing, while the white body elides any responsibility for holding the black body captive’.
On the other hand, at the same seaside, Wilson met some elderly people who smiled nicely and were willing to explore their curiosity. Hence, the issue here isn’t the gaze as such, it’s the countenance of many gazers that seems to abnormalize the presence of a melinated face and assume white faces as the norm. It is one of those recognized ways of mapping faces onto a specific national space through an assumption that our skin colours and our faces are direct links to our national and racial identities.
Feeding the Polish curiosity
What Wilson wanted me to take away from our conversation was his encounter with a 6-year-old Polish boy, Tomek. Whilst waiting outside an ice-cream kiosk, Tomek noticed Wilson’s unusual presence and walked closer to him. Tomek didn’t speak a word of English but fixed his look on Wilson’s melinated skin, suddenly the gaze was interrupted when Wilson said ‘hello, how are you?’ in Polish. Tomek’s face was brightened by the greeting, as he responded with a broad smile: ‘I’m good’, he said in Polish and then moved further closer for a ‘high-five’ followed by other small-talks between Wilson and his little friend. ‘I thought the intimacy between me and Tomek was a one-off, but I was wrong’, observed Wilson. A few days later, at a distanced location, Wilson was dining with his family outside a restaurant where he saw Tomek walking past with his family. Tomek’s brother recognized Wilson from the other day and alerted Tomek, who was excited and shouted ‘hello’ from the street and went over to Wilson for the continuation of their small-talks from the previous meeting. The relationship between Wilson and Tomek supports the notion that people of different physiognomies could have a positive interaction that doesn’t have to be racially or biologically determined. Also, with such relationship ‘white ignorance’ and ‘racial illiteracy’ gap could be bridged, if not completely filled.
Bolaji Balogun is a doctoral researcher in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, UK. He is an associate lecturer and Leverhulme Trust Visiting Scholar at the Department of European Studies, University of Economics Krakow, Poland. His research focuses on Blackness and Racialisation in Poland, and his works have appeared in Ethnic and Racial Studies, the leading journal for the analysis of the role of race and racism; and BalticWorlds, a scholarly journal for Baltic and East European Studies. Bolaji is a member of Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies at the University of Leeds, UK.