This is a guest post by someone who used to be a client of mine:
Over a bit less than a year ago, I decided to move to Wroclaw to work for an international company there. At first, the idea of moving into a central European country was both exciting and frightening. As a young Frenchman of African origin who has lived successively on three continents, including the United States and China, I was quite opened to any new adventures. On the other hand, when I announced my decision to my close friends and family, I was met with some kind of scepticism. Many warned me of the fact that I could be subjected to primary racism. To be frank, my philosophy has always been that you have to experience a country for some time before judging its people, values and so on.
In no ways will I judge the values of Poland and its people because of the unfortunate events that happened to me there and that I will describe in this commentary. If anything, thanks to my wonderful colleagues (international or Polish) or local friends, I will try to keep the best memory of my time there. Nonetheless, I can no longer ignore the fact that Poland has some serious issues with racism and accepting diversity.
About a year ago, I settled in Wroclaw, a city which used to be a German “colony” and which was reclaimed by Poland after Germany was defeated during the Second World War. When I arrived, I had no expectations whatsoever as far as culture is concerned. The first two months went incredibly well. I made many Polish friends, all highly educated and eager to show the foreign newcomers the best of Polish culture. In that sense, settling down was quite easy and I was already imagining myself staying for a couple of years because of the comfort I felt.
There was only one black person in the office before me and somehow, it reassured me that moving into Wroclaw was not a crazy idea. My friend had arrived a month before me and seemed to enjoy the place. Soon enough though, he came to me telling me to be careful, that a few incidents happened to him and that we should find ways to protect ourselves when alone in the street. To be honest, I was enjoying myself so much that I mentally disregarded his comments. Two months after his first warnings, he was leaving the country definitely because of racism.
Some time after his departure, I started to see the ugly side of the narrow-mindedness of a part of the Polish population. On the Rynek or walking along roads, I would be met with monkey noises from pedestrian or car drivers every now and then, whether I was be accompanied by friends or not. Still, I was sure that these incidents did not alarm me.
But then, a series of events changed my sense of urgency to act upon these random acts of racism. The first incident was being thrown out of a nightclub after being slapped in the face by a waitress with in a discussion with a colleagues friend. I questioned the act’s nature but still convinced myself that it might not have been racism but an unfortunate chain of events.
Shortly after, I met several black students who were planning to leave the country because of racism and who additionally warned me about racism in Poland.
Still, many more incidents happened in the span of the next 6 months. I was being cursed in the street, mocked by people making monkey noises. While I was thinking that if some events happened on the weekend, it would have probably been due to the fact that people get drunk and act more stupidly that they would during the week days, I quickly understood that these acts could happen at any time. On our way to work on a Monday, my roommates and I crossed the path of a band of five people. As they were passing, we could hear monkey noises. Then they started throwing snow at me and inviting me to fight. The next day, two different people were cursing me as I was going on my way back to work. A bit before that, I had been pushed next to Dominikanska’s bus station by a man who pretended to slip next to me before pushing me. As I turned to see if he was alright, I could see he was laughing with one of his friends.
The climax of my stay in WRO was a few weeks ago, when I entered a nightclub with colleagues. I let them enter before myself and as I was stepping in, a pedestrian came close to me, gave me the finger and started yelling “fuck you.” In the moment, I discarded his actions as the ones of a deranged man full of hatred but it stayed in the back of my mind during the whole night. Once my friends and I decided to go back home, the face of this person popped out again. I kept asking to my friends what I did to deserve such hatred.
The next morning, after speaking to my close ones abroad about the subject for the first time, I decided to leave. I had doubts still because fleeing a country feels like giving up on the good relationships that you create at a place and on the professional objectives you set for yourself.
But if I was not utterly convinced that day, what happened right before the end of the weekend made up my mind. After going to the movies with a friend, we decided to go to a bar nearby. On a Sunday evening, as we were leaving the bar while having a conversation, a group of four tall and shaved man started screaming “Heil Hitler.” My friend did not pick up what they were saying and kept on talking. We walked passed them for a few meters and it took a minute or so for my friend to notice fear, anger and disbelief across my face. If all the incidents that had happened for the past 10 months weren’t enough, this one was too much.
A week after, I was out of the country, back to France. It is always painful to have to leave a country that way but there was no fight for me to win. To my understanding, Germans and Russians had an acrimonious history with Poland, not African nations. Moreover, the Black population in Poland and the Polish history with people of black descent are not important or deep enough to cause the institutional racism usually applied in countries such as France. The type of racism I encountered was purely ideological, fanatical and in no way based on any facts that could in some ways explain the enmity I was met with during my stay in Poland. Thus, I conclude that Poland is about one or two decades from evolving into a place that truly accepts and integrates people. It will take a lot of time and effort from the population that is educated, open-minded and well traveled as well as from politicians and social activists. It is a matter of changing the distorted and unfounded opinion Polish culture holds about people who are not White, Catholics and not Polish speaking.
Here’s few dates for your diary:
First of all, as part of the European action week against racism there’s to be an event in the Edith Stein House “together against racism” tomorrow evening (Wednesday the 21st) and a flashmob on the rynek on Thursday at 3pm. More details here and here.
Plus of course, write the 11th of November in your diary as a day to promote a tolerant, open Poland and to let racists directly know that you oppose them.