Why White Eastern Europe Still Struggles with Colours
When I decided I wanted to study in Eastern Europe, my friends called me daring, while my family just called me crazy. But being a black American travelling to a place less frequented by black people worried my family.
I was immediately pestered with questions: “Will you be safe?” and “Do they like black people over there?” Since I had no expectations of my own, I decided to expunge everything I had heard about Eastern Europe and form my own opinion.
The first week went rather smoothly. I arrived in Kraków in October 2011 and was pretty nervous as I was in a foreign environment and also starting a MA programme for the first time. I found the city beautiful with bountiful restaurants and excellent tourist attractions. I met many foreigners and started getting into the groove of balancing work and pleasure. A month went by and I began to feel more relieved, and rather pleased to have made the decision to study in Poland.
However, during my second month in Kraków, my feelings towards the local people began to sour. I constantly received stares which made me feel rather uncomfortable. Hoping that this would be the limit of my distress, on one occasion I wandered into a local grocery store to buy something for dinner. As I walked around the shop, a shop assistant suspecting me of shoplifting, grabbed my backpack and dumped the entire contents of the bag, which contained two notebooks and several pencils, onto the floor, leaving me to pick it all back up. I don’t know if she was surprised or disappointed to learn that her suspicions were wrong, as there was nothing stolen in my bag.
A week later, I decided to move out of my university accommodation after a rather unpleasant incident. While I was attending lectures at the university, someone unlocked the door to my room and left behind a bag of faeces by the bathroom. The lock was not broken nor was there sign of forced entry. The only people who had keys to the room were the administration, but whether or not they were responsible, I wouldn’t like to judge.
I soon found a nice flat with several Erasmus students whom I felt very comfortable with. We were all foreigners and our Polish language skills were far from proficient. After feeling so emotionally diminished, I was pleasantly surprised to make new friends, some of them Polish, who wanted to get to know me as they fantasised about travelling to New York. Some of them even joked about me helping them get visas.
Soon it was May and Euro 2012 was just around the corner. On one occasion, while walking around the Main Market Square in Kraków with my friends, I witnessed a black male holding hands with a Polish woman. The couple started being badgered by two local men. The two hooligans began yelling racist slogans and the couple began to pick up their pace walking away from them. The hooligans started throwing food at him, continued shouting racist slogans, and stalked the couple as they walked down Grodzka Street. Then, they began to punch the man in the face.
My blood began to boil and my friends begged me not to get involved. A police car began to drive towards us and I was sure that they would stop the attack. However, I was shocked to see the patrol car drive straight past the incident, especially as this was taking place in an open public space. After the police car had driven past, I helped throw the two hooligans off of the black guy. I am guessing they felt intimidated as the man was no longer alone. The two locals then slowly walked off, continuing to yell slurs towards us both. The following week, British football player Sol Campbell, who became notorious for labelling Poland and Ukraine as “racist”, released a statement regarding Euro 2012 saying that fans should “stay at home or end up coming back in a coffin”. Poland demanded an apology for such remarks.
After experiencing so much during my stay in Kraków, I wondered what kinds of experiences my other friends were experiencing, and decided to talk to a colleague of mine, also a black American. We reminisced on both the good and bad times, and he told me that overall he was having a good time in Kraków. He stated that he had established several friendships with Poles, although these relationships had been hard to establish. He went on to say he would have loved to meet more Poles, but felt that they were generally quite introverted. As a result, he felt less inclined to learn Polish because the majority of the local people he had come into contact with were simply not open enough to speak to him. He also said that one night, while he was with several Polish women at a bar, two local people expressed their concerns to the Polish women about paying so much attention to a black guy. They spat on him and then ran out of the bar.
Another of my colleagues, Aslan from Turkey, also spoke to me about his experiences in Kraków. Aslan has physical features very similar to me. He has brown skin and black hair, although he is a practising Muslim whereas I am Baptist. He mentioned a time when he took the tram to the city centre. Upon entering the tram, a nun who was sitting close to the door, stared at him and blessed herself before getting up and exiting the tram. This gesture is usually in response to a threat or some form of evil. Aslan was upset over the fact that the nun had prejudged him without even speaking to him or getting to know him. And although he said that instances such as this had damaged his morale, he has since been able to find love with a Polish girl, whom he has been dating for over two years now.
The following day, I decided to get a coffee close to the US consulate. I met a guy who is Polish but lives in England. His name is Gabriel. He asked me what I was doing in Poland and what my intended goals were for the future. I told him that I was an aspiring diplomat and whatever I ended up doing, I hoped that my job would be to bring together cultures to create a harmonised international society. He looked at me and said: “Mike, you are already doing this. Each day you walk out of your house, you are giving Poles a new perspective on black people. Every day, you are making history and don’t even know it.” I left the conversation feeling both excited and empowered.
I came to Poland with an open mind and told myself I would make my own opinions about the country and Eastern Europe from my experiences. I was just a black boy from a small town in Virginia who had never lived abroad in his life and had a dream. My experiences in Poland were diverse. I was stared at, generalised, and sometimes mistreated. My room was broken into and a bag of faeces left by the door. My trust in the police diminished after I saw how some responded to hate crimes. But at the same time I had many pleasurable experiences. I learned to trust more and to be more independent. I developed a strong case of perseverance and tolerance. I also had the opportunity to learn and understand Polish culture and heritage. Best of all was that I made many friendships in Poland that will never tarnish.
I do believe I have found some light in a dark tunnel. Poland does not face waves of immigration like many Western European countries. In fact, it could be a fair statement to say that Poland is rather primitive in the context of multiculturalism. The country simply has not been able to adapt or meet non-white ethnicities in contemporary times. This does not excuse some of the derogatory acts by some local Polish people. However, it does demonstrate a sense of confusion, ignorance and sometimes intolerance which is understandable in a country that has generally only experienced its own kind in recent years. Even with its challenges, Poland appears to have come a long way. I met many Poles who were both friendly and interesting. Although I never experienced Poland during communism, I still can detect this hint of societal overlap. Poland, it seems, is still torn between its former communist society and this new democratic globalised society. In spite of all my mishaps, I am still a believer in Poland and feel that with time the country will only progress.
Michael Mariner is former intern for the US Department of State and a graduate student at the Centre for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University. His interest include foreign affairs, politics, business and diplomacy.