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“What are you doing here?” The Effects of Globalization and the War on Racism at the Polish-Ukrainian Border

Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed in a press conference on March 1, 2022 that “…there are instances of differentiation of treatment at the borders based on race, but said he was assured that ‘these are not state policies’“ (Zaru 2022a). In video footage shared on social media, a group of African refugees are shown being physically prevented from boarding a bus to cross the border and reach the safety of Poland. This example of racism, although not highlighted frequently in the civil international discourse in reference to Central and Eastern European countries, was brought by the media to the attention of the rest of the world. In addition to the statement made by Grandi, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba said that “Africans seeking evacuation are our friends and need to have equal opportunities to return to their home countries safely“ (Zaru 2022b). It isn’t often that civilians from different nations across the world take notice of unjust events outside of their own political sphere. Due to the high levels of media attention devoted to racism against African Americans in the West, instances such as this take precedence and priority in Western media sources. As the Western public realizes that racism is occurring also towards African migrants in Central and Eastern Europe, a sense of outrage has accumulated. Although this racism has been going on for centuries, this realization among Westerners has sparked high media consumption and has resulted in massive reporting on the racism occurring at the border of Poland and Ukraine.

Racism has been able to live on in Central and Eastern Europe, garnering little or no attention by journalists and the media. It is now that the Western world focuses its sights on Poland during the war In Ukraine that the supply of information is ramping up to meet demand.

Poland has a sizeable community of sub-Saharan Africans studying within the country. This community is one that has been formally welcomed by the government to legally work or study in Poland, but the response of the Polish civil sphere has not been nearly as welcoming. In 2018, Konrad Pędziwiatr and Bolaji Balogun wrote a piece featuring the stories of sub-Saharan African immigrants in Poland and their struggle for acceptance within the country. They recount the story of one student’s experience while crossing a road in Poland where a native citizen said “‘What are you doing here?’” and the student stated that he ‘could see the disgust on his face.’ Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. ‘The issue that bothers me most is always on the bus, people stare at me on the bus, and no one will sit next to me, with or without extra seats’” (Pędziwiatr and Balogun, p. 87). In another similar situation, a student who was interviewed stated that when “…he was walking in the street, the passengers of a passing car pointed at him and called him ‘monkey’” (Pędziwiatr and Balogun, p. 87). It could be argued that situations like these are isolated events that do not necessarily imply anything about the overall societal status of racism in Poland. To counter this argument and to illustrate that this racism is greater than a few individual interactions, an event in Poland in 2017 contained “…60,000 people marching under police escort through the streets of Warsaw, calling for a ‘pure’ and ‘white’ Poland” (Pędziwiatr and Balogun, p. 87). Clearly, there are definitively large groups of Polish citizens who agree on this concept and are involved in communities sharing this opinion of racism towards people of color in Poland.

When analyzing the larger picture of the patterns of migration in Poland, declining numbers of immigrants have been consistent throughout the last 30 years. After the withdrawal of Poland from communism and the USSR, in 1990, the percentage of migrant population was nearly 2,500,000. This number has since been reduced to 750,000 in 2015 (Clark 2021). The only country in Europe outdoing Poland on the loss of immigrants was Romania, which lost 73,999 immigrants in 2020 (Clark 2021). For reference, the Czech Republic was documented with gaining 22,011 that same year (Clark 2021). This state of affairs leads us to the conclusion that Poland is extremely “homogenous in terms of nationality or ethnicity” and “It is estimated that no more than 3% of the total population are national minorities” (Population: Demographic Situation, 2022). The immigration pattern in Poland has shown a downward trend for the last twenty years, and levels of diversity and inclusion have followed suit (Population: Demographic Situation, 2022). Scholars have shown that a lack of diversity results in higher levels of racism. The lack of incoming immigrants to Central and Eastern European countries and the exodus of those already present illustrates to us that just as people in more diverse countries are less prejudiced, people in less diverse countries are more prejudiced (Suttie 2021).

In a recent research study by Margaret Ohia (2016), she analyzed the “linguistic mechanisms” present in the portrayal of Black people in the Polish media. She concluded that there are cases in Polish history and in current media discourse where in mottos and short stories such as “Bambo the Little Negro,” by Julian Tuwin, we can see that “the antipathy against ‘the Other’ in Poland, a country that is witnessing the emergence of a minority population, prevails and is reproduced on all levels of public discourse” (Ohia 2016, p. 12). This analysis of linguistic mechanisms provides insight into the high levels of racism within Polish borders.

The focus of the media largely influences the focus of the civil sphere, and the racism being exhibited at the Polish-Ukrainian border is now a part of international discourse and outrage. Poland has a lengthy history of being an unfriendly country for immigrants, and even more specifically for African immigrants. The extreme decrease in the numbers of immigrants within the total population over time is evidence that shows us just how profound the movement of immigrants away from Poland has been. As for whether this event will become a major social issue for the rest of the world, only time will tell. Racism is a war that has been waged throughout history and is constantly hitting crisis levels of social strains, spurring media involvement. Through globalization, popular and frequently repeated ideas and thoughts become more and more socially accepted. As Central and Eastern Europe has come to the attention of the Western world, the stronger the condemnation of the racism that is occurring will be felt by its citizens. The production of information at a rapid pace that reaches all corners of the earth and people of all nations is pushing us into an era of a media-fueled international social sphere.

Geneva M.H. Fink is a Master’s degree student of Cultural Sociology

This post was written in conjunction with the master’s sociology course “Writing Sociology,” at the Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University, taught by B. Nadya Jaworsky.

 

References

Clark, D. “Net Migration in Selected European Countries 2020.” Statista, July 9, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/686124/net-migration-selected-european-countries/.

Ohia, Margaret Amaka. “Racism in Public Discourse in Poland. A Preliminary Analysis 1.” University of Warsaw: American Studies Center, November 30, 2016. https://www.asc.uw.edu.pl/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/RACISM-IN-PUBLIC-DISCOURSE-IN-POLAND.-A-PRELIMINARY-ANALYSIS.pdf.

Pędziwiatr, Konrad, and Bolaji Balogun. “Poland: Sub-Saharan Africans and the Struggle for Acceptance.” Essay. In Minority and Indigenous Trends 2018: Focus on Migration and Displacement, 85–88. London, United Kingdom: Minority Rights Group International, 2018.

“Population: Demographic Situation, Languages and Religions.” Eurydice – European Commission, January 18, 2022. https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-policies/eurydice/content/population-demographic-situation-languages-and-religions-56_en.

Suttie, J. (2021, February 3). People in more diverse countries are less prejudiced. Greater Good. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/people_in_more_diverse_countries_are_less_prejudiced

Zaru, Deena. “Europe’s Unified Welcome of Ukrainian Refugees Exposes ‚Double Standard‘ for Nonwhite Asylum Seekers: Experts.” ABC News. ABC News Network, March 8, 2022. https://abcnews.go.com/International/europes-unified-ukrainian-refugees-exposes-double-standard-nonwhite/story?id=83251970.

Zaru, Deena. “Many Nonwhite Refugees Fleeing Ukraine Caught in Limbo at Borders amid Reports of Discrimination.” ABC News. ABC News Network, March 3, 2022. https://abcnews.go.com/International/nonwhite-refugees-fleeing-ukraine-caught-theyre-limbo-borders/story?id=83211545.

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