“Don’t become racist in Poland,” My friend, JJ, says and he gives be a hug goodbye. After spending a fun night of hanging out with my friends, celebrating finishing finals and saying goodbye before our group spread out across 4 continents and 6 (depending on the day) countries. We were doing our final goodbyes and JJ says these words to me and I respond with a laugh, “Of course not.” And I’ll give you a spoiler alert, 2 months into living in Poland with 2 weeks to go, I’m not racist and I don’t think that’ll change in the next 2 weeks. I laughed it off when he said it to me, not really understanding the issues with racism in Poland at that point.
Today, a little over 3 months since that interaction, I understand where the concern comes from, not the me becoming racist concern, but the general racism concern. Here’s the thing about the Poland is their version of racism is different than racism in the U.S. In the U.S. it’s loud and in your face, there’s the fact that there was just a KKK rally recently, there’s the increased number of swastikas graffitied on buildings, there’s the attacks on Muslism wearing hijabs that have increased in the last 6 months, and so many more. In Poland, the racism is silent. The news isn’t litered with black men having been killed by white cops or immigrants’ houses been vandalized. The reason for this is Poland is 98.6% white.
Think about that for a second an entire country is 98.6% one color. If you’re wondering the U.S. is 72.4% white. It’s weird for me, mostly because I don’t notice it. At least not on a regular basis and part of that is that I’m white, but I don’t really think about the fact that in a week I could probably count the number of people of color I pass on the street. Occasionally I will notice it, like when I’m eating at an Asian restaurant and every single person, both eating there and working there is white. There are other times where I’ll be in a store or restaurant and they’ll have a confederate flag in some form or another hanging there, which isn’t a generally accepted practice in the U.S. or at least in the north. While, some may argue that the use of the flag in the south is a symbol of their heritage that same argument can’t be made in Poland, a place that had no involvement in the U.S. civil war.
Okay, so living in a country where pretty much everyone is the same color means it’s basically a homogenous society. That carries over to religion as well. I remember my first weekend here when all of the stores, including the whole mall, shut down for a Christian holiday and there was another one a few weeks later that gave me the day off and I couldn’t figure out why the entire city had shut down. The answer is pretty simple: 91% of the country is Roman Catholic. 91%. That’s not even just Christians, that’s Roman Catholics. For reference: 76% of Americans identified as Christians, 25.1% as Catholic in 2008. This struck me as very odd because before the Holocaust 10% of the population of Poland was Jewish.
Now, of course, when you kill 90% of the Jewish population that number is going to go down, but this isn’t just about the Jews. It’s about the fact that few people immigrate to Poland because Poland doesn’t want any immigrants. Yes, that’s a little bit cyclical because there have been many cases of racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamaphobia because there aren’t people of color, Jews, or Muslims here and people of color, Jews, and Muslims don’t want to come here because of the racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamaphobia. It’s a hard thing for be to reconsile in my head, because every person I’ve met here has been kind, but the lack of education about people that aren’t Polish or even aren’t European has allowed Poland to become a breeding ground for hate.
If all you take away from this is that Poland is a racist, uneducated country, don’t. It’s a great country with some great people. They don’t have the interactions with people that are different from them very often, so they don’t know. The look to countries, like the U.S., as examples. When they hear the President and high level government officials calling Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists, they can easily accept that because they likely have never had an interaction with a Mexican or a Muslim. So, what you take from this should be that we are examples to other countries and we should probably be doing a little bit of a better job at it.