I understand that being brought up in Poland does not make me an expert on interpersonal relations. However, I have never come across so many negative feelings with relation to people of various colour until after I moved out from my family home (‘moved out’ is an understatement, my parents bought me a one-way ticket); actually not even then because I deliberately sheltered myself from all the unwanted negativity. Now that I have much more contact with Americans and I am exposed to what some of them are sharing on social media, I am surprised to see how many issues people have with regards to someone’s colour. Every day, day in and day out, scrolling through my Facebook page I see more and more articles or rants, against people who are classified normally as Caucasians, and attempts to prove that non-Caucasian people, notably those of African origin are more superior. Sadly the majority of those come from a relatively small number of people. Every article has a huge title such as: “This black man made millions”, “This black woman proved to be the best mother”… What is happening? Isn’t he a man and she a mother, full stop? This already pushes me to the point where I am almost fuming and I am struggling to control myself here. I don’t want this to become a rant, but simply, hopefully with not too many emotions involved, I can present my point of view, because I am tired of answering the same type of questions more than fifty times. I am writing this also for myself, so if someone asks me the same question again, I will just direct them here and won’t have to waste my breath.
My dad is Nigerian as well as Polish by citizenship. I do not know if he feels Polish, but living in that country certainly has influenced him so much that he is probably less Nigerian these days that he would be willing to admit. My mum is a Polish Caucasian so that makes me what? Mix-raced. Bingo. Apparently this word does not exist in American English dictionary, which I was very surprised to discover. First question first, have I experienced racism in Poland? Erm, let’s think, I was the only mix-raced girl at school, until my siblings entered mainstream educational system, and there was probably another, according to my memory, mixed family in the same city. I stopped here for a bit, because I really want to give you an honest answer. Have I been, perhaps this way, subjected to incidents of bullying that involved reference to my colour – yes! Uff, what was easier. Why am I struggling to answer this question? Because for the first time in my life I am deliberately looking at myself in terms of colour. Also perhaps because, honestly, I don’t see my colour. “What colour?” I would probably ask looking at myself in the mirror – ah yes, nice shade, so what?
I can count those types of incidents on the fingers of my hand. Once when I was very little I walked with my mum and two or something, can’t remember, girls were looking at me, laughing, pointing fingers whereas their mother tried to calm them down, red-faced (I remember that because I felt sorry to her), looking at my mum with pleading eyes, while my mum was absolutely beside herself. I didn’t understand why they were laughing, I know it wasn’t nice, but to be honest, they could have as well laughed because of my hair. If I showed you pictures from my early childhood you would have understood why I said that. I looked like Mickey Mouse. I am dead honest. My mum didn’t know what to do with my hair, which only became less frizzy with age, and combed it every day (which was very painful, bless her) and tied two, what I presume were supposed to be, pony tails either of which stood up over each ear, bushy and frugal, not willing to dangle. I am laughing at myself thinking about it. Let’s face it, there could have been more than one reason for explaining their behaviour.
Another incident I remember took place at school when one of the much older boys pushed me calling me names. Again, older guys did it to many kids, so one could argue that if you want to pick on someone you can always find a thing or two and just, as the Americans say, ‘roll’. I think the third incident that I remember was when some Neo-Nazis approached me when I was having lunch with few girls from the English Summer Program calling me names, but in all honesty, I didn’t notice anything until the girls pulled me telling me that we needed to go. Somehow people tended to take more offense than me.
So the three incidents, which of course I can remember, are: Mickey Mouse, bullying at school and a group of Neo-Nazis. Frankly I was more hurt by my neighbour making comments about me having a bath naked when I was around three or four years old. I refused to bathe naked and my mum couldn’t understand why I suddenly made that decision. This is really hardly a sample worth looking at. As a way of comparison, I was always ‘the’ kid at school. Everyone always knew who I was, for obvious reasons, but also because I was best at sport, outrunning all boys during PE classes, participating in handball tournaments and winning medals, and… beating the living soul out of all boys. It would be hard for them not to remember me while licking wounds.
If this wasn’t enough, our class figured in the 1st place on the library board that measured the number of books read by each class. Our bar broke the designated space and just kept growing with me contributing to 95% of books read. Soon there were no books in the library that I haven’t read and I just spent time there re-reading everything I could and that I had found interesting the first time. My best friend for many years was a boy who was a skin-head and who then turned into a Neo-Nazi. Few years ago, the local newspapers wrote that he hanged himself somewhere in France probably as a result of involvement with organised crime. I wrote homework for the kids and they paid me in cash. Basically the list is endless. There are many reasons why everyone knew me. I was also known for coming up with inventive ways to undertake trading activity. Basically, our not so distant, but not that close family used to have a bakery, which they completely ruined and this was not because of me. Just before some kind of Catholic festival I walked home with few loaves of bread from that bakery, which I didn’t of course have to pay for, when the nun that taught me at school (religious education was then compulsory in Poland) asked if she could buy them off me because she didn’t have time to travel far and there was no bread left in the area. I told her that there was no problem whatsoever and that gave me a brilliant idea of asking other nuns at the convent if they needed any bread and, if yes, how many loaves they wanted to buy. I became the middle man. What I didn’t know then is that you are supposed to pay the supplier as well… so while the business was great for me, it didn’t go unnoticed that suddenly my mum and I began consuming an unusual amount of bread on weekly basis. Of course my aunt called my mum, my mum punished me and I was told not to involve in any economically beneficial activity till the day I die. It was a very sad day for me.
But, back to the subject matter here, suddenly it came to me as a surprise that people began looking very strangely at me, especially men. I had absolutely no idea why that happened until after probably a year or so I noticed that I could do anything, say anything and they would just simply comply. I asked my mum about this crazy phenomenon and she answered that it was because I turned into a beautiful girl. I actually thought that my mum at that point lost her mind. I believed her when, quite innocently, at that stage I started wearing very tight jeans and tops with very low cleavage, no back and suddenly I noticed men stopped looking at my face and more than frequently tripped over their own feet. Of course I exploited the new situation and the sense of power overwhelmed me. I haven’t since then heard anyone calling me ‘black’ as if it was an offense. However, the situation didn’t certainly change only because I grew breasts.
Before these developments I learned many things, especially when my little siblings arrived. I had someone that needed me, depended on me and I had no time to be preoccupied with my issues. My brother is 10 years younger than me and my sister is 12 younger. Suddenly I had a family and I didn’t need anyone else. I became myself by not trying to please anyone at school. I read and read, and read and luckily my choice of literature included that speaking of self-worth, integrity, independence and what was most important in life. I enjoyed sitting by myself, mostly because boys were too afraid to sit with me and girls hated me with great fervour. I went to 6th Form school (high school) and had only one friend, which was enough for me. Actually two, but I spent more time with one.
So when previously I said that no one has ever called me ‘black’ I should probably add ‘and it didn’t bother me’. I noticed this when back in primary school we read a children’s story about a little African boy called ‘Murzynek Bambo’, where basically the poem went on to say that he was black because he didn’t like taking a bath, and one of the kids said something along those lines that if I washed I would be like them. I answered “Why would I want that?”. He said: “Because you’re black”. I answered with a question: “So?” And he didn’t answer.
I slowly began realising that people saw me only in the way that I saw myself. Of course I didn’t have that thought as conceptualised as I have now. The ‘so?’ answer became a weapon and soon again I stopped noticing any antagonism. Most of the time I attributed it to the fact that I was generally a very smart student with lot of independence and, if needed, I was rude forcing other kids to distance themselves before they tried saying anything stupid. I didn’t try having friends and so obviously I was an outsider, but to say that I was an outsider because of my colour would be inaccurate; mostly I became an outsider because I just physically had no time for friends. I had so many extracurricular activities that all I was left with was my family and, once my siblings started growing, that was all I wanted; apart from one girl, who as I mentioned was my friend, apparently, according to my mum, with not such a good influence on me.
Here I will take a break from this self-centred talk and give you an example of my siblings. My brother is much more sensitive than my sister. He really suffered when kids called him ‘black’. They all played together, but of course kids always have to pick on something, so one boy had a crooked nose, one had large glasses, one smelled and my brother was ‘black’. He always tried to fit in until the incident that took place at the time when he was around 7 years old and he came back from the outside crying and telling my mum and me that children call him names. Both my mum and I hovered over him, cuddled him, fed him and comforted him as much as we could. My sister on the contrary ate her dinner quietly, impartial, looking at us indifferently and at him with strange pity. At some point, I think she just got bored of all the ‘oyvavoying’, she exploded: “So what? Black is black, everyone can see you, there is no need to get offended!!” Everyone was on the floor laughing their heads off including my brother. When my line was ‘so?’ and hers was ‘so what?’ – his became what she said that day. My sister never suffered any heartache inflicted by people who wanted to make her feel worse because of her looks. She always knew that she was the ‘one and only’ and understood that how she looked only worked for her benefit.
Soon after I moved to Britain and noticed much more negative interaction between people of varied colour, but I think it had a lot to do with different cultures living in very close proximity. What irritated me beyond everything else was that I was immediately ‘claimed’ by people of African origin, my cousins and their friends. I was told that I was not Polish, what my mum gave me as upbringing was insufficient for a ‘black’ girl, I was and should feel African, I should dress like an African and marry someone who was African. Because I was African and I had my colour to prove it. I fumed then and I fume now. I told them to go and abuse someone else. I was and am brought up as a Pole, I received the best possible upbringing from my mum and then also from my dad, I breathe as a Pole, talk like a Pole and behave like a Pole and if someone doesn’t believe that they should ask any Israeli here; by the virtue of so many Polish and Russian Jews migrating here, they know.
I do not feel African. I do not behave African and I am certainly not one. It pees me off, literally, if someone complements me saying that, for example, my writing is very good, that is, for a person of African origin. What is, on earth, this supposed to mean? I haven’t even once been to Africa, living in Israel is the closest ever that I have been to that continent, the only African upbringing I received was a strong and heavy father’s hand and an African first name. Both of my siblings also have African names. My dad, bless him, tried to imprint some kind of sense of belonging on us. I have experienced more antagonism from black people than from other minorities in Britain and certainly none from Caucasians. Very often I heard them making comments against not only me, but also my family, as if we were some kind of half-caste. People really have no respect whatsoever for anything that challenges them and makes them feel insecure. I was suddenly classified as ‘black’ even though all my life I was ‘me’ and I was Polish. My dad was proclaimed to be a ‘traitor’ for marrying ‘out’ and ‘contaminating’ African blood. As if their blood was redder than ours.
Once I was reading articles as I sat on the London tube. That was many years ago when I still studied for my BA and the article was on slavery in the Northern America. The guy that sat next to me, unasked, told me to ‘read it well and remember it well’ because it was ‘my history’. My history? I snorted looking at him as if he just fell down from the moon. ‘Yes, you are black so it’s your history’. I am not even going to argue my case here, I have never heard anything more ignorant. I could say that all history is important because we learn from it. We try not to make the same mistakes. He openly disrespected me on public transport not only to my surprise, but also other passengers, making himself my father or at least someone whose opinion I should value. This was more that I was willing to take. Following several, unnerving attempts to tolerate some friends who were also of either African or Caribbean origin I just gave up. I didn’t want to be told who I was not, forced into clothes I wasn’t used to wearing and made to eat food that hurt my stomach. Equally I stopped socialising with Poles in London, but that was for another reason. Perhaps I will write about it at some point, too.
I refused to have my parents been looked down at as being ‘less’, my dad a ‘traitor’, my mum… you can only imagine and my siblings as half-caste. Never in my life have I experienced something of that sort in Poland – Poland! “That racist and xenophobic country!” Many would say and then tell me how I shouldn’t call myself Polish, because I am not one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not deluded, I still see and acknowledge the reality of a regular life in Poland, but for me, it was better to live there and not having people pointing fingers at me accusing me of some kind of weird betrayal I didn’t even know I ever committed. Now that I am in Israel I am surprised anyone is talking anything about racism, honestly. I have never seen such a diversified country that would be so open to people. One may say that some people are treated differently everywhere in the world, but I strongly believe that this is either because they don’t want to integrate, they feel inadequate, they don’t want to learn the language and thus they isolate themselves. My family made education of paramount importance in our lives. I can’t stress it enough. Education, education, education! If you are well-educated, keep investing in yourself, you are open to other people in a non-judgmental way without the concept of ‘self and other’, and you are proud of who you are, not resorting to thinking of yourself as ‘discriminated’, you won’t be. When someone approaches me and talks about how black he or she is – I switch off. There are things you can’t change. Either you see your strength in them and invest in other aspects of you which you can change, or your difference will be the only thing you resort to when you feel that like life isn’t treating you fairly. And this is sad. It’s not even worth space and time to write about.
Of course people tried to put me into that box, but people tried putting in my hundreds of boxes and I refused all them. So if you, whoever you are, allow that to happen and relate to yourself by what is written on your box, if you think of yourself as being inferior, you will be perceived like just ‘that’ by others because your composition will change to reflect how you see yourself. There is this American talk show, run by, I think, Trish. She used to have a show in Britain and I assume then she moved to the States. There was a girl whose parents were not happy with the fact that she didn’t want to behave ‘black’ and even changed her accent to speak like a Brit. I would salute this girl for learning a very difficult accent, that’s to start with. Secondly, I have no idea what does it exactly mean to ‘behave black’? I would love for someone to answer this question, because the only ‘black’ I can think is of is what the pop culture is selling and I wouldn’t be enormously happy to see my siblings, let alone children, act that way. I don’t think that girl refused the idea of being black per se, but I somehow think that she ventured to reject the classification that has been imposed on her only to make sure to behaved and thought in a certain way. There are millions of people with, what I often refer to, ‘slave mentality’. They yell that slavery has been abolished and now they are free, but really? They still think of themselves as inferior. The first thing they say is “I’m whatever the name is and I am black”. Who cares? Everyone can see it anyway. But by stating your colour you show that you don’t feel comfortable with yourself, that you feel inferior. Whenever people from Asia introduce themselves then don’t say that they are brown or yellow, though I know, that especially during the war, that’s how Americans classified them. The Asians classify themselves by the nationality or religion. Why then, only people of African origin persist on defining their colour? Oh, you’re offended now? Good, obviously I am making my point here. I will probably offend you even more. I prefer you are offended now and remember what I am saying so you won’t ask me the same question later.
I understand that somehow in the States race is a huge issue. I do not know the situation now, only historically, so I will not say much about it, but if people choose to put themselves into ‘ghettos’ (and I don’t mean physically) this will determine how they perceive their environment and how their environment perceives them.
Just stop, please. My dad is Nigerian and this is as much as I have on that end. How you look at me shows me how you think of yourself. The Poles see me as a Pole. The Jews think of me as a Jewess. Academics – a university graduate. Africans – black. Just get over it and over yourself. No one will treat you any better, if you think that you are under-privileged by the virtue of your looks. If you have some kind of insecurities, keep them to yourself – don’t project them on me. I have no issues with how I look, in fact if you asked me how I think I look, without false modesty I would tell you that I think I am bloody pretty. Unless this is how you can see me too, don’t talk to me (I mean you don’t have to agree that I am pretty, of course) because you are just simply wasting your time. I not only cannot, but I refuse to indulge your idea of me, which would reflect your insecurities. Look deeper into people. This is the only way you will encourage others to look deeper into you.
And I ranted. What can I do. I really didn’t intend to.
Oh and one more thing, my dad didn’t betray you. He simply married the best woman that ever walked upon the face of this earth and together they produced very smart and stunning, albeit extremely individualistic and difficult children, who are not prone to give into bullshit. My mum always told me that neither of them ever saw their colour and they are the happiest marriage I have seen. She told me never to even entertain a thought I dating someone who would see me in terms of my skin, because then he will never look deeper for other qualities. They are colour-blind and so am I. Deal with it.