AiW Guest: Margaret Amaka Ohia
AiW Guest Katarzyna Kubin continues her series examining the relationship between Africa and Eastern/Central Europe, with this guest piece by Margaret Amaka Ohia.
My studies of discursive representations of Black people in the Polish language employ a critical, applied research methodology, which requires that the researcher be a part of the discourse he or she studies and, moreover, represents a social group that experiences discursive oppression. I am the daughter of a Polish woman and a Nigerian man; I have lived in Poland practically all my life, and, as such, I both create the discourse and am its subject. I experience the discourse on my own skin. Throughout my childhood, most Poles (especially other children) used to call me “Negro” (pol. “Murzynek Bambo,” which literally translates into “Little Negro Boy, Bambo”). Today, other adults call me names like “Negresse,” “mulatto,” and “chocolate.” In their minds, most certainly, these words are not intended to offend me, but are meant simply to describe me.
In my studies I make reference to my personal experiences, to incidents of discrimination and to overheard speech, which was directed at my person, but the speaker thinking I didn’t hear or assuming I would not understand since, as a Black person, I must not be Polish and surely do not speak Polish. Such a personalized approach to academic research is still not considered “serious” in Poland, where “objectivity,” “neutrality” and “scientific description” are considered the standard in the social sciences. I, however, consider that exposing the inherent prejudice in the Polish language requires precisely the perspective of a Black person. My sense of social identity as a Black Polish woman was constructed in a large part based on my ethnic background, and my personal identity has been importantly shaped by experiences of racism.
Such attitudes toward people of African background in Poland, as I describe above, were influenced by colonial and postcolonial thinking, as well as by a particular approach to the “other” which is unique to relatively ethnically homogeneous countries such as Poland. The history of such attitudes can be traced through Polish history in the 20th century. Until 1945 Black people were exoticized, portrayed as people hailing from a different, unknown world, and who need to be civilized. In the period after World War II and into the 1970’s, this colonial attitude persisted, but in a nuanced form as “solidarity with countries under the pressure of imperialism.” The newly forming African countries were described as incapable of developing independently, but as a socialist state, Poland declared its opposition to colonization in Africa (e.g. by organizing vigils and protests), also in the form of hosting national delegations from the new African states, pursuing bilateral diplomatic relations, and through economic and political cooperation [editor’s note: about similar relations between Romania and African states at that time, see the piece by Iolanda Vasile]. In later years, Poland offered scholarships to students from countries such as Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Ethiopia, Sudan, Congo, and Morocco [editor’s note: more about this see the piece by Mamadou Diouf]. Such activities in the period between 1945 and into the 1990’s were a kind of propaganda that aimed to increase Soviet influence on the continent of Africa through communist countries affiliated with the Soviet Bloc. During this period, everyday contact between Poles and Black people was still limited. Africans were present only within the official sphere (i.e. conferences, diplomatic exchanges). The Africans who came to study in Poland mostly returned to their countries of origin after their studies.
Subsequently, during the 1970’s, the contemporary Polish sociologist, Sławomir Łodziński, posits that social minorities in Poland came to be seen by the majority of Poles in nostalgic terms, as symbols of a bygone era when Poland and Lithuania were a untied, multinational state (i.e. the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). They were seen as folkloric specimens, outside of a common historical narrative, and not as equal citizens of a contemporary state and a common, diverse society. During this period, minorities in Poland (as social groups and in the discursive sense) were pushed out of the collective imaginary, uprooted from Polish history and society.
After 1989, in the age of globalization, a new discourse began to dominate in Poland, which was modeled after the “West.” A sense of common purpose strengthened relations among citizens of Eastern and Central European countries, partly around a commonly perceived need to “catch up” to the “West” by “developing,” broadly understood in terms of the economy, the cultural and social norms, democratic political institutions, etc. In Poland, the sense that the country was “less developed” and a “backwards East” was transferred into a reaction against those individuals and social groups who were perceived to have lower status, particularly “Negros” (pol. Murzyni) and those from countries East of Poland, who were collectively termed “Ruscy” (a pejorative term for “Russian”).
These dynamics are still present today: everyday Polish language constitutes a discourse characterized by this compensatory mechanism. When the status of Poland and Poles is perceived as low, it can always be improved by discursively contrasting it with “Negros” and “Ruscy” who are perpetually perceived as lower status. Still, perceptions of Africans are particularly negative. Examples of how Black people are portrayed in everyday Polish language can be found in a range of discourses:
- In “high” literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, for example: Letters from Africa and In Desert and Wilderness by the Nobel Prize laureate, Henryk Sienkiewicz, and the children’s rhyme “Murzynek Bambo” (“The Negro Boy, Bambo”) by Julian Tuwim;
- In colloquial expressions, for example: “a civilized Negro” (i.e. a paternalizing and ironic expression meant to underline a contrast between the two words), “to treat someone like a Negro” (i.e. poorly, unfairly, to cheat someone), “dumb as a Negro,” “to do something like a Negro would” (i.e. to do something illegally);
- In idioms, such as: “It’s a waste to try to whiten a Negro,” “Even after a hundred washes, a Negro stays a Negro,” “Water won’t help a Negro.”
Such discourse creates a particular image of Black people or, rather, a precise image associated with the term “Murzyn”/”Negro.” Although the term is increasingly seen as controversial, it continues to serve as a generally accepted neutral description for Black people.
My research on the discourse around Black people in Poland focuses both on the level of everyday language and on the level of media discourse. In everyday Polish language practices, the binary of White people-Black people is superimposed over the binary of us-them. Despite having no history of colonialism in Africa and despite a general lack of exposure to Africans or people of African background among the great majority of Polish people, racial prejudice is deeply rooted in everyday language practices. For example, Polish speakers are often genuinely unaware of the racially charged content of their speech when (in my presence) they use expressions such as: “It’s as dark as a Negro’s ass.” In colloquial Polish, the habit of associating Black people with specific characteristics (including physical, intellectual, emotional, social, cultural) is not always explicitly articulated. Prejudice is often hidden inside common expressions by virtue of the fact that they have a generally neutral, or even positive, meaning. The term “Murzyn” is the best example. The word actively reproduces stereotypes (e.g. as a metaphor for the exploited labourer, inferiority or dirtiness), but it also cloaks the prejudice, not least by virtue of the fact that the Universal Polish Dictionary defines the term as follows: “‘Murzyn’ is a person belonging to the black race”. At the same time, the term tends to be rejected by Black people who speak Polish, and a growing number of Polish linguists argue against the word’s assumed neutrality.
Media discourse regarding Black people in Poland is quite different. It is largely a construct, employing communication strategies that are rare in everyday Polish language. Media discourse resorts primarily to stereotypes about Black people, which are consequently broadly disseminated and dominate in the public debate. The media not only spread prejudice against Black people, but also lend such attitudes credibility via the authority of symbolic elites (e.g. individuals and social groups whose high social status is founded upon academic titles, political positions, etc.). The stereotypes and prejudice in media discourse are also consistent with popular ideas about the “other,” “foreigners,” and categories of moral evil, social deviation, and threats to basic values of the Polish nation. For example, it is common practice to “racialize” non-white protagonists in daily news bulletins by associating their images with specific types of, usually negative, situations (e.g. crime, social problems). Individual Black people are often presented in the media as representative of Black people in general, serving as an example (tokenization) or as a symbolic figure (mythologization). Media discourse in Poland has been documented to associate Black men with images of, e.g. sports, aggression, exceptional sexual endowment, as carriers of the HIV virus. Black women are often associated with beauty, but of a “wild” and/or erotic type. Such discursive practices are especially problematic given that Black people as a group do not have a significant presence in Polish society (i.e. neither as a legally recognized minority, nor a statistically large group). Through such discursive practices, the constructed image of individual cases of Black people comes to dominate the Polish imaginary as a general representation of Black people. At the same time, Black people figure clearly and consistently outside the context of the banal, everyday, norm.
The above reflections and comments are among the most significant results of my studies on the discourse about Black people in Poland. I offer a more in-depth analysis of how racism manifests in the Polish language in my doctoral dissertation, which is planned to be published as a book in both Polish and English. I consider these issues to be dramatically understudied in Poland, and so urgently requiring further attention. I look forward to pursuing further research in this field.
Translated from Polish by: K. Kubin
This piece is part of a series curated by Katarzyna Kubin for Africa in Words.
Margaret Amaka Ohia is a linguist and a critical media analyst. Her research draws on methods from pragmatics, critical discourse analysis, cognitive linguistics, media studies, and race and ethnic studies. In 2015 she received her PhD in linguistics from the University of Wroclaw in Poland. Her dissertation, titled “Manifestations of Racism in the Polish Language. The Mechanisms of Language System, Text and Discourse,” explores linguistic representations of Black people in Polish everyday language and media discourse. She conducted her PhD research at the University of California, Berkeley as a Fulbright Fellow, and at the City University London. She is currently an Independent Fellow affiliated with the European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016 Festival Centre and the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research SIETAR. She is a huge fan of work by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
 I lived in Nigeria for the first three years of my life before starting school.
 “Murzynek Bambo” is the title of a popular children’s rhyme, originally published in 1935, written by a canonical Polish poet, Julian Tuwin. The poem tells the story of a day in the life of a small African boy, named Bambo, living in an unspecified place in Africa. The rhyme is deeply engrained in the Polish collective imaginary.
 See: Codogni P., (2010), “Africans in Warsaw 1954-1975,” In: P. Średziński, M. Diouf (eds.), Africa in Warsaw: The History of the African Diaspora on the Vistula, Warsaw: Foundation “Africa Another Way,” pp. 114-130.
 See: Łodziński, S., (2010), “State Policies Toward National and Ethnic Minorities in Poland in the period 1945-2008,” In: S. Dudra, B. Nitschke (eds.), National and Ethnic Minorities in Poland After World War II: Selected Elements of State Policies [pol: Polityka wobec mniejszości narodowych i etnicznych w Polsce w latach 1945–2008 In: Mniejszości narodowe i etniczne w Polsce po II wojnie światowej. Wybrane elementy polityki państwa], Cracow: Zakład Wydawniczy NOMOS, pp. 13-34.
 Universal Polish Dictionary, (2003), Warsaw: Polish Academy Publishers (PWN).
 For details, see: Łaziński, M., (2014), “More About the Word Negro and About Stereotypes: After reading Margaret Ohia’s article Mechanisms of Racial Discrimination in the Polish Language System” [“Jeszcze o słowie Murzyn i o stereotypach. Po lekturze artykułu Margaret Ohii Mechanizmy dyskryminacji rasowej w systemie języka polskiego, Przegląd Humanistyczny”], Humanistic Review, 5(446): 127 – 141.