I Learnt Polish to Stand up to Harassment
For me, “dis-othering” is a process, aimed at altering the perceptions, way of thinking and behavior of people toward those who stand out in one way or another in a particular community. In my case, the reason for being considered “other” was the color of my skin, my African origin. I have been through most of the stages and states of this phenomenon, both internally (how I felt about myself) and externally (how other people saw me). Having arrived with my “black” hang-ups and being confronted with xenophobia and racism from the start, I finally came to realize my own worth, to celebrate my identity and share it with those around me.
I was born in the Cuanza Norte province of Angola in 1986, in a large family that enjoyed a respected position in our small community. Following the outbreak of civil war in 1991, our entire family fled to Luanda, where we were staying in a rented room in a house that belonged to my mother’s uncle. We felt discriminated against in that place. Among the “asimilados” – the people who spoke almost-native Portuguese, wore European clothes and behaved like Europeans- we were “peasants”.
Our situation changed radically only after the return of my father, who had been studying in Cuba, where he spent 11 years in total. In 1999, he came to Poland on his first diplomatic mission, which gave us all a chance to live in Europe – this was a dream for many Angolese. The year we left for Poland, I was thirteen.
The first shock we experienced in the country was the temperature of minus 30 degrees Celsius, but the second shock – and much more difficult to cope with – was the daily contact with discrimination, intolerance and the ignorance of Polish people.
We found ourselves having to constantly prove that “black” people are not by nature less intelligent (as the biologist and Nobel Prize winner James Watson claimed), that we are not all thieves, who only come here to obtain citizenship at any cost, for example through a fictitious marriage or by getting pregnant. Our goal was to gain a better and higher education than would have been available to us in Angola, and then – go back to our homeland. My brothers and I had to face many other stereotypes about Africans – assumptions that we are best at sport and sex and that all of us, without exception, are brilliant dancers.
For me, injustice was the order of the day. For example, a policeman would stop me in the street, coldly snapping at me, “Documents!”, and take his time going through my personal data. He would even take the trouble to call my school to make sure that I really was a student there. I often saw ticket inspectors on buses start checking tickets of the “black” people first, and shop security guards would vigilantly watch every step of anyone “black”. What I have always found especially infuriating was that the people around did not react in any way when we were being directly attacked.
One day, my brother – who was a student of medicine at one of the medical high schools at the time – on his way back from the library on a bus, was attacked on in broad daylight by four big and burly men and seriously bashed about. Although blood was spilt, no-one at all reacted. Finally, someone called the police. The driver stopped the bus. The door opened. Three of the guys ran off. One fell over. Then the police arrived and, without asking any questions, handcuffed my brother and pushed him into the police car. On that occasion, two women, an older one and a young girl, did intervene. They kept shouting things like, “What kind of country are we living in?! This is an injustice!” The two women went to the police station to give their testimony. They were brave. We very much needed such brave people at that time. It gave us hope. I was at home with my mother, we knew nothing about what had happened. My brother was not allowed to make a phone call. When he got back home and we saw him, we started crying. I could not understand why there was so much hatred for us blacks – and this made me rebel inside very strongly.
In Angola, racism and sexism are also a big problem. The worst affliction of my compatriots is their inferiority complex toward whites and mixed-race people. For years, colonialists brainwashed them that “blacks” were inferior, less intelligent and fit only for physical work. “White” is the only color to be if you want to have power. “Mixed-race” is the color of a better future. and this is why both men and women are still ashamed of their nature; they wear wigs, use chemical hair straighteners to get rid of their afro. They also whiten their skin; this is particularly popular in the Congos, Senegal and Mali.
All these pearls of “wisdom” are passed down the generations, to such an extent that many blacks discriminate against one another. People are turned down for jobs because of their skin being too dark or their nose being too African. The prevailing idea is that someone white or mixed-race will always find work.
The more often I heard in the street, “Go back to Africa, nigger!”, the more calmly and with a greater awareness, I responded, “I'm fine here and I'll stay here whether you like it or not.” At the same time, I felt a growing need to learn about my roots. I began distance-learning of my ethnic language and also to explore the history of traditional Angolan dances.
I have noticed a great change in how Poles treat me. sometimes they come up in the street and ask me in Polish for directions. In other words, there are now quite a few people who assume that black people speak Polish, so there is no need to start a conversation with a “hello” in English. In the street and in other public places, especially in Warsaw, Poles do respond strongly against racism – I have noticed great progress in that respect.
I do, however, observe a lot of other disturbing behavior. Many people are scared to open their mouth so as not to come over as racist. Poles don’t know how to refer to us: blacks, negroes, dark-skinned people? Among us Africans living in Poland there is no unanimity about this either – everybody is in favor of a different term. Some maintain that the word “Negro” denotes a slave. Others say that they are “brown” and not “black”. In educational institutions, teachers have no idea how to respond when one child rejects another because of their skin color. They imagine that they are being helpful by saying, “Just pretend you didn’t hear that”, “Never mind them”. When a child asks, “Why is this lady black?”, parents simply ignore the question. Or else they respond as if a bomb had been found on a tram. And some reply, “Stop talking like that! Don’t be stupid!” This is a big problem!
My personal paradox is that on the one hand I have come to feel at home in Poland, but on the other, I don’t feel a hundred percent safe here. Every day I am on the alert and keep my eyes peeled, just in case some coward decides to attack me. I am afraid that as long as the people who are in authority in Poland keep giving such example as we witnessed recently, things will not move forward. I would like one day to be able to go out on the street and celebrate Polish Independence Day with other Poles. The Angolese celebrate it on the very same day, with the difference that we regained our independence in 1975. For now, on November 11, I think twice before I leave the house. If I have to go out, I always use the car.
Why is this? I think that in that respect, education and intercultural competence in Poland are at a low level. The ideal solution would be to start with the youngest and introduce appropriate programs in kindergartens and nurseries. Children are open and are not born racist. In order to achieve the goal, however, we need training for parents and teachers to provide them with sound knowledge about multiculturality and interpersonal relationships. This is a must, because it is parents who educate children.
It seems to me that such omissions are one of the reasons why there is no integrated African diaspora in Poland. There is a generation of Africans who came to Poland some 30 or 40 years ago, who work here and have families. I was pleasantly surprised when I personally met some black doctors who work in the national health service, for example in the hospital in Madalińskiego Street and in the Children’s Memorial Health Institute (Centrum Zdrowia Dziecka) in Warsaw.
Most immigrants of my generation treat Poland as a transit country, as a stop on the journey to the places they dream about, such as France, Britain, Switzerland or the USA. Some of them achieve this goal, but all the rest carry on without any legal right to stay or a visa for their final destination country. The latter live in the conviction that there is no point in making yourself too cosy in Poland, learn the difficult language and study or work for temporary work, because they will soon be leaving, anyway. Often they remain in this kind of limbo for five or ten years, or even longer. Especially those Africans whose native language is English or French are the least interested in learning Polish, because today every other Pole speaks English.
Although from my point of view, there is no single, supportive African community in Poland, people from the same country – mainly students – do integrate. Sometimes they rent places together, and organize get-togethers where they prepare food and try to recreate the atmosphere of their homeland. For example, I have met up with student friends from Angola in Krakow to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve together.
Every year, most African embassies in Warsaw organize a party for diplomats and their communities on Independence Day and Africa Day. These are occasions to meet new people living in Poland. For a few years, there has been a shop in Warsaw with African foods and specialist accessories and skin and hair products. As far as nightlife goes, the Harenda club in Warsaw for more than a decade has had Saturday concerts with so-called black music – American with an African flavor.
But this is only a small step in encouraging people from African countries to come to settle in Poland for good, which would increase the size of the diaspora and help integration.
What helped me assimilate and deal with “de-othering”, was for sure the fact that I learnt Polish. I have learnt the language well enough that I can understand almost all the proverbs and jokes, even the silly ones. I must admit that, originally, my motivation was to be able to fend off racist incidents in the street. In time, I came to realize that my fluent knowledge of Polish enabled me to get deeper into Polish society, get to know Poles better and gain access to a wider labor market. This gave me the opportunity to achieve my ambitions and fulfil myself as a woman, foreigner and human being.
(c) Dúnia Pacheco
In time, I have discovered another language that I still use to communicate with Poles and not only Poles: dance. I began my dance career in Warsaw, running two regular dance courses a week, frequented by three to five women. The number gradually increased on a word-of-mouth basis. The women liked my physical expression and my self-confidence. To start with, this scared off the men, who thought I was “vulgar”. Today, men make up approximately forty per cent of all my students and they usually treat me with respect. I also know some people who come to my class only because they are interested in me and my culture.
My beginnings as a dance teacher were not easy. I was running a class in Angolese dance in the native language of my students. That was a challenge in itself! Why? Because in cultures, where dance and music are daily bread, there are certain idioms and terms that are not easily translatable into Polish. Another difficulty was to get my students to relax enough to move in a free, spontaneous and sexy way. The third difficulty was self-acceptance and confidence, or rather the lack thereof – this is a real bane of Polish women. Some of them think, “I am not going to be a dancer, anyway – I just want to have a good time”. But to enjoy yourself dancing and experience the real joy that stems from it, you need to know how. In countries such as Angola, the Congo, Brazil or Cuba, people start dancing very young – but not with any ambition to become a professional dancer or dance teacher. They dance because it makes them happy, satisfied, proud, gives them a sense of well-being and a positive attitude to life and other people. And this is – above all – what I am trying to teach my students.
I have been a dance teacher for eleven years. I visit various events in Poland and abroad, including the USA, Russia, Portugal, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania. During my classes, I try to share interesting snippets from Angola, to give the participants a sense of being in touch with a “living culture.” I explain the movements in depth, including their meaning and intention. I often even teach them how to pronounce words in my own ethnic language, Kimbundu. I try to evoke an Angolese atmosphere in the room, to show our Angolese attitude to music and dance. For example when we hear a song that we like, it is cool to start dancing no matter where we are at that moment – at home, in the street, at work. We can afford to be ourselves, be spontaneous, express ourselves. As far as I can see, people like it.
Sometimes my students confide to me that they used to be put off from singing or dancing by being told, “Stop it! What are you doing?!”, “You have no talent at all for singing...”, “Go and do something useful with yourself at last!” and so on. It is sad that something as natural and positive becomes something that “is not done”, that is frowned on socially and needs to be nipped in the bud. When sometimes my daughter and I happen to spontaneously start singing or dancing in the street, people at first stare at us but more and more often, their faces soon break into genuine smiles.
I have had many similar experiences and observations taken from life. This is why this year I began to share them on my fanpage. I also smuggle in various stories from Angola. It has turned out that many people read these stories with their children, parents or husbands. They say that they make them think and change the way that they look at many things.
Having spent almost twenty years in Poland, I feel almost at home here. I treat the difficult experiences as the stairs that I have had to climb to get where I am now. And I am in a place where I feel psychological harmony, pride in my roots, history and the color of my skin as well as in myself as a woman who is working on achieving her goals.
I don’t let anyone try to tell me that there is something not OK about me because I am a black woman and “different”. I have analysed my own formulaic thinking and modified it, which has enabled me to open up to people, but I continue to be against racism, sexism, xenophobia and all kinds of discrimination against people who are considered “different”. This does not, of course, mean that I do not ever judge others. this also happens to me sometimes, but I try very hard to make sure that my behavior follows the values that I believe in, and that I am not just governed by fear, anger or bad experiences in the past.
People often ask me why I am still in Poland, after all these experiences. And I ask them, “But why shouldn’t I be here?” There is more to life than racism. I have also met some fantastic people in Poland – what mattered to them was not my origin but what kind of person I was.
It was in Poland that I passed my entrance exam to high school and graduated from school. It was here that I got my MA in political science at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities. As I was working on my final thesis, I met a wonderful Polish guy, white. He enchanted me with his personality and that is why, without a moment’s hesitation, I unpacked my bags that were all ready for my flight to Angola and moved in with him. We got married in my home town in Angola. Today, we are a four person family, mixed in race and culture. We build and strengthen in our children the sense of their own identity and security. We take from Polish and Angolese culture things that fall in with our own values, we cultivate them and pass them on to our children.
There are no better or worse people. There are just those who use in a better or worse way the time that they have been given.
Translated from Polish by Anda MacBride
Dúnia Pacheco – dancer, dance instructor, activist, ambassador of Angolan culture in Poland and abroad. Since January 2014, together with her team, she has organized in Warsaw the first festival of contemporary African dances in Europe – the KuduroMania Festival. In 2013, she built and trained a multicultural team of 10 female dancers, whose successes include advancing to the semifinals of the fifth season of “Mam Talent.”.
For almost 11 years she has been conducting dance workshops all around Poland. She helps women develop their self-confidence, femininity, and sexuality. She also supports professional dancers and instructors to develop their skills in contemporary African dances, sharing with them not only her knowledge about dance but also about the cultures of Africa.
She has been invited to various cultural events in countries including the US, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Dunia graduated from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities majoring in international relations and political science.
* Cover photo: a still from a video of dance workshops by Dúnia Pacheco. Courtesy of the author.