Introduction | Dis-Othering: In Search of an African Diaspora in Warsaw
Then, at midnight I entered Poland. It was dark – dark not only in the smoke,
but in the soul of its people, who whispered in the night as we rode slowly
through the murk of the railway yards.
— W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto,” Jewish Currents, May 1952
In the nineteenth-century, Poland – a country that was to gradually disappear, temporarily, from the map of Europe – was back then punching above its weight in terms of solidarity with other peoples around the globe not favoured by history, to the point of the Poles earning themselves the compliment of being seen as “honorary Negroes” by the president of Haiti. “The White Negroes of Europe” – this phrase that Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of independent Haiti to describe the Polish people in recognition of their support for his country’s independence revolution in 1804.
Today, at a time when Poland is again thriving as a nation state, it is sometimes less astute in its intercultural affinity. The Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs recently committed a major gaffe by referring to a non-existent Latin American country – “San Escobar”. This incident caused much amusement and went viral on Twitter, with humorous responses that largely drew on stereotypes about Latin America, thus demonstrating the low intercultural awareness in Poland.
Nevertheless, in modern-day Poland – an ethnically monocultural country – “otherness” is not a matter of skin colour or colonial tradition, but rather one of class division, ever more pronounced after the post-capitalist transformation. Even following Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, and despite Poland’s full access to online information, Polishness continues to be defined by three factors: knowledge of the language, the Catholic faith, and ethnicity. This approach is favoured by Poland’s current government, with its two-faced immigration strategy.1 Poland is promoted as a “bulwark of Christianity”, but migrants from Syria or African countries are not welcome, despite the fact that of all the member states of the EU, it is Poland that has admitted the largest number of economic migrants.2 These new arrivals include not only the culturally close Ukrainians, but also Filipinos and Indians.3
Poland has never seriously succumbed to racism, perhaps due to a lack of opportunity. It has never had exotic colonies, and, after the fall of communism in 1989, the diminution in the number of technological, scientific and cultural exchanges with the “Global South” was not conducive to creating a coherent stereotype of a foreigner, let alone one based on skin colour – despite the fact that the number of foreigners has steadily increased over the last 30 years. In this monocultural society, largely based on agriculture, the fight for equitable redistribution has played itself out in negotiating the role and privileges of the urban intelligentsia, the Catholic Church, and international corporations. Since 2010, the internal class conflict in Poland has been subsumed by Polish political divisions, embodied in the symbolic discord over the Smoleńsk air crash. In Poland, divisions into “us” and “them” do not follow predictable criteria such as ethnicity.
With the African diaspora in mind – as well as the concept of “dis-othering” as proposed by Antonia Alampi and Bonaventure Ndikung – Warsaw and all the cities of Poland differ in their post-war monocultural make-up from the other partner cities taking part in the project. This creates a lack of understanding of other cultures and a vulnerability to the media manipulation thereof. Thus, paradoxically, Polish society – one of the least racist of all those engaged in the project – is now in danger, due to this lack of exposure, of being manipulated by the policies of fear and Islamophobia whipped up by the current government. In the 2019 election campaign, the migration issue was superseded by the supposed threat posed by the LGBTQ community – just like that supposedly posed by “multikulti” – another issue presented as “aping the West” and thus a form of cultural colonisation. The populist governments in the region call for the regaining of cultural, political, and regional sovereignty, as well as “ethnic homogeneity”. Will this really prove a vote winner?
This “anti-multikulti” stance does not fall on particularly fertile ground in Poland, where EU funds, freedom to travel, and being part of the “Western club” are highly valued. Poles are therefore more invested in European projects than are Germans – not to mention the British. Polish enthusiasm for democracy – approved by 66% of the population in a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center – is higher than the European average of only 39%. Popular support for the ruling right-wing party stems not so much from any enthusiasm for “national socialism”, as from the economic incentives provided by the government.4
Poles are open towards other cultures – having experienced mass exposure to it in the many European cities in which they have found themselves as economic migrants – unlike their backward government, whose attitude to people of colour can be jocularly described as “bambomental” – a term proposed by the artist Mamadou Diouf, who has promoted African culture in Warsaw. In Poland, many classical works of Polish children’s literature, still on the school curriculum, reflect the patronisation and infantilisation of Africans. The limited image of Africa that Poles have does not reflect their cultural or economic aspirations, so they are sceptical about seeing Africa as the continent where a future or civilisational model is to be sought.
In communist Poland, there was a trend to be open to the Global South, launched with the World Festival of Youth in Warsaw in 1955 and later followed by the admission of African students to Polish higher education, and an enthusiasm for Latin American literature. Nevertheless, during the communist era, Poles did not travel much to the West, and it was only EU accession that changed that. More recently, the World Congress of Catholic Youth in Krakow in 2016 saw numerous visitors from other continents received enthusiastically in the country. And let’s also mention the fascinating case of the exorcist priest, John Bashobora from Uganda, who became a household name in Poland, wowing crowds and the media with his mass rituals. On that occasion, religion removed the cultural barriers between Poland and Africa in a uniquely Polish phenomenon.5
Africans represent less than 1% of the Polish population of 38 million. Today, Poles are most favourably disposed towards Western Europeans, and least favourably disposed towards Roma and inhabitants of the Middle East, with Africans and Asians somewhere in-between. According to recent polls, two out of three Poles are happy for an African to settle in Poland, with 50% ready to accept him as a friend, family doctor, or teacher; 30% would acquiesce in their child marrying an African.6
In 1949, the Pan-Africanist activist W.E.B. Du Bois visited the ruined Warsaw and wrote his article The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto (1952),7 in which he redefined the “colour-line”, taking into account the Jewish question, in which racial discrimination was not based on any radical difference in appearance between the oppressor and the oppressed. In the next issue of Obieg, we draw on Du Bois’ gesture that redefined Pan-Africanism, as we return to the African diaspora to explore how the project Dis-Othering shows the perception of Africa in Warsaw, represented there by a community of activists, NGOs and artists, who clearly articulate their culture. Dis-Othering has been born out of opposition to the creation of otherness and driven by the opposite motivation: a curiosity about, and a desire to explore, other cultures. Our first issue, Dakar: Art Afropolis (summer 2016), was only possible thanks to the kind collaboration of Koyo Kouoh, Fatou Kandé Senghor, Joanna Grabski, and all the contributors and supporters of Obieg. Our next issue will close the circle. We have invited contributors from the African diaspora to take part, along with others who have worked closely with the community, such as artists, sociologists and researchers. As part of the project Dis-Othering, two research residencies were put in place, and we will also be publishing their findings. In September, we hosted Joanna Grabski from Arizona State University, and Johny Pitts from afropean.com, in London. Pitts explored W.E.B. Du Bois’ journey to the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1949 and its impact on African-American intellectuals. Joanna Grabski researched the specificity of place in Warsaw to explore contemporary artistic projects in relation to diaspora, mobility, nationalism, and art-world globalisation. This next issue will also feature texts by Maja ∀. Ngom, Dúnia Pacheco, Aleksandra Winiarska, Mamadou Diouf, Przemysław Strożek, Paweł Średziński, and Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa.
Today, at a time when borders are closing rather than opening, when we have become preoccupied with safety, and the language of art has become standardised, we are all the more keen to explore the themes that are part of the discourse, bringing into the reflection in Poland on contemporary art the kind of phenomena that have until now had only had limited exposure. We turn our attention to other regions of the globe to give exposure to different cultural viewpoints outside the Euro-Atlantic core. In Poland, the geographic heart of the European continent, we are in a singular position to do so.8
Translated from Polish by Anda MacBride
* Cover photo: Muranów district in Warsaw (1946). Americans, representatives of the Joint, walk through the ruins of the ghetto. The photograph comes from the collection of the E. Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
 Makana Eyre & Martin Goillandeau, “Poland’s Two-Faced Immigration Strategy”, Politico [online], 6 June 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/poland-two-faced-immigration-strategy-ukraine-migrants/ [accessed: 6 December 2019].
 “Polish Support for EU Booming Despite Clashes with Brussels”, Euronews [online], 16 May 2019. https://www.euronews.com/2019/05/16/polish-support-for-eu-booming-despite-clashes-with-brussels [accessed: 6 December 2019].
 Daniel Tilles, “In 2018 Poland Issued More Residence Permits to Non-EU immigrants than any other member state – again”, Notes from Poland [online], 27 October 2019, https://notesfrompoland.com/2019/10/27/in-2018-poland-issued-more-residence-permits-to-non-eu-immigrants-than-any-other-member-state-again/ [accessed: 6 December 2019].
 Przemysław Sadura & Sławomir Sierakowski, “The Political Cynicism of Poles, a Sociological Research Report”, Krytyka [online] (17 September 2019): https://krytykapolityczna.pl/kraj/polityczny-cynizm-polakow-raport-z-badan-socjologicznych/ [in Polish; accessed: 6 December 2019].
 Paweł Średziński, Afryka i jej mieszkańcy w polskich mediach, Jak mówić i pisać o Afryce? Warsaw: 2011, pp. 21–22.
 Africans in Poland, Research into Combating Discrimination. Report on, and Analysis of, the Statistical Data for the “Afryka Inaczej” Foundation, Warsaw 2015. http://afryka.org/download/raport2015/prezentacja.pdf [accessed: 6 December 2019].
 W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto”, Jewish Life (now Jewish Currents), May 1952, pp. 14–15.