Tag Archives: racism

Euro 2012 – a tale of two nations

Just a couple of weeks to go and the world’s attention is turning to the Euro 2012 Championships. Much of the press coverage from the UK has been negative, first focussing on the poor preparations of England’s training ground and recently on racism in both Polish and Ukrainian football. The BBC’s Panorama programme recently covered this in a lot more detail, trailing racism in both countries in the press with former England footballer Sol Campbell warning fans not to go to either Poland or Ukraine or risk ‘coming home in coffins’.

I’m a normal bloke who’s proud to have lived in one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world for most of his life, who’s been to enough games at Wembley and travelled half way around the world for the world cup in South Africa. I’ve also been to more than a few Polish football games in my time to boot. I can only tell you my impressions on the people of Poland and how they will welcome visitors and try to avoid sounding either like an apologist or a scaremonger.

Poland is an overwhelmingly white country. With most polls putting white Catholics at around 97% of the population there can be plenty of days when you don’t see anyone of any alternate nationality. I’ve seen racism too. As I documented in my blog ‘Welcome to Warsaw’ on previous occasions, I’ve seen a man make monkey noises at the substitution of a black player in a Legia Warszawa game. I’ve seen the white power symbol and SS twin lighting flashes scrawled on walls and worn on T-shirts. I’ve spoken with a half Nigerian girl who told me she’d been abused twice the 18 years she’d lived in Poland. This is a country in which overt nationalism and a racism we would find shocking can be found relatively easily – and it’s abhorrent. But the picture is more complex than the recent headlines and reports have credited.

Poland is a land of contrasts: Growing cosmopolitan cities surrounded by a countryside which can sometimes look and feel as if the last 100 years have passed it by unremarked. Young or old, religious or non-religious, educated or uneducated, those who have benefited from Poland’s quite stunning economic growth since it won its own freedom or those who haven’t – there are many polarised ends of the spectrum in Poland. For young uneducated Poles from the countryside and on the margins of Poland’s success since it won its freedom in 1989, the heady togetherness found in a mix of martial arts, tribal league team support, aggressive nationalism and fear of the outsider (driven by Poland’s unfortunate position as the cricket ball between Germany and Russia) can be powerfully seductive.

After the Allies carved Poland into an ethnically homogenous country at the end of the Second World War it lost forever the multiculturalism which had previously made it quite exceptional in Europe (with a population of some 3 million Jewish people, 10% of the population and many other ethnic mixes besides). Subsequent stoking of anti-Semitic feeling by successive Communist Governments led to the last few Jewish people
leaving for life abroad. A thousand years of relatively comparatively undisturbed Jewish life wiped out.

In the turbulence of Poland’s transformation in the early 90s the racist skinhead culture grew powerful as rampant inflation took hold and for many it looked like Poland would turn into an economic basket case like other former Communist occupied countries. That it didn’t is partly down to the work ethic and discipline of Poland’s people who worked desperately hard for a better life.

People like my friend Marcin. A guy who as a child was forced to stand in line to queue for bread before school. Who suffered deprivations most of us from the West can read about but not comprehend. A man who has built his own company up from the ground and is now enjoying the success of this hard work. For many professional Poles like Marcin the future is bright and the (occasional) racism found in Poland is both repellent and embarrassing. And yet, Marcin sits in the same football stands as those same men who wear white power beanies and polo shirts. From the same background, but with a different outlook on life.

Poland shouldn’t be afraid of the world’s attention. We should be glad the world is holding a mirror up to this wonderful country. Now let’s show the world its true reflection.

I say to someone from an ethnic minority wanting to join the 10 million plus visitors to Poland each year this summer, please come and visit us. This is a wonderful country and Polish hospitality is without equal. The national team’s supporters are not the same supporters of league games you’ll see on TV and in the press with all their virulent tribalism. They’re families, they’re hard working people who take pride in their country and want to show the world how much it has changes and how much potential it has. The Polish Government has taken the policing and security of this event extremely seriously – they know how important it is to Poland’s reputation. You should take the same care you’d take visiting
any unknown city as a tourist, but not more.

Which reminds me of my trip to South Africa for the World Cup. The UK media spent a lot of time talking about the rampant crime, terrifying HIV rates and extreme poverty in the run up to the football- saying some England fans were ‘virtually certain to die.’ But not one England fan was arrested or killed in that month. But proving the media wrong about South Africa doesn’t prove them wrong about Poland –  that’s up to everyone Polish person when kick off begins.

Poland has to show the world the success it has forged after so many years of oppression in its recent history. Poland has to give those within it who fear the world outside the chance to believe things should be different. That is what UEFA means when it talks about the power of football to change lives.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Poland, Racism, and Immigration

Now there’s a title that promises happy thoughts! Never fear, my faith in Polandian readers is great; I know you’re not just here to read about the charms of Polish girls or the spectacular rudeness of the mohair beret brigade. You can handle some searching socio-political comment, right? Hello… hello…

The other day I came across that rare thing, an English-language blog about a Pole living in the UK. It’s called the Happy Fieldhand (great title, great graphic) and it’s written by a very angry man who likes to say f*ck a lot. Living in a foreign country will do that to you anyway, but the thing that seems to really ring his bell is what he perceives as anti-Polish racism. I’m sure he’s got a point, although I think perhaps he’s a little hypersensitive about it. I’m not going to argue for one second that anti-Polish feeling doesn’t exist in the UK, of course it does. Move a million people from any one country to any other in a short space of time and the locals are going to be up in arms; it’s just human nature. Pretty much all the arguments about immigration are bogus. Are they sponging off our welfare system? Are they taking our jobs? Are they eating our swans? All completely irrelevant. Even if one million Poles arrived in the UK each carrying a brick of gold as a gift for their British neighbors people would still be resentful after a week or two. People are just made that way – tribal and suspicious of big groups of strangers.

Wonderful things mobs

What really interests me is the situation in Poland. Here are some statistics I stole from a much less lazy person who could be bothered to work them out:

Non-Polish nationals living in Poland

Government estimate 0.1% or 50,000 people

NGO estimate 5.2% or 2,000,000 people

Quite a gap between the, obviously, ludicrously low government estimate and the NGO International Migration Report estimate. I’d be willing to bet there are at least 50,000 Westerners (European and US) alone. And that doesn’t even begin to address the question of how many Russians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Vietnamese there are. The weird thing is that most Polish people are convinced they live in a homogenous nation with almost no immigrants. I suggest there are two reasons for this. Firstly the Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians etc. who make up the largest group are culturally very close to the Poles anyway, and many of them may have Polish roots or associations. Secondly the Westerners who live here also go largely unnoticed because they don’t cause any significant social problems (ie they’re ‘rich’) and because they are usually assumed to be tourists. I once pointed out that the most common question that a Pole will ask a foreigner is “Why did you come to Poland?” The question that almost always follows is “When are you going home?” The idea that somebody might deliberately come to live here is astonishing enough for the average Pole, the idea that somebody might be intending to stay here is utterly inconceivable.

Why am I banging on about this nonsense you ask? Because I wonder about two things:

1. When will Poles realize that large numbers of Westerners (not just Germans) are moving here for a better life, and what will they do about it when they do?

2. What will be the long-term effect on Poland of this influx?

I will search for answers with the utmost rigor and report back.

Other fun things written by me can be found on Wyspianski Unwinding

Tagged ,