On Peripheral Whiteness and Being Central Eastern European



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Silent march in honor of Arek Jozwik, a 40 year old Polish migrant worker murdered by English teenagers in Harlow town center on August 27, 2016. / Photo by Alan Denney on September 3, 2016.

Through three specific space-time cases considering ‘white’ Poles as racialized subjects, Kasia Narkowicz demonstrates how shades of whiteness are formed contextually. The urban outskirts of Stockholm in the 1990s, the space of the 2017 EU referendum in Britain, or the recent borderland separating Poland from Belarus and Ukraine are three distinct sets of conditions through which Polish proximity to Western European whiteness evolves from aspirational to effective.

Whiteness and Europeanness so starkly marks out Central Eastern European identity because at different times throughout our history the promise of being fully embraced as Europeans, with all that it grants, has been dangling in front of us as a carrot. And no matter how eagerly we have responded, implementing imposed shock therapies, voting almost unanimously to enter the European Union, or integrating as model migrants in Western Europe, it was never quite enough. But still, it harbored a promise of the possibility of being white enough that tipped us over in our solidarities, and we became the keen handmaidens of European white supremacy.

Being Eastern European in Sweden: 1992 ///

As Stuart Hall argued, race is a “floating signifier” (1997), which means that it is a marker of difference that is shifting and not stable. Within the racial divisions that still cloud our contemporary life, those from Eastern Europe have historically occupied a much more fragile position in relation to whiteness than our Western European white counterparts. But we have still been embraced, if conditionally, by whiteness.

The complexity of Central Eastern European whiteness has haunted me my entire life, starting as subtle realizations when I first migrated illegally from Poland to Sweden in 1992 as a child migrant following my mum who, some years earlier, left Poland in search of work.

In Sweden, we were all poor, mostly first- and some second-generation immigrant and refugee children, housed in concrete gray apartment blocks at the edges of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. Part of Miljonprogrammet, the Swedish public housing program introduced by the Social Democrats during the 1960s, was meant to encourage affordable collective living with common laundry rooms, common waste facilities, common playgrounds, and relatively low rents for all. In the early 1990s, the residents in these suburbs were a unique amalgamation of disastrous global politics; Iraqis, Afghans, Chileans, Somalis, and Bosniaks fleeing dictatorships and wars, and then us Poles, escaping the aftermath of the post-communist transition to capitalism. 

We lived together in conditions not always mirroring the promises of Swedish welfare, sometimes with cockroaches in our kitchens that many of us would see for the first time. We were uprooted, having often left behind family and friends. We had names that the Swedish struggled to pronounce and we lived in a bubble far away from white Swedish people, mainly communicating either in English or sign language with one another until, one by one, we would be placed in an integration class in one of the local neighborhood schools. In our minds, we were the same. We were all undesirable and our small kids’ bodies already knew that and, in that, there was solidarity and true friendships. 

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Residential neighborhood of Fittja in the outskirts of Stockholm, built as part of the Miljonprogrammet and where a majority of the residents are immigrants. / Photo by Holger Ellgaard (2007).

But not long after starting school something that would disrupt our innocent togetherness started happening; as a Central Eastern European I was being singled out and given different, better, opportunities than my ‘darker’ friends from the concrete blocks. While it didn’t register critically in my tween mind back then, it nevertheless taught me my first lesson about racial hierarchies and whiteness. As an immigrant from Poland, my whiteness, however shifting and what Manuela Boatcă calls “less than” (The Eastern Margins of Empire, 2007), still held the promise of assimilation to Swedish whiteness. When skipping school or not handing in school assignments on time, I was met with teacher’s disapproval and disciplined for it. Cutting alongside the frustration of not being allowed to skip school as much as the other immigrant children from outside Europe, was another, more profound and desperately desired feeling; one of belonging. Of being potentially good enough to warrant a punishment, good enough to be seen by the Swedish teachers. One can only disappoint if there is an expectation to do better, and this was not granted to my other diasporic friends. Our difference? I was from Poland, Central Eastern Europe and the others were from either further east; Bosnia, Serbia, Turkey, or altogether far off from what could be comfortably embraced by European whiteness. Despite that our histories were entangled and solidarities were present in these shared histories (as mapped in James Mark’s 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe, 2019) Central Eastern Europeans differentiated “us” from “them” in order to demarcate and protect an imagined belonging. Those coming from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey would be spoken about as less civilized, less clean, and more criminal: exactly these same racialized tropes that we were trying to scrub off our migrant bodies and that have been used to describe our region for centuries.

When some of Eastern Europe first joined the European Union in 2004, the divisions within our region took on a whole new set of meanings. Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs were among those groups chosen to enter the EU first, followed only some years later and with less generous immigration benefits with Bulgarians and Romanians. Arriving en masse to seek work opportunities, often over-qualified for the jobs they agreed to undertake, the Poles quickly became a model minority. Not too different but still occupying a lower position in the racial hierarchy, they did not disturb the workings of racial capitalism; they were to be grateful to be doing below living-wage labor and enjoy benefits that migrants from outside Europe were often barred from accessing. But then Brexit happened, followed by Covid and the bubble burst for Central Eastern Europeans.

Being Eastern European in Britain: 2017 ///

Britain’s EU referendum was a way of barricading and blaming immigrants for a decline in living standards accompanied by an increasingly aggressive political climate. And for the first time, it was Eastern Europeans, until now protected by their status as EU migrants, that felt the impact of British hostile environment policies first introduced in 2012 by the Conservative government. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, overwhelmingly voting for inclusion or “return back” to what then President Aleksander Kwaśniewski referred to as “the European family,” a steady flow of Poles arrived in Britain with one-way tickets in hand. They undertook hard work, often low-paid and precarious, soon becoming the country’s largest foreign-born population, peaking at one million just before the Brexit referendum.

Although there is no doubt that we enjoyed privileges not available to migrants from outside the EU, our Eastern Europeanness was a marker of difference that traversed racial divides in complex ways: white enough and European enough to be allowed entry into Britain, but not white enough to escape being racialized as what József Böröcz analyzes as “dirty white” (“‘Eurowhite’ Conceit, ‘Dirty White’ Resentment,” 2021). The British tabloid press frequently reported on dangerous Polish lorry drivers, criminal gangs and Eastern Europeans eating swans (a historical trope at various points attached to different racialized groups). Poles in Britain are hesitant to speak of being treated differently, partly because they aspire to whiteness and Europeanness that continue to be conditional. Eastern Europe, historically and still today, is narrated as in a permanent state of ‘catching-up’ with Western modernity.

Here, again, is that promise of belonging that is never quite achieved but therefore so sought after.

Daily microaggressions where Eastern Europeans are disciplined or ridiculed for their language, accents or their “unpronounceable” names are common. Having one’s name butchered countless times during the day and being told that one “doesn’t look like an Eastern European” in the way of a compliment, grinds one’s sense of dignity and belonging. What until now was continuous, but bearable, became more and more virulent in the lead up to the EU exit vote, resulting in increased attacks on the Polish community in Britain.

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The Polish army guarding the militarized border between Belarus and the European Union, while thousands of exiled people attempt to enter Poland. / Photo by the Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej (so-called “Polish Territorial Defence Forces”) on November 15, 2021.

If Brexit was a first realization for many Central Eastern Europeans that their whiteness was more precarious than initially hoped for, the global Covid-19 pandemic cemented that. Many Eastern Europeans are employed in so-called “key professions” doing jobs that are essential yet often offering little security but high levels of potential exploitation. These jobs include nurses, bus drivers, food and parcel deliveries, teachers, and cleaners. When Covid hit, these workers were unable to shield themselves at home because their essential jobs required them to go out to work each day. Even home, often with shared occupancy, was not a safe space and government guidance overlooked the very specific circumstances and needs of migrant essential laborers. When most citizens were shielded in their homes, labor migrants from Eastern Europe were flown into countries like Germany and Britain on charter flights to pick fruits and work on farms. For many Polish and other Eastern Europeans working in factories, their already fragile everyday life became that much harder when accused by locals of not following Covid guidelines. When going back and forth between work in the factory where no distancing measures were kept and their overcrowded accommodation where bedrooms were shared with people working for different factories across town, physical distance was not possible.

For the Polish community in Britain working in frontline roles, the convergence of Brexit and Covid had serious impacts on financial security, health and mental wellbeing, social isolation, and plans for the future. Some of its members suffered deep depression, others made firm plans to return to Poland, hoping to counter the lack of family, friends and support that Covid laid bare in Britain. While returning “home” can be undoubtedly a hard choice to make, it nevertheless is a possibility for a border crossing not afforded to other migrants from outside Europe. In this, the relative whiteness of Central Eastern Europeans does not only allow them to cross borders, it also gives them the mandate to engage in border fortification and thus be an active participant in the ongoing European border imperialism. 

Being non-European in Central Eastern Europe: 2022 ///
Cutting through beautiful national parks is the border between Central and Eastern Europe, also the Eastern border of the EU. In the words of Nicholas de Genova, it is the site of a “border spectacle” (“Spectacles of Migrant ‘Illegality’,” 2013): the practice of exclusion, but also of inclusion through exclusion. The Polish border has become a contested space, depending on where one’s point of entry is. If crossing at the various open checkpoints in the southeastern part of Poland from Ukraine, the border customs website helpfully maps out over twenty-five border crossing points, specifying the waiting time at each. A few kilometers to the North is the Białowieża National Park, a dense forest and home to thousands of bisons. In it, is another border, between Poland and Belarus. Each border, Ukraine–Poland and Belarus–Poland, is around 500 kilometers long. Who gets to cross Polish borders into the EU depends on two things that are intimately welded; where on that stretch of the 1,000 kilometers one finds itself, more North or more South, and how one gets racialized.

At the end of 2021, when news of Polish border guards responding with violent push backs to the growing crowds at the Belarus border started circulating, there was no lack of international condemnation for the barbaric handling of the migrants. It was indeed horrific when volunteers at the Polish–Belarus border started finding bodies of people in the dense forest. Migrants had died in the forest in subzero temperatures and among them were children and young people. Every day there are new updates about people being found from Grupa Granica (Border Group), an informal group of volunteers providing medical, legal, and humanitarian assistance on the Eastern border. But the violence at Europe’s Eastern borderlands is part of a larger, deeper, violence that is what Harsha Walia calls “border imperialism” (Undoing Border Imperialism, 2013), making European borders the most deadly, both those in Western and Eastern Europe. Still, whatever happens in the East of the EU is always going to be read as less civilized. Which is why the claim to Europeanness, and by extension, to whiteness, is crucial for Poland and thus also for Poles and the larger Central Eastern European region. Having eagerly joined the EU in 2004, Poland has since become one of its most staunch defenders. Because, not dissimilar to how I was lifted out of the crowd of undesirable diasporic migrant children back in the 1990s, it lifts these countries out of an undesirable crowd and allows them access into Europeanness. But this is not unconditional, for it comes with the expectation that Poland and Poles will be the guardians of that enclosed community. In that, Poles and Poland are not innocent or passive receivers of European benevolence, just like we never have been innocent of engaging in racism despite being racialized ourselves within Europe. 

There is a long history of Central Eastern Europe, placing itself at the heart of Europe, capitalizing on its in-betweenness to make its claim to whiteness through racial exclusions. From engaging as the perpetrators in murders of its Jewish and Roma populations, to its grand (if unsuccessful) ambitions to colonize parts of Africa, Poland has often chosen to align with or aspire towards Western European nations as is teased out in the work of scholars Marta Grzechnik (“Aspirations of an Imperial Space,” 2018) and Bolaji Balogun (“Polish Lebensraum,” 2018). Consequently, the push backs of Black and brown people at the Belarus border is only the most recent example of when Poles got the chance to racially distinguish themselves from those placed below them and jumped at the opportunity to advance in the racial hierarchy. 

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Small church, set up in a welcoming center for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. / Photo by ProPics Canada Media Ltd (March 2022).

Many of the migrants are Muslims or migrants assumed to be Muslims who, despite small numbers, have in the last decade become the national folk devil in Poland, supposedly threatening European Christian civilization as the Polish right-wing populist government would argue in their bid to “save Europe.” Those migrants who lose their lives on the Poland–Belarus border are often buried in an old Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki, a Tatar village in Eastern Poland. The Polish Tatars, while stepping up to conduct burials for Europe’s most unwanted according to the Islamic requirements, also occupy a complex racial position in Poland and have themselves Othered Muslim migrants when distancing themselves as the white, indigenous, and thus more deserving Muslim community. Little hints at this tension more than a jarring sign that hangs just meters away from the mosque where the burials are held, it reads: “Thank you for your service and the protection of our border.”

To Europe yes, but only with our dead ///

As late Polish scholar Maria Janion described in her work Niesamowita Słowiańszczyzna (Uncanny Slavdom, 2006), the invention of the concept of Central Eastern Europe was intended for the purpose of marking out countries like Poland and stress their cultural closeness to the West. Janion also wrote another book in the context of Poland joining the European Union, or as the narrative went “rejoining” to where it always belonged. The book is called Do Europy tak, ale razem z naszymi umarłymi, which translates to To Europe yes, but only with our dead. When she was writing, “our dead” was mainly designating Jewish people. Now, our dead, those who die and continue to die because of both our precarity and our complicity with whiteness, must include the most recent victims of European border violence in Central Eastern Europe; those stuck at the border between Belarus and Poland that has been termed both a “graveyard” and a “migrant hunting ground.” ■