Like many Polish people of African descent, Sara Alexandre still remembers when she first realized she was seen as different. “For me it was kindergarten,” says Alexandre, whose father is Angolan, describing an incident when she was barred from playing dollhouse. “I was five and [another girl] didn’t let me in, saying that she cannot allow a little Murzyn in it. That was the first time I knew I was different.”
A campaign against the word “Murzyn” — a Polish racial epithet used widely to describe and address Black people — is at the center of an emerging movement in Poland to reckon with racial discrimination. The movement, which unites Black activists and allies under the hashtag #DontCallMeMurzyn, shows how a renewed focus on anti-Black racism inspired by the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 and brutal policing on Black communities has gone global. The movement that grew in the wake of the killing by U.S. police of George Floyd now extends beyond countries with sizable African diasporas from slavery and colonialism to places like Poland, where 97% of citizens are white.
“The hashtag was mainly thank you to George Floyd,” says Nigerian-born Arinze Nwolisa, who lives in Warsaw and co-founded the anti-discrimination Porta Foundation in 2014 with his wife Lidia. “Now people say, ‘why are you protesting something that happened in America?’ But the reality is that we still need to stop something that Americans are facing but we in Poland are [also] facing as Black people. Because that is what we are facing. It [racism] is a sickness.”
The word is not just a symbolic focal point of anti-Black racism, he says, but an unwanted term that Black Poles find insulting. “I don’t want to go out there and have people call me ‘Murzyn,’” Nwolisa continues. “This is very, very offensive, I’m telling you.”
The Polish dictionary states only that the word refers to someone with Black skin and, according to leading Polish linguists Jerzy Bralczyk and Jan Miodek, it doesn’t hold the same negative meaning as the N-word does in English. The PWN website states the word refers to someone with darker skin but it can also be used to describe someone who works hard and is being exploited.
Yet the lived experiences of Black Polish people reveal how the word is used in practice. One respondent to a 2016 survey of a dozen African international students in Poland described it as: “‘Murzyn’ doesn’t wash himself … he likes to play in the trees, … he doesn’t go to school. These are the three stereotypes they have when they see a black people. [sic]”
More recently the criticism intensified in a video published on YouTube of five Afro-Polish women sharing their experiences with anti-Black discrimination. The video has more than 51,000 views and has spread widely on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram under the #DontCallMeMurzyn hashtag. “I hate this word and I try not to use it because to me it has such a negative, harsh overtone,” says Marta Udoh, one of the women in the video. “Each time I hear this word, I feel like someone was clawing at my heart.”
The five Black women — Udoh, Sara Alexandre, Noemi Ndoloka Mbezi, Aleksandra Dengo, and Ogi Ugonoh — who facilitated the discussion recently launched a petition on the community campaigning site AVAAZ to include the negative impact and connotations in the meaning of the word in the Dictionary of the Polish Language published by PWN (the Polish Scientific Publishers), the most prominent publisher of dictionaries in Poland.
In June, Katarzyna Kłosińska, a linguistics professor at the University of Warsaw, published a piece on the PWN website saying that the word is often mistranslated into English as “negro” —and has taken on some of that word’s negative connotations— whereas a closer definition would merely be factual, i.e. “Black.” But if someone is asking for it not to be used, she added, people should listen.
It’s unclear how many Black people live in Poland, one of the world’s most ethnically homogenous countries. The 2011 census was the first to ask about nationality or ethnicity, but while it detailed Slavic ethnic minorities there was no option to choose Black — merely an alternative to tick “other.” Informal assessments put the number at a few thousand, which helps explain why Black people are still often considered an unusual sight there. Ndoloka Mbezi, who identifies as mixed-race or Black depending on the context, says there’s little awareness that even complimentary forms of othering are both uncomfortable and unacceptable.
“I remember people in the streets stopping… my family, saying things to my mom like, ‘Oooh, such a beautiful child! Look at her curly hair, her skin tone!’” says Ndoloka Mbezi, who now lives in England. Ugonoh, whose ancestry is Nigerian, says that people in Gdynia, a Polish city on the Baltic Sea, used to take unsolicited photos of her and her sister.
But racism in Poland can also be more violent, and laced with derision and animosity. Nwolisa says that in his nearly 20 years in Poland he has experienced everything from being called a monkey while visiting the zoo with his kids to actual physical violence. “We have met with many incidents of racism and we [never once went] to the police station,” explains his wife Lidia Nwolisa, who is ethnically Polish. “Why?…. Because instead of protecting us the police will be racist.” A 2011 study of African and Asian immigrants to Poland by Marek Nowak and Michał Nowosielski found that “a large portion of racist crimes committed in Poland go unreported.”
Nwolisa says his four children, who range in age from nine to 17, have also experienced racism at school. Polish perceptions of Black people have been informed by children’s literature awash in American minstrelsy and racist caricatures, write Tracy C. Davis and Stefka Mihaylova in a chapter of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabins, a treatise on how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s well-meaning novel became interpreted as it made its way around the world.
In Poland, the novel’s translations, most of which deviate substantially from the original text, were aimed at children, and served as nostalgic anti-capitalist propaganda within the national curriculum during the communist era. These productions could only have helped perpetuate existing racist stereotypes like the Black characters in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel In Desert and Wilderness, wrote activist James Omolo in 2017.
In the novel, young, Polish Staś saves Kali, a Black boy who speaks “broken” English, from a horde of violent Muslims.“Dark continent” tropes abound. Outside the world of the book, Kali has been immortalized in the Polish language in the saying, “Kali’s morality,” which means “double standard: “If somebody takes Kali’s cow, it’s a bad deed. If Kali takes somebody’s cow, it’s a good deed.”
A 1924 poem by Julian Tuwim, Murzynek Bambo, (the little Murzyn Bambo) has been heavily criticized for infantilizing and othering Black people, according to Margaret Amaka Ohia-Nowak, a researcher at the University of Wrocław. Yet it is still taught in some schools.
The Nwolisa family are now channeling their trauma into activism, participating in local protests in addition to conducting educational workshops through their foundation. Acclaimed photographer Rafał Milach took a picture of their daughter Bianka protesting with a sign that read “Stop Calling Me Murzyn,” which was picked up by prominent Polish newspapers, such as Gazeta Wyborcza.
The young women who participated in the original #DontCallMeMurzyn video have gone on to upload two more discussions, hoping the campaign will pick up momentum. The recent re-election in Poland of a right-wing government opposed to gay rights and seemingly unconcerned about racism does not bode well for Black people, they say, but the fight is too important to put aside. “Yes, the elections have an impact on us,” Ugonoh says. “And while I’m scared I refuse to give up. And I refuse to stay quiet when I see injustices.”
They hold out hope that Poland, which suffered almost a century of occupation and deprivation, may yet understand the need for solidarity. “Poland has so much potential,” Ugonoh says. “It’s a country that has gone through so much pain. So, if any country should be able to relate, empathize, it should be Poland. And I just really wish that we could heal together.”