Layers of Whiteness

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‘Here in the global West …’, ‘For Westerners …’, ‘In Western countries …’ – we have all heard/read/said sentences beginning similarly to those. Before moving to England to enrol at our university, it was very clear to me that I belonged to the global West. I grew up watching Disney Channel, reading ‘Twilight’, travelling across (Western) European countries and learning the ‘Anthem of Europe’ by heart at the age of 8 (it’s called ‘Ode to Joy’, have a listen if you haven’t heard it before). When coming to Lancaster I wasn’t sure of many things, but these were the ones I certainly knew: I was Polish, I was European, and I was white … But, as I was about to find out, ‘whiteness’ had layers too, and I could be the palest, blonde, blue-eyed Slavic beauty (which I am not), and still be considered less white – or white other if I am lucky – than my Western European friends.

My friend from GoBurrito, where I’m currently stealing YOUR job, and I were chatting about life while at work. He said to me that his grandpa wouldn’t like me, because he’s racist. I replied by saying that we are surely the same race and pointed at my face. ‘Nooo… You’re Polish’, he said, to which I replied: ‘Yes, but that’s my nationality, and (somewhat) my ethnicity, not my race. Look at me again, I’m white!’. My friend was left very confused and did not say anything else.

Another time my friends and I were sitting in Spoons chatting. There were six of us: two English, three born and raised in Poland and one of Polish ethnicity but born in England. One of the English friends noticed that the English were actually in minority. I jokingly said that she shouldn’t regard our Polish friend born in England as a “real Pole”, because he’s not very fluent in Polish, to which her response was, ‘Yeah, but for a white guy, he’s not too bad at speaking another language’. I then, pointed out at her obvious inattention to the fact that I was white and spoke two languages fluently. She admitted that it was wrong of her to say such a thing. That day, it became even clearer to me that being ‘white’ means being ‘Western European’. If these conversations I have had do not illustrate evidently that race is, in fact, a social construct, I don’t know what does.

My experiences certainly have a light-hearted overtone which does not, however, mean that the issues underpinning them are of pettifogging consequences. One of my best friends studies at University of Warwick and works as a student ambassador there. One time, when she was giving a tour of the campus to a prospective student and his family, and everything was going perfectly well, she was left speechless at the end of it. The father asked her where she was from: ‘Are you Dutch by any chance?’ (she’s tall, blonde and speaks English very well, so that’s a Dutch thing, right?). My friend replied by saying that she was actually from Poland, to which the father’s response was: ‘So you should probably go back to your own country’. My friend did not say anything. She was too shocked. I had sincerely believed that this phrase was just a joke, until my friend was confronted with it in such an upsetting way.

For a long time, I had thought I could not be affected by racism, because I’m white and that by addressing such issues in relation to myself, I would belittle experiences of those who are not white. But now, it is evident to me that the repercussion of the idea of ‘whiteness’ created by the colonial powers; the Nazi Party’s racial ideology which held that Slavs were ‘subhumans’ as well as the long-lasting division between the communist East and the capitalist West may still have relevance today, even if they exist somewhere far back in one’s subconsciousness.

Robert Stefan Goia:

There is a general sense of reluctancy whenever an Eastern European is faced with the question “Where’re you from?”. As a Romanian, my parents often said before leaving for uni that I shouldn’t be too vocal about my ethnicity, because we’re subject to a lot of prejudice. The media plays the fundamental role in this prejudice, as not once I’ve seen a single good deed done by a Romanian that was reported in the news or tabloids. Not many people seem to know that a Romanian working in a bakery in London had saved dozen lives by confronting the terrorists at the last London terror attack, resulting in being decorated by the Queen herself. It received little to no media attention in the UK. But a lot more people seem to know about that Channel 4 “The Romanians are coming” reality TV show which gave widespread false representation for a whole nation. My experience as a student in the UK relies on this discrepancy, as I can tell you that the representation done in that series accounts to very limited truth but has a huge impact on the British society’s perception of the Eastern European space.

Throughout uni, my belief on Eastern European societies not getting any recognition became more and more stronger. I find it curious that whenever there’s a speech related to diversity, whether it be a diversity-advocating student or the SU itself, Eastern European societies are left out of the narrative. In this regard, I find hypocrisy coming from “White people” and, perhaps, unintentional skin-colour labelling coming from minorities. I’ve joined a conversation once, where people discussed the impact of colonization and white mentality around the world. The discussion regarded whiteness only through the lens of Western Europe, and at one point someone expressed its disregarding views on the issue, then turned to me and said a genuine “sorry!”. Hold up’, I feel there’s a real misconception about whiteness. There are 44 countries in Europe, out of which only 7 had colonial possessions. Why do Eastern Europeans share this colonizer stigma? Eastern Europe was literally the historical battlefield between West, Russia and the Ottomans for almost a whole millenia. And yet we’re not the West, nor Russia and certainly not Turkish. We’re mostly Slavic nations bonded by a common historical legacy of external oppression. We have our own culture and particularities and we also know what being oppressed means, hence the zero-historical recognition of our region in your average history books.

Speaking of racism and oppression, I find it amusing that everyone thinks that we share the Western perception of what it means to be European due to our skin-colour, except for the Westerners themselves. Out of everyone in this campus, the easier to discriminate against and getting away with it, is the Eastern European. I’ve heard on multiple occasions from fellow Easterners which recalled seminars with “White people” that openly said, “Easterners are inferior Europeans” which was regarded as a normal opinion in class. Stereotyping Eastern Europeans on the University’s Facebook confessions page was happening broad-daylight, but if the term “Eastern European” was replaced by any term related to another minority, the whole campus and its SU would have gone all-guns-blazing racism.

As an Eastern European, I find myself at the cross-roads of this culture-clash. I’m Eastern European and I’m white. Whose struggle must I identify with? I guess our struggle is our own recognition of being a white culture different than that of West’s, by asking minorities to give a definition for what being “White” means in relation also with our account, in their struggle against Western perception legacy. Also, we as Eastern Europeans can set an example for the West by not being ignorant with each other but solidary instead, ultimately to stop hiding from our Eastern European ethnicity.

The prejudice against us is particularly amusing as Eastern Europeans are the top most numerous minorities in the UK. It’s not hard to notice us. It just takes diversity and tolerance, and that’s where the media, as much as all UK universities, wholeheartedly fails in their shallow attempts to deliver this. 

Article by Robert Stefan Goia and Marta Wójtowicz

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