Why is that every time I say that Poland is a tolerant society towards different skin colors there is always some Polish person saying that I am wrong and that, in the contrary, this is a racist society? What is more, usually that comes with a “we are racist!” clearly put. From my personal and academic experience, Poland is a highly tolerant society and it is being misjudged, especially in the hands of its own people. Some of the reasons for this to happen are the lack of understanding of the phenomenon of racism, of independent judgment, of observation and assessment of social relations, of broader global perspectives, of cross-cultural comparative analysis, of adequate classification of statistical information, of empathy, of a persistent politeness, of self-esteem, and even of vocabulary and/or proper use of terminologies.
The majority of these deficiencies also apply to foreigners living in Poland and/or to whoever refers to this country in a colloquial discourse. I would connect to foreigners some extra defects they usually fall into and which are part of the set of reasons that provoke the misinterpretation of racism in Poland, too: sense of entitlement, patronization, conformism, indifference, inactivity and hermetic nature. I will try to avoid using many psychological and sociological terms, and focus more on my personal experience in order for me to explain in a comprehensible and affable way how is that the tendency of self-labeling as racists or intolerants could have sprung among Polish people.
First of all, all living things discriminate. Departing from a biological foundation, the term discrimination, then, is not entirely negative. It only refers to the permanent dynamic of selecting and separating one thing from another. This goes from the natural selections the smallest organisms do all the way to the decisions we make day by day. In this way, triggered by needs and natural functions, all of us discriminate all the time. Now, let us translate this to social relations among human beings to see how these natural tendencies are kept. Classic Freudian theory would say that the id, as part of our unconscious mind, accompanies us throughout our lives making us act with a psychic impulse characteristic of our species called drive. With this, Freud was referring to the “stimuli coming from within the body to reach the soul as a measurement of the demand of work imposed by the soul as a consequence of its coherence with the body” (translation mine; Freud, Triebe und Triebschicksale, 1915). The drive has different sources therefore it is manifested through different reactions. The one we may want to have a look at now is the death drive, which is initially directed inside oneself and it has a tendency for self-destruction. It is secondarily “directed outside, appearing, then, as an aggression or destruction drive” (translation mine; Bruce, Nos Habíamos Choleado Tanto, 2008, p. 132-3). Thus, as human beings we do not just discriminate but we do it unconsciously and even with the capacity of reaching the confines of major aggression. Contrary to the death drive or Thanatos, there is also a life drive or Eros. This one refers to the tendency towards cohesion, which goes from the sexual to the self-preservation drive. Besides that, the death drive departs “from the compulsion for repetition, when it becomes independent from Eros” (Bruce, Nos Habíamos Choleado Tanto, 2008, p. 132). In other words, neither we are born nor we become good or bad people; we just live linked to a natural instinct that can go from love to hate and vice versa, from the unconscious desire for the existence of someone or something to the desire for its destruction. But, of course, that needs the proper stimulus, whose product is determined by the individual and/or collective circumstances a person or society live in.
In such manner, it would be ironic to say that Polish people have a tendency for discriminatory behavior without saying the same thing about the rest of the world. Now, if based on our biological and psychological functions (classical Freudian theory) we all discriminate and we are all able to do some damage to the “Other” under the proper circumstances, the only thing we must now clarify is when racism and racial discrimination take place. Racism is an ideology based on the superiority of a group with common hereditary characteristics above another group, while racial discrimination is the action and result per se of mapping, classifying, setting up a hierarchy, undervaluing, rejecting, subjugating and even making invisible that other group. The causes of racial discrimination may not have biological bases but rather economic, political, among others. This is the reason why racial discrimination could be confused with other kinds of discrimination, such as xenophobia. As for the causes of racism, they come from a racial sense, a feeling and a belief on an ideal of supremacy over the “Other,” all on the bases of visible biological characteristics, such as the skin color or the physical appearance. Now, we must take into consideration that from mid-20th century the existence of different human races has been disregarded, especially from the evolutionist and social perspectives. Thus, the term race has been discarded when classifying human beings.
In this way, if there are no human races but there is only one, in Poland only lives one race. Then, racism in this country does exist – as it does everywhere else- but it is a term that should be attributed to a particular group of people who genuinely feel superior in front of others who do not have their common hereditary characteristics. This is something none of us could have control on given that we receive that as a crash course from childhood through the perception a child has of what is around. This could be soothed and restrained with age and life experiences, and by that moral police force called super-ego, present in our unconscious mind. I have observed throughout my life from a number of parents concerned about their children education to the most cautious advocates of the indigenous cause and social inclusion – just to mention some of the many ironic cases- practicing an innate racism they cannot realize about, therefore, cannot separate from. So we can say that racist people in Poland are present, – and they are not only of Polish nationality. However, we have to say at the same time that they are here just like they are anywhere else in the world, what does not make Polish people particularly racist. When it comes to racial discrimination, this one also has presence in Poland but instead it is subject to economic, political and social (especially, self-esteem and a problem with identity) rather than biological factors. For instance, the bad habits of some immigrants may generate xenophobia at some point, a concept that could be misinterpreted as racial discrimination if those immigrants have common physical characteristics that differ from the average Polish person. Based on the theory of cultural pseudospeciation by Berman & Goodall (2000), the same dynamic could also take place among Polish people themselves. If there exists a number of them sharing common characteristics in front of another group of people sharing as well common characteristics among themselves, and all of them face, for instance, the shortage of a resource, they could group themselves together according to those common characteristics and get involved in the most extreme conflict. In conclusion, there is only one race in Poland – the human race, yes there are racists in Poland – as there are anywhere in the world, and yes there could be racial discrimination in Poland – due to the confusion of this term with other kinds of discrimination and to the simplification and reduction of all characteristics of the “Other” to just the skin color and/or other physical features, rather than due to an inborn feeling of biological supremacy. But, then, are Polish people racist? My answers: No. No more than the rest of the world. Less than the rest of the world. Less than they think about themselves.