Being a black and socially hyperaware woman in Poland and Lithuania
I recently took a trip to Eastern Europe with my big sister, Nia. Actually, when I began writing this, we had just crossed the border from Poland into Lithuania. This trip was challenging for both of us for several reasons.
We each keep a journal so we have been able to periodically express ourselves in a solitary manner. Nia and I have even logged many of our frustrations onto video diaries that Nia intends to convert into a vlog with the rest of the footage that she collected on this trip. But both journaling and recording videos that will not be shared until much later have not been enough expression for each of us. During the ride into Lithuania, Nia showed me two photos she had taken of me a few days ago and then shared with me a lengthy caption that she drafted and that she planned to place underneath the photos.
"Right after taking this photo, I started crying. For the fews days we have been in Poland, my sister and I have experienced intense racism both subtle and overt. Initially we tried to give people the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the stares were innocent and curious. After all we are in a former Soviet Union nation and will probably be some of the only black women many individuals here will ever see. However when we were walking with my friend Nicole, who understands Polish, a man was staring at us (as many Polish men have done) and proceeded to comment. Immediately Nicole turned around and shut him down. She later admitted that the man was saying very ‘stupid and racist things’. Why do I share this? Well it’s exhausting trying to embrace a new culture that seems to stiff arm foreigners. It’s exhausting having to be representatives for black people everywhere and explain why we are equally worthy. It’s exhausting having to remain constantly calm and respectful so we don’t fulfill the negative stereotypes that are constantly portrayed of us.
Fortunately, not everyone in Poland is racist and aggressive. In all the manners of aggression I have received this past week, I have equally experienced love. While attending this Liberty conference in Poland I have been exposed to new sometimes controversial forms of thinking and have connected with some of the most brilliant, diverse, and inspiring student scholars of the world. In one room over 10 countries were represented including India, Nepal, Romania, Brazil, Turkey, Lebanon etc.
In short no level of hate will ever overpower the potential, creativity, and love present in the world...and amongst us. Love will always endure. And even after these disheartening experiences, I am hopeful. *You a real one, if you made it to the end."
Not only was it cathartic to read her caption, but I was passionate about helping her to tweak her statement so that she could convey precisely what she felt in the short amount of space that she had underneath the pictures. After reading what she shared, and promising to repost her image and caption to my own Instagram page, I was hit with the passion to write and share something of my own. I do have a blog after all.
Nia and I went to Poland in the first place because she was invited by her professor to attend a Libertarian conference in Poland and then afterwards to an entrepreneurship camp in Lithuania. He even secured a scholarship for her to attend the conference free of charge. My mom suggested that I tag along with Nia for support and also for the opportunity to learn something of my own during this experience. Nia and I, practiced traveling partners, loved this idea. She had never been to Europe before and I had gone only once when I was sixteen, to an educational program at Oxford University. This trip would also be a sort of send off for the both of us because our summers were coming to a close and we would each be attending our separate, distant universities soon.
The weeks leading up to this trip have been a bit busy for me. I was finishing up an internship that required long hours, a lengthy commute, and dedicated teamwork. Because of this, I took almost no time to research Poland, Lithuania, Libertarians, or this conference. I think I was at the airport when I finally caught up on the emails related to this trip. Thankfully Nia and my mom were on top of all the arrangements and my lack of research did not threaten the logistics of the trip. But I was flying in blind.
We flew from Baltimore, Maryland to Frankfurt, Germany and eventually from Frankfurt, Germany to Krakow, Poland. Initially in the international airports, Nia and I jokingly counted the black and brown people waiting at the gate with us. There were very few but it was still encouraging to not feel alone. After all, neither of us knew how “white” this country would be. We arrived at Krakow. After a long day of traveling we were both a bit tired and irritated with each other. It took us longer than we intended to leave Germany and it took longer than we intended to find transportation in order to leave the airport. Even before leaving the airport, we attracted looks from several people. We were too concerned with transportation to focus on it but I also remember stepping outside and crossing the road medians to reach our uber and receiving a lot of attention, so much so that a car full of men slowed dramatically as it drove up beside me. I looked briefly to see four faces looking intently at me, smiling amusedly. But they drove off and I got into my uber before I had time to really process.
The drive over to our inn was beautiful. We passed interesting structures and tons of green space. Our driver made conversation with us in English, although he said he didn’t speak much of it, we were able to understand him perfectly. At the inn there were many stares but the receptionist was very friendly and helpful. We talked with her later that evening about food, drinks, Polish and American accents, and restaurants. In addition to her, all of the uber drivers and receptionists we encountered were very friendly.
The first day of the Libertarian conference was very puzzling to Nia and I. In order to foster an open mind, Nia’s professor did not give Nia much background on the ins and outs of Libertarianism, other than recommending Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I think it was good of him not to give us an opinion on this worldview so that we could form our own opinions of it. Still, as the lectures went on, it became obvious that everyone in the room did not believe in the same ideals and that “liberty” and “freedom” meant different things to different people.
Hearing about Libertarianism from a U.S. perspective was frustrating for me. It was mostly older, white men who already had several privileges in the U.S. market, which is a fairly free market by several standards, complaining about the checks and balances keeping their absolute sovereignty at bay. Also from the U.S. side, many people identified as more conservative, which I tend to brace against because of my personal beliefs and liberal education. But hearing about Libertarianism from a global perspective-reports from Lebanon, Ghana, Brazil, Poland, etc.- was very illuminating for me. I agree that individuals should be allowed the freedom to live and do business without heavy restrictions from the government.
That first day was very long. Nia and I actually skipped out on the conference for a while to take a walk and purchase outlet adapters from a nearby technical store. The receptionist from the conference’s hotel was very nice and helpful, he drew on a map and showed us where we could find the store we were looking for. Along the way, Nia and I happily took pictures. We soon found out that no matter where we went, we had an audience, people continued to stare at us. At this point we assumed the stares were harmless and curious, as most of them might have been. But, for me, it soon became uncomfortable to be watched by everyone. It didn’t take long to realize that Nia and I were some of the only black people, or people of color, around.
One of my first impressions of Poland was how clean it was. The streets are mostly cobblestone in the main areas and there is no trash littering them, other than the occasional cigarette butt. I felt at times as if I was in Disneyland because everything from the bricklaying to the placement of the buildings was very pristine. But for me, the people make the place. And so after having several negative encounters, I soon came to feel that there was an irony to this beauty.
That evening, we went out with a group of the international students who had also been invited to the conference. During the evening, we made several friends and at one point represented about six different countries at one table: Brazil, U.S., Germany, Nepal, Ghana, Poland, and Turkey. As I sat and enjoyed myself, I felt something brush against the back of my head. A man had walked past me, running his hand along my hair as he went. I didn’t see or understand what happened until someone told me, but it was very off-putting. As I looked at him afterward, he smiled.
By the second day I had grown a bit annoyed at all of the attention. Maybe someone with a different personality than I have would feel like a celebrity, but I felt very drained and uncomfortable. On the morning of the second full day we met one of Nia’s university friends, Nicole. Nicole is half Cuban and half Polish, currently living in Warsaw. She was well versed in international relations and broke down a lot about Libertarians that made me feel even further separated from their ideals. She also explained that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have completely different implications in the European (and global) sphere.
The major turning point of this trip happened when we were walking around with Nicole later that day. We were on a sidewalk, talking when a man sitting on a nearby bench said something in Polish. Nicole immediately retorted and then turned forward again to continue walking. After this she let us know that he had said something racist and ignorant. She also explained the nationalistic beliefs of many Poles and their history of Soviet occupation. From that point on, I felt very threatened. This man was not the first to look at Nia and I and he was not the first to say something in our direction. I worried that up until now I had been blissfully ignorant and the reason for all of the stares stemmed from something more sinister than simple curiosity.
It didn’t help that later that day we were confined to a space, surrounded by hundreds of people.
We were at Wawel Castle, an ancient castle that holds a lot of history related to a Polish and other European art. Still at several moments, I felt as if I was the tourist attraction, gaining more stares than the centuries old building beside me. When we were first entering the gates there was a large blockage of people coming and going in large touring groups with no visible order. A woman, guiding a tour to my left proceeded to push me several times, saying things like “let people walk out on the right, move over to the middle, people cannot walk with you here.” Because of how intensely crowded it was, I could not move away from her and so continued to be pressed deeply by her violent gesture. At this point I was over stimulated and anxious. People continued to stare at my sister and I. Some would be casual about it but others would turn completely to us and not look away when we caught their perusing eyes. People sitting would even turn their chairs to get a better look. Then it started to rain and lightening and all but chaos ensued and people rushed to leave the castle.
On the drive from the castle, I felt carsick. I was not looking forward to more U.S. centric Libertarian speeches and I did not have the energy to constantly be studied by strangers and pretend that I did not notice or care. I spent most of that day sleeping in the room.
That evening, I went out again with Nia and her friend. We sat at a restaurant and continued to get countless glares. There was a point when we asked our waitress to take a picture of us and as she did so, the conversations around us quieted. It felt like the scene in Get Out when the room quiets after Daniel Kaluuya’s character leaves it to go upstairs. I started to feel very exposed. There was no way for me to hide because of how different I looked from everyone else and how uncommon "looking different" was. I even felt like a different species, not being glanced at, but being studied and scrutinized, constantly.
Silent social cues are often difficult to gauge. The people that stared may have stared out of hate, or confusion, or even awe and appreciation. It’s tough to determine if the lady pushed me because she was racist or because she had a tough day and hated her job. Furthermore, its tough to determine the reason each person stared. Still, the stares were overwhelming.
The way that my sister processes emotion is, mostly, just expressing herself immediately. She’ll yell, laugh, cry for a few moments and that will be it for the time being, until the next emotion comes. The way I process emotions is more gradual, more calculated. Nia would spike in annoyance and frustration and would sarcastically ask me, “They’re taking pictures of us, should we smile?” But the next moment she’d be carefree again, unbothered by the stares around her. She cried (as did I) about feeling alienated and potentially targeted after that man’s racist comment but the next day she woke up hopeful.
But I kept every stare and every negative encounter cataloged inside of me until the dread rose. I gave into the temptation to walk in fear so much so that, even after I’d left Poland, I felt threatened by almost every person that passed me. I was over stimulated and would even freak out internally when Nia would brush against my arm in a crowd. I no longer felt safe, welcomed, or invincible. I did not feel like the world was mine. I felt as if I did not belong, as if blackness did not belong and the entire countryside wanted to assure me of this. At several points, because of how vulnerable I felt, I was overcome with the great desire to go home.
Furthermore, I had no entry point into the culture. (To my knowledge) I am in no part Polish and have no previous connection to this country. This fact may have been partially the reason why I was not able to feel accepted in this place, or why I felt that I’d rather leave than push to be accepted. But on the contrary, I have studied the Spanish language and Latin American culture, as has Nia in addition to already speaking Portuguese. With those cultures we already have a certain entry point and connection. The opposite was true for Poland.
It’s important that I write from my perspective because it is so different from Nia’s or from others that I have seen. I have always struggled with social anxiety, the kind that makes it feel like your small mistakes reverberate across the room and that you’ll never recover from embarrassment. I have the tendency to shrink from the attention of strangers, which makes me nervous to go to Target alone or causes me to tune out every extraneous sound (potential catcalls) as I walk in New York City. This social anxiety was tough enough when I only imagined that people were staring at me. Now that they were actually staring, my poor, overworked brain was completely exhausted.
And once I began to see elements that estranged me from Polish people and culture, I could not cease seeing them. I saw several white people with dreads and braids. I heard hip-hop music and jazz on several occasions (Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott are coming to Poland soon; There was also a major urban dance camp in town). But I was also suspiciously watched and I saw a “Make America Great Again” hat. I was experiencing the common phenomenon of black culture being appreciated but not black people.
I feel like the black perspective often gets overlooked when traveling. Because of the world’s history of colonialism and imperialism there are still several places where black people may feel uncomfortable or lonely while traveling. I understand that there are several cases of natural demographic homogeneity in specific regions, but even being black in a sea of white has many different implications than being white in a sea of black (or color). White people, especially white men have come to represent the global standard of privilege and wealth. A white man in a foreign land would most often receive special privileges whereas a black person may be ostracized or discriminated against.
One of our drivers was a very nice man from Canada. He was a complete stranger to us but had incredible social skills. He drove us ten hours and never once did the journey feel uncomfortable. He led easygoing conversation but also was not too chatty. He shared with us that he currently lives in Estonia and has spent much of his time traveling in Eastern Europe. He knew so much about the people and the cultures, despite this, he was only completely fluent in one language. (To be fair, I think he knew a bit of Dutch and I myself am just coming to grips with a second language). He was Canadian but I found his accent indistinguishable from mine. And whenever we asked him if he felt nervous about communicating with people, as Nia and I had felt many times, he easily brushed it off and said "No, because everyone here speaks English!”
He seemed to live fearlessly, often speaking about camping anywhere along the countryside in Eastern European countries. I liked him but I saw a huge divide between him and myself. He walks the earth extremely differently as a white man than I do as a black woman. He may walk more confidently due to the fact that his appearance grants him a certain familiarity to those around him in Eastern Europe. As a black woman I do not feel that familiarity and oppositely, felt an “otherness” projected onto me. I feel human and connected to all humans but my appearance seemed at times to divide me from others. In this way I do not walk the Earth like a carefree white man. I look around corners and gauge from social cues whether I will be accepted or hurt because someone doesn’t like my skin. This way of thinking is what drove me into a constant worry.
If I was white, there would be nothing to complain about. I think that even if I was a woman, even if I was socially anxious but still white, I would feel at ease in this foreign place. I would find the accents lovely, the history engaging, and the culture very interesting. Even if I was white-passing I don’t think I would have had as hard of a time in Eastern Europe. Even Nicole did not face as much scrutiny as we did, which she truthfully admitted. This is because at a quick glance, she fits into the local demographics. But since I am not white (or white-passing), I felt that while I was watching the city, the city was watching me.
But I cannot write about Poland without talking about the good experiences. Nia and I did receive our fair share of compliments. But moreover, we met some incredible Polish people. Our waiter from the first evening was so drawn to our multicultural assembly that he joined us at our next stop that evening, talking with us and sharing an unforgettable night with us. He even spoke Spanish with me! The day after Nia and I experienced the racial slur, we felt very heavy and Nia had to take several moments to cry. Right in the middle of her emotion, a young Polish guy from the conference came up to us, bringing two slices of cake. He had no idea that we had just been upset before. Nia and I ended up spending much of the evening with him and other friends as well (he also spoke Spanish with me!). Another Polish guy from the conference personally escorted us around the city on several occasions and made sure that we had everything we needed. Again, another Polish student bought refreshments for my sister and I and spent much of his evening in conversation with us. There are good people everywhere. We experienced so much good here.
But I will say that the Polish friends that we made were interested with international travel and were familiar with other cultures. They were students, or were a part of the conference, or were well versed in traveling. They had seen black people before. Even if they had curiosity, they expressed it in a subtle way. They touched our hair consensually. Our “cake slice” friend told me joyfully one night; “I have been staring at your hair for hours!” Our waiter friend was also intrigued with both Nia’s hair and mine. Our friends asked questions and listened, bridging the gap between us and connecting with our humanity.
But I knew that when I was surprised at being treated like a human being, the damage had already been done. I had been holding my breath and with every act of kindness I was able to exhale little by little. Yet the feeling of otherness had already been instilled within me for too long and by too many people, for these temporary reliefs to be as substantial as they could have been on their own.
Why do I share this? I think that any person should be able to have an enriching experience no matter where they go. I feel that there are so many more factors connecting us as people than there are factors that divide us. I feel that every culture should be more aware and more appreciative of one another. Parents should teach their children: “Hey, there’s more than one type of beauty, skin color, hair texture,” so that in the future their kids don’t stare and point and someone who looks different from them. I feel that we have so much to learn from one another. I learned so much from this journey, even without a previous entry point into the culture.
After Nia and I posted the picture and the caption, we received a wave of feedback and love from our friends all over the world. We have met these friends at different stages in our lives but the connections have remained so substantial that even remotely these people are pouring into us, encouraging us to stay curious, loving, and light. They identified with the emotions patterned in our experiences and they promoted the diverse love that I honestly live for. Several of these encouragements brought me to tears. They helped me to remember that I was not crazy for believing in love. This trip taught me that it is not enough for me to just travel and look at beautiful places. I crave diversity and human connection. It is what we are all built for, whether we realize it or not.
*I’ve heard from several Lithuanians, because of their tough Russian occupation history, that they like to be referred to as Northern Europeans rather than Eastern Europeans. I wanted to clarify that for the sake of the title of the article.
Thank you for reading!