When United Kingdom-based far-right activist Tommy Robinson posted a video on Twitter of a white nationalist demonstration he was attending in Warsaw, one exasperated user chimed in, stating: “One minute we’re being [asked] to support Poland the next minute their [sic] taking our jobs, I’m confused.” Indeed, anyone who recalls the anti-Polish sentiment that British white nationalists espoused in the run-up to Brexit (crystallized in the myth of the “job-stealing” Eastern-European migrant) will feel perplexed by the dueling narratives about Polish racial identity that are now playing out in Europe. While there are many nationalities thought of today as “white” that were at one point racialized as non-white (Italians, the Irish, etc.), today’s Poles are pulling off an exceptional feat. They have the distinction of being white in Warsaw, but not white if they fly just 2.5 hours west to London. As sociologists József Böröcz and Mahua Sarkar have explained it: “Whiteness is inherently unstable, heterogeneous, and impure. So is ‘Eastern Europe.’”
The march Robinson attended in Warsaw took place last year on Nov. 11, Polish Independence Day. That afternoon, a crowd of 60,000 protestors marched through the streets of Warsaw chanting “Pure Poland, white Poland.” Others carried signs that read “White Europe of brotherly nations” and “Europe will be white or uninhabited.” The far-right march was just one event associated with the day’s many celebrations, but it was nonetheless the focus of international media attention. It was a source of alarm particularly for the journalists, activists, and concerned citizens who have been anxiously tracking the xenophobia and white nationalism that has increasingly become a central node in Eastern-European politics.
It’s important to note, however, that this is far from a local phenomenon. The events in Poland are part of a larger crusade of far-right agitation that extends well beyond the country’s borders. Notably, two of the organizers of the Polish Independence Day march (the Polish Nationalist Movement and All Polish Youth) also convened an international conference for far-right extremists that took place that same morning. Held in the Polish parliament building, the event was attended by nationalists from Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden—some of the European countries that have seen a swing to the right in the wake of the migrant crisis and austerity cuts. The American white supremacist and leader of the so-called “alt-right” movement, Richard Spencer, was also scheduled to be there, but was barred by the Polish government from entering the country.
Making an especially strong showing at the Polish march were far-right activists from the United Kingdom. As reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center blog “Hatewatch,” in addition to Tommy Robinson, the event was attended by Jack Buckby, a former member of the British National Party (BNP), a white-nationalist organization previously headed by a Holocaust denier. Though Robinson has insisted he has no problem with Polish migrants in Britain, in July 2017, he responded to journalist Yaroslav Trofimov on Twitter in a way that suggested otherwise. When Trofimov reported that migration of Eastern Europeans to Britain had “collapse[d] to 5,000 from 48,000 a year,” Robinson replied: “Sorry fatcats, no more importing slave labour to undercut us.”
Robinson’s tweet and subsequent attendance of the Polish Independence Day march point to one of the most confounding ironies of this new wave of white nationalism in Poland. In 2016, just a year before the march, the U.K. was confronted with a spate of what were described as “racially motivated” hate crimes against Polish residents. When 21-year-old Telford resident Bartosz Milewski was stabbed in the neck after someone heard him speaking Polish with his friends, police treated the attack as a “racially aggravated hate crime.” The implication was that the Polish residents of Britain were somehow racially distinct from white English citizens. Observers of the Polish march must then be left wondering how Poles can be victims of white supremacist violence and rhetoric while simultaneously existing in a European political sphere where Polish nationalists carry signs reading “Pure Poland, white Poland.”
Some have suggested that the confusion lies in a misuse of terminology. In a piece for The Huffington Post UK, Rohan Natashka Kon argues that calling discrimination against Poles residing in the U.K. “racism” amounts to a misnomer: “The majority of hate crime against Polish people in Britain is white-on-white violence. While it is utterly deplorable, malignant, and unacceptable, nationalist discrimination against other white people isn’t racism.” In an essay for the Dutch online magazine The Correspondent, journalist Sarah Kendzior also remarks that the status of Poles under Brexit has created new doubts about what racism is and who can experience it, writing: “Poles in the U.K. are facing what some Polish Brits have called ‘racism’ (others, uncertain whether Poles are now a race, call it bigotry).” But in trying to explain away the racial magic trick that Polish identity seems to be performing in European politics as a problem of failed language, I worry that we run the risk of assuming there is some essential racial identity Brits and Poles share. To understand the spread of white nationalism in Poland, we must understand how tenable Polish whiteness is and has historically been.
Case in point—in that same piece for The Correspondent, Kendzior writes about how Polish Americans arrived in the United States in the early 20th century as racially non-white before achieving a middling status as “ethnic whites,” then eventually becoming subsumed into that undifferentiated whiteness that functions like a second American dream. Kendzior explains how the influx of black residents to Chicago, a city where many Polish Americans had settled, contributed to a cohesive white identity wherein “white-ethnic” populations (particularly the Irish and the Poles) forged their whiteness in part through unified opposition to African Americans. This thesis—that whiteness is forged in anti-blackness—is a widely articulated one that has been applied most famously to the Irish and Italians. What it points to is that the dual axis upon which Polish identity operates today is not unprecedented, but is in fact how whiteness works. It is asserted most belligerently when there is a risk that it might be revoked. The claims to white Poland that were articulated at the Polish Independence Day march in 2017 cannot be separated from the racialized marginalization that Poles and other Eastern Europeans felt in the U.K. during the Brexit debate.
The racial disjuncture of Polish identity in contemporary Europe relies on a certain kind of siloing. Accounts of racialized violence against Polish migrants in Britain are seen as somehow distinct from assertions of racial purity espoused by Polish nationalists at home. The fact that these conversations are allowed to exist in isolation of one another makes it possible to avoid addressing the ways in which they are part of a single narrative. In other words, the invocation of white identity by Polish nationalists serves not merely as a means to discriminate against Muslim refugees from Syria, but also as a way of asserting that the Polish are not ethnically different from white Britons or white Europeans writ large.
Others too have argued that the experiences of Polish and Eastern-European migrants under Brexit have to be understood in tandem with the pull that white nationalism increasingly has on the region. Writing in Slavic Review, sociologists Sarkar and Böröcz note that Eastern Europeans perceive a form of what they call “racial downgrading” when the term “migrant” is used to refer to members of their own country living in U.K. To make their point, the sociologists cite a January 2016 meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron in which Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was adamant that Hungarians, as EU citizens, should not be referred to as “migrants.” Sarkar and Böröcz write that Orbán, whose far-right Fidesz party has espoused aggressively nationalist polices, “seems keen to extricate the ethnonational category he represents (‘Hungarians’) from that discounted, racialized location that it has been assigned.” While discussions about free movement within the EU have largely focused on fears of Eastern European migration to the western part of the continent, Sarkar and Böröcz argue that the refugee crisis and the sudden arrival of Muslims from the Middle East have given leaders in Poland and Hungary an opportunity to present themselves as racially distinct from this new class of migrants. As they put it: “The arrival of relatively large numbers of displaced people seems to have provided an excellent opportunity to the governments of Eastern Europe to stake out their claim, once and for all, to essential, unquestionable whiteness.”
Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles, have a long history of having their whiteness—and European-ness—painted as tenuous. In Inventing Eastern Europe, his foundational study of how the region became constructed as somehow distinct from its Western counterpart, historian Larry Wolff traces this imaginary divide to the German Enlightenment. Indeed, in the 18th century, when German philosophers Johann Blumenbach and Immanuel Kant were exploring a new theory of human categorization called “race,” many of their followers made use of neighboring Slavic nations as a way of articulating ideas of endemic difference. The countries of “Slavs” were regarded as congenitally backward, racially tainted by proximity to the Ottoman Empire, and overrun with Jews. In the eyes of Western Europeans, they generally occupied a middle space between East and West that rendered them ethnically suspect.
What the competing narratives about Polish racial identity ultimately reveal is a truth familiar to students of history: namely, that whiteness is little more than a tool to deny resources to some while preserving them for others. Pointing out the inconsistences of racialization is key to dismantling the false logic of race. This is why it remains incumbent on Europe watchers to absorb these seemingly disparate conversations (racism against Poles in Britain and racist violence against non-Poles in Poland) as part of a single story about Eastern Europe trying to defend its fraught racial status.