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Wrocław is afraid: an experiment in the European Capital of Culture 2016

What happened when two teachers from one of the biggest and most populated cities in Poland, decided to put multicultural Wroclaw to the test; and how they encountered serious problems the minute they actually tried to implement their programme.

Wroclaw is afraid. Flickr/Klearchos Kapoutsis. Some rights reserved.

For some years the authorities of Wrocław, one of the biggest and most populated cities in Poland, have been building the image of this city as a “multicultural” and “open”, “the meeting place”. Yet research conducted by Polish foundations fighting against racism suggests that this image is a false one and that the inhabitants of Wrocław are not free from xenophobia. In May 2011 the authors were teachers and colleagues in the 14th High School in Wrocław. Together with our students, we decided to check out the reactions of the city inhabitants to the presence of people in the public space whose looks might give them away as belonging to various socially excluded groups.

For this purpose fifteen four-person teams consisting of one person dressed in a way that pointed to an affiliation with some ethnic, national, social or religious minority (Muslims, Romani, Indians, Jews, homeless or disabled) plus three supporting members conducted experiments in various locations in Wrocław (mainly in the city centre). Most of the teams represented the Muslim minority. Their presence within the public space evoked many negative reactions from the city’s inhabitants. They were called names, treated like potential offenders or otherwise boycotted and excluded.

Paulina (experiment participant)

“It is a pretty, sunny day. I’m going to Market Square, where Agata is waiting for me. She will be my “bodyguard” during the experiment. I change clothes in a public toilet. Instead of jeans, I’m wearing a long black skirt, hijab and scarf covering my face. I’m going out to Oławska street in Wrocław – it’s the very centre of the city. My task is to observe people’s reactions to my outfit of an orthodox Muslim.

I’m walking calmly, I don’t talk to anyone, I’m not doing anything suspicious, I’m not begging. Yet everybody is looking at me somewhat suspiciously, they are wary. We start to interview the passers-by.

Sylwester, 23-yr.old biotechnology student and his girlfriend Asia, 21, a student in English studies:

Sylwester: It’s not a problem for me. But I’m not afraid to say that frankly I don’t like it. Why am I forced to see oppressed women while I’m walking in the street?

When we point out that sometimes it’s actually their choice, he replies:

Sylwester: That’s just something you say. We all know how they are treated by their husbands.

Asia: In fact, I pity them. It’s difficult to see their faces, or rather eyes (laughs) tired because of the heat.

Sylwester: I’m sure they don’t feel at ease when everybody keeps staring at them: but on the other hand, they can’t be surprised. If I dressed as a clown and stood in the middle of the Market Square, I wouldn’t be offended that I attract everybody’s attention. I wouldn’t like to get into discussion with them, I think they create a sort of barrier, because of the headscarves. How can you talk normally to someone who is wearing some rag over their head?

I see a woman with a 5 year old child. The kid is eating a bun and looking at me with interest. His mother points at me with a look of horror in her eyes, whispers something into his ear and drags him the other way. “Nice kid” – I say to her, speaking Polish without a trace of foreign accent. She walks away quickly, without even looking at me.

I’m walking towards the shopping mall Galeria Dominikańska and then I go inside. The shop security men look suspiciously only at me. Probably they think I’m a terrorist and will blow the shopping mall up. Piece of cloth over my face and they already think I’m an armed member of Al-Qaida. They don’t realise that anyone from the crowd could be a bomber, not just a teenage girl dressed as a Muslim. 

Extract from the second interview:

Witold, 57-yr.old and his wife Ewa, 50, – travel agency owners, with three children.

Witold: Personally, I’m appalled with this. Who do they think they are to come here and show off in these rags? Maybe I don’t want to see those covered heads, because it brings kidnapping to my mind. Honestly, it didn’t make my afternoon walk any more pleasant. After the recent events with Bin Laden it’s sort of scary.

Ewa: And the way they look at you! Maybe they want to evoke pity. But they calculated that much themselves, so let them suffer.

E: People are awful sometimes. I saw myself that one man was walking beside them and mocking them, covering his face with his palm. But they shouldn’t be surprised that it bothers people. It’s difficult to see someone agreeing to be oppressed. And my husband shouldn’t see it… (laughs).

W: Lack of tolerance in Wrocław? There is no such a problem. No one bothers them, even though they probably came here to steal. Why look for problems where there aren’t any? Those Bin Laden wives came to Poland, because it’s good to live here!

I feel tired of this experiment and sit on a bench near the icecream parlour. I see two ladies that clearly had wanted to sit beside me but then saw my outfit, changed the direction quite abruptly and sat on another bench several metres away.

Extracts from the third interview:

Stanisława, 72 years old, vocational training, retired:

Stanisława: It’s a scandal. Away with all that nonsense! They are some terrorists, they just walk around and check where to plant bombs. How could people not react? We’re all Catholics here and they come to spread some gammon and spinach. They would like to convert us to their religion. Those great ladies came and wave those scarves in front of our noses. How not to get angry at that! I’m disgusted by it and I’m afraid of it. It looks innocent, but when it comes to it, they might kidnap or perhaps even kill you. They say they kidnap people for organ harvesting. One is afraid to leave the house.

Again I enter the public toilet and change back to my normal clothes. All the signs of discrimination disappear together with my hijab. I’m glad the experiment is over. The sense of social exclusion is really painful. Even the looks or gestures can be harmful, not to mention the words.

Kuba ( second experiment participant )

Kuba is a freshman who chose a Hasidic outfit. In fact, some time ago Jakub turned his back on Christianity and converted to Islam. His parents agreed to it, although they had some reservations. He graduated from his Koranic law course, and studied Arabic. He regularly visits the mosque. In his cellphone he has a recording of a muezzin calling to prayer. It wakes him up in the morning and vibrates in his cellphone quietly four times a day. The time of prayer coincides with the long recess in school. Kuba washes his hands, face, feet and ears in the school bathroom. He rinses his nose, wets his hair. The washbasin next to him always is free, even though people are queuing for the third one.

How does he feel in school? Tolerated. Sort of: okay, let him wash himself if he must, but let’s keep a distance. “Maybe they think I’m crazy and it’s better not to mess with me: maybe they are afraid of something they cannot understand?” – he wonders. After the ablutions he recites salat al-zuhr, which consists of four repetitions of a prayer, that is recitation, bow, recitation, prostrating to the ground and then another recitation.

When he did it for the first time he was afraid that the teacher in charge would make him leave the school yard or his colleagues mock him. But they don’t laugh when he spreads his carpet among the trees. Yet sometimes someone asks ironically: “So what did your Allah say to you?”

Kuba made side curls from horse hair out of a broom and glued them to his cousin’s old black hat. On his way to school people stare at him unreservedly. His colleagues laugh at him. He never heard so many jokes about Jews before. He recalls one of them: Why didn’t Jews participate in World World II? They went camping.

[…] Kuba walks along streets and thinks of his looks as a sort of happening. It doesn’t bother him when children call him: Jude.

They are mocking this Jew, not me – he says to himself. But then some pensioner passing him by under the Arcades yells: “Go back to Auschwitz!”.

What actually happened in the European Capital of Culture and what didn’t happen

We drew the conclusion that all the reactions noted down were the result of stereotypical treatment of our students dressed as Muslims or Jews. It was obvious to us that stereotypes tend to be consolidated automatically if people lack thorough knowledge of the Other. Once the stereotype is established it affects, usually in a negative way, our attitudes and behaviors. What was interesting to us was how the experiment showed that the fear of some inhabitants of Wrocław was evoked by the mere presence of ‘the Other’ in the public space, as manifested by some “everyday steroetype”.

After this experiment, we began to realize that the reactions of Wrocław inhabitants were connected to phenomena occurring all over contemporary Europe. As the population of the Old Continent rapidly changes, becoming more ethnically diverse, European immigration policy becomes more draconian and anti-immigrant narratives (mostly racist and Islamophobic) tend to become more pronounced in the media. Unfortunately, the direct result of these phenomena is the increase in nationalist tendencies in European, as well as in Polish society. The same is the case in Wrocław. With growing anxiety, we have observed the steady rise in aggressive racist campaigns in our city over the last few years. Such events as The National Rebirth, All-Polish Youth or anti-Semitic marches organized during Polish Independence Day (November 11) combined with the attacks on members of the liberal community and on immigrants, exacerbated by the passive attitude of the city authorities towards these phenomena, have worsened an already bad situation in the Lower Silesia capital. The city’s authorities even declared that this was a situation that was about to change. However it soon became obvious that these declarations were part of their PR strategy rather than real political aspirations.

The alleged multiculturalism of the city is clearly a marketing myth built on a serious, though pretty obvious “lack” – that is the lack of visible cultures other than what is Polish in the cultural space of Wrocław. The minorities of the city are almost invisible. Hence, they don’t constitute any challenge to our “tolerance”. People don’t walk down the streets of Wrocław dressed in saris, turbans or hijabs and hardly anyone speaks languages other than Polish, German or English. When we conducted the experiment, we suspected that the inhabitants of Wrocław simply didn’t know anyone different from themselves. We assumed that people lack knowledge of the Other, as well as multicultural competence or any regular experience resulting from living in the vicinity of other cultures.

This is why we decided to act and alert young people in Wrocław to this challenge. We began by organizing a debate in our school entitled: “Tolerance in Europe, Poland or Wrocław?”. Among the invited interlocutors were a catholic priest, a Muslim theologian, a Jewish artist, representatives of the homosexual community and a renowned journalist. All the participants of the debate were invited to listen to these people as they explored what religious, cultural and sexual tolerance should look like.

Having in mind the approaching UEFA 2012 Football Championship (Euro 2012), of which Wrocław was one of the hosting cities, the city authoritie, made aware of our work up to this point, contacted us and proposed creating an educational program devoted to teaching tolerance to both teachers and students. The result was the programme, “Wrocław against racism and social exclusion” created together with various non-governmental organizations and the University of Social Science and Humanities in Wrocław. This proposal went to the Education Department in Wrocław and to its municipal authorities. It was evaluated positively by method advisors, members of educational organizations as well as the Chancellery of the Polish President.

The programme, “Wrocław against racism and social exclusion” was designed for high school students in Wrocław. In order to participate, the student would have to be over 18 years old or have written agreement of a parent or legal guardian. The authors didn’t want to force anybody to participate in the programme or to indoctrinate anyone. They wanted to tell young people about other cultures, beliefs, habits and help them evolve knowledge and intercultural competences which are greatly needed in today’s globalized world. We were ready to explain the reasons for racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and how to prevent their spread. We wanted to teach them how to oppose violence directed against people of other skin colours, religions or sexual orientations. Twin versions of the programme were created for teachers in Wrocław, because as teachers ourselves we knew that this group also needed a refresher course in what constitutes an antiracist and anti-homophobic education.

Unfortunately we encountered serious problems the minute we actually tried to implement the programme. This began in the city’s Education Department, whose employees were rather suspicious of our actions from the outset. It was suggested on many occasions and at various stages of the review of what was planned that they were eager for us to entirely remove the module about countering homophobia from the programme.

Usually these suggestions were indirect and “unofficial”, yet constant pressure was exerted. At one of the working meetings one of the clerks from the Education Department told us: “You know, it’s Poland here, we’re not able to take this”.

However, we refused to accept this suggestion. If we were to remain credible in the eyes of our co-workers and students, we could not teach “selective” tolerance and omit the homophobic aspect. In the end we had to pay a big price for this persistence: the funding the Education Department had promised for the implementation of our programme was significantly cut back.

We were forced to search for private sponsors, but again: once the foundations and private companies learnt about the participation of the Campaign Against Homophobia in the programme, they promptly withdrew or considerably limited their donations, even though they were initially very interested in both the programme and in cooperation. Sometimes we were offered a small amount of discreet financial support on condition that we wouldn’t disclose its source in any materials promoting the project.

Finally, the Catholic communities, which still exert great influence on public life in Poland and often on the authorities, also came out fighting against the program, “Wrocław against racism and social exclusion”. The Catholic magazine Gość Niedzielny from January 2012 onwards published an article, “Through the back door, please”, whose author, rev. Rafał Kowalski wrote:

“In the 1980’s in the USA a manifesto on promoting homosexuality in society was created. A couple of years ago Joanna Najfeld warned us against it is happening in Poland. Is the same manifesto being implemented in Wrocław today? […] It’s really peculiar that the two first rules of the above mentioned manifesto of the homosexual lobby in the USA suggest the necessity of speaking of homosexuals as victims not aggressive revolutionaries. Its authors explain that almost every behavior tends to look normal, if we encounter it often enough, for instance among our friends, and our acceptance depends on the number of people who already accept a given behavior.

 

They also point out that in order to get public sympathy, one needs to present homosexuals as victims who need protection. Is it a coincidence or is this same approach introducing homosexual organizations into our educational institutions through the back door?

 

The programme’s authors try to convince us that the participation of students and teachers in the programme is wholly voluntary and in case of minors, written agreement of parents or legal guardians are required. Maybe it’s worth checking if the school to which your children go is going to realize this project and acting before it’s too late?”

Then one of our colleagues working in the same school, rev. Wojciech Zięba (in Poland, the Roman Catholic religion is an optional school subject) commented in public on our programme in a similar way. In his interview for Gazeta Wyborcza he said:

“As I understand it, you are referring to support for a project created by two teachers from my school which is superficial and tacky. I don’t know quite what you’re up to, I assume you want to launch a discussion on tolerance. Yet in my opinion it makes no sense to teach tolerance on the basis of a programme created by the same teachers who conducted a quasi-experiment last year, during which they convinced children to dress themselves up as Jews or Arabs and then let them out on the streets, marveling at the negative responses.

 

[ …] The Qoran directly summons people to “capture and kill the unfaithful, strike with your sword the necks of idolatrous”. I mean to say that this is a bloodthirsty message. […] The program is tacky, because among problems which are really important it tries to smuggle in the issue of so-called homophobia – which I would call more blatantly promoting homosexuality […]. That’s what happens if we put national or ethnic differences on the same level as homosexuality. […]. I really pity homosexuals and look on them without any sense of superiority, yet I think that building society on this model is going down a blind alley.”


Other Catholic and conservative media spoke of the programme in similar tones. Of course, neither of the people who criticized it actually read the programme or talked to the authors about their doubts. Yet our antagonists were more than willing to drag us into their own ideological war and antagonize people with their attitudes, in apparent accordance with Catholic Church teachings. The experiment was maligned as a “quasi-experiment” and “manipulation”. Neither of the critics enquired further into the source of the idea, methods applied or documentation of the results, their effects and evaluation. It’s a pity, because they might, for example, have found out about how the actions of the students were modelled on the work of the American antidiscrimination activist, Jane Elliot.

As the creators of the “Wrocław against racism and social exclusion” programme, we strongly believe that identifying actions countering homophobia with “promoting homosexuality” is a falsification. Is it true that if I am not against someone, if I defend them against attacks from others, that means that I propagate their way of living and world view? What does it mean to propagate homosexuality – behaviour which remains in the sphere of our personal understanding of what happiness is, to which every person living in a society of free people should be entitled? And where does this kind of thinking lead us, if not to a place devoid of tolerance? Do we really have to defend those absolutely basic ideas, characterising every free society, twenty years after our country regained its independence?

Human sexuality is a private matter, as long as we’re talking about adults who mutually and consciously consent to a given sexual activity. If these conditions are met, a democratic and ideologically neutral society should not be interested in anyone’s sex life or any condemnation of people who experience love in a way different from our own. The implication that ‘defective’ or ‘limited in their social usefulness because they don’t have children is totally unacceptable. The very notion of ‘social usefulness’ should immediately evoke the worst possible historic connotations. We consider every human being as being worthy and assert that we cannot speak of human beings as being “useful for something”. Any human has innate worth because she or he exists. A human being is not a tool for anything, as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted. Human being is a work of art and is the only subject responsible for what he or she does with himself or herself. That is what we believed when we created our programme.

In the end, given the pathetically low budget assigned for the programme “Wrocław against racism and social exclusion” didn’t even enter the first phase of implementation. Just a couple months later though, the city committed its financial assets to the WroOpenUp project, co-financed by Google and IMB. The program had rather similar assumptions to ours, with one exception. Neither the Campaign Against Homophobia nor any other foundation acting against gay discrimination were invited to participate and the issue of excluding homosexual people from social life in Poland was not mentioned in the program.

Logo designed by Jelena Pawlinska.

In conclusion it’s worth mentioning that the authors are no longer high school teachers. Six months later, far-right radicals started an aggressive campaign against immigrants, the representatives of ethnic minorities as well as against all those in authority who choose to adopt a different perspective from theirs, especially those related to left-wing politics. The Polish neo-Nazi groups launched various attacks, including the interruption of academic lectures by people whose opinions are unacceptable to them, as well as the use of physical force against the representatives of ethnic, religious or sexual minorities (e.g. they set fire to their homes). These attacks also took place on the University of Warsaw, the University of Gdańsk and Pomeranian University, alongside the arson attacks and the assaults that have occurred in many places throughout Poland.

Since the barracking of Zygmunt Bauman when the anti-terrorism brigade had to be called in, the situation in Wrocław, the future European Capital of Culture, has not improved in any way. The city authorities still haven’t elaborated a programme of fightback against the fascism amongst us and continue to produce more and more statements and declarations that lead to no action. Unfortunately all these symptoms could be the harbinger of real problems that could occur during the events that will take place in 2016. Will those many guests who plan to visit the European Capital of Culture, who have a skin colour other than white, or who speak a language other than Polish, be welcome at all? 

About the authors

Mirosław Tryczyk (PhD) is a lecturer in the University of Lower Silesia, a human rights activist and author of articles and philosophical essays on human rights, Slavic political and social thought, contemporary social and political phenomena, the art of iconostasis. He has published “Between the Empire and the Holy Russia” – a study of the genesis of Russian imperial doctrine.

Monika Spławska-Murmyło (PhD) is a freelancer, human rights activist, former journalist, teacher and author of popular science publications and articles on contemporary media and human rights.

 


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