A Guest in the House is God in the House: Poland and Diversity

by McKenzie Hightower – 

This spring, Fulbridge asked ETAs to write about the theme of diversity– “the condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied; difference, unlikeness” – in their grant experiences. This month, ETAs from around the world share how the grant year has changed their perspectives on diversity. Read the full series here.

This piece was written by McKenzie Hightower, 2016-17 ETA in Poland.

Poland is very white.

I mean that literally. White snow, white buildings, white food, white people. I have skied down the pristine white slopes of Zakopone, the snowy wooden chalets a reminder of centuries past. The oscypek—a white smoked sheep’s cheese—was rich with flavor as I overlooked the Tatra Mountains, a low cloak of white fog obscuring the valleys from my sight. I’ve seen great swatches of communist era white square buildings make up rows and rows of houses, only punctured by the intricate graffiti art that shows a small girl holding up the world. I’ve tasted the sweet pale white pears, the steamed white pierogi, and clear rich chicken soup, each bite like a small sin. I’ve learned how the country managed to hold onto its culture, its history, and its language during partition, a time when Poland as we now know it ceased to exist. This is rather remarkable to me. A people so fierce and so determined that they were able to retain the essence of Polishness—their language, their culture, their history—even when it was physically outlawed in 1864 to promote assimilation to Russia. It has Żubrówka—the famed Polish vodka. It has its famed hospitality—Gosc w dom, Bog w dom! (A guest in the house is God in the House!). And the best museums in Europe—the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

But it has very little diversity.

As an American this has impacted me greatly, because it has caused me to reflect on not only the multiculturalism in the United States, but also the effects of being exposed to new people and customs. When I left my home in Fort Worth, Texas for my Fulbright in October, I knew that political and cultural tensions were growing at home. I knew the South had a particularly long and complex history with racism, and I suppose I translated this past and present struggle to a waning of the somewhat misleading idea of “the American melting pot.” That we had tried diversity and failed.

Then I went to live in Poland.

Teaching at Marie Curie Sklodowscka University was very eye-opening, as I have watched again and again as my students struggle to embrace new cultures and ways of thought. And yet it’s worth remembering just how different Poland’s history is from that of the U.S, and how that history affects current attitudes towards diversity. Poland was a country that experienced “two holocausts,” as one of my colleagues put it. First, the Nazis wiped out any diversity of religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. And then the Soviets wiped out any public displays of diversity of thought. Poland, until the late 80’s, was unified under the Polish United Workers’ Party and the Iron Curtain, undergoing what was known as “The Reign of Terror” beginning in 1939. Anyone who looked different, acted different, offended a Party official, or voiced a difference of opinion—especially one that contradicted the communist ideology—was kidnapped, imprisoned, deported to the East (mostly Siberia), or tortured. According to Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917, an exhaustive study of the effects of Soviet power,

“From 1945 to 1948, the Soviets deported to forced labor or concentration camps in the Soviet Union from 3,000,000 to 6,000,000 Poles, of which 585,000 may have died. Hundreds of thousands and possibly near 1,000,000 Poles were killed in Soviet terror and repression. From 1948 to 1987, some 22,000 Poles, maybe as many as 54,000, were executed or otherwise killed by the communist regime.”

This past—this very recent past in fact—has left the next generations of Polish students, at least the ones I have taught, underprepared to engage with the rising multiculturalism that is sweeping most of Europe.

I have encountered this often in my classroom. Instead of critically analyzing the complexity of the war in Syria, terrorism, or the implications of immigration, I have seen my university students respond to other countries and peoples with reactions ranging from lack of interest to outright hostility. Once, I showed a moving TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. She talks about the danger of a single story, about realizing there are more sides to a single person or issue than the one that is most often heard. One student, a young man, responded to the video by saying, “I don’t understand why we have to learn about Africa. We live in Poland, with just Polish people. All we should worry about is terrorism. The Quran is only filled with hate. Its very last teaching—and Muslims must abide by the very last teaching—says to commit terrorism.” Such instances of extreme xenophobia are sadly not rare.

Another one of my students did not want people with different skin colors to move to Poland, because then their race would be deluded. Another thought women should not work in businesses, because they would be too distracting to men. Another thought refugees should not be welcomed to Poland, because they simply would never fit into their culture. And yet another thought sexism was a thing of the past and that women did not join in politics because they were too indecisive. These hostile attitudes toward diversity— the lack of acceptance of different cultures, thought, and people—are a dangerous thing, because diversity, in all its forms, is one of the most powerful catalysts for progress.

Such a stark contrast to the United States has made me realize two things. First, the “American Culture” I have been teaching is not a singular thing. It is one that had blended together Mexican, African American, Cajun, Cuban, and Native American customs to create rich food, music, clothing styles, and much more in the South. Second, and more importantly, the implications of this produced mixed feelings within me. Unlike Poland, Americans would never feel the solidarity that develops from knowing the exact unified rituals of a single people—the unique Palma wielkanocna that everyone carries on Palm Sunday, the traditional Polish folk dances that are performed at Christmas, the way that one person in the north of the country would know that they can get the same kind of pierogi and the same kind of soup in the south of the country.

At first this made me sad, but then I realized that since diversity is American culture, not just a component of it, we are just as unified as Poland, but through our differences instead of our similarities. We incorporate, modify, and add customs, thoughts, and people like a flexible tapestry which is then shown to the world as our new identity, constantly changing. In this way, America has not “failed” at diversity. It is just an ongoing assignment, a complex blessing, one that can bring conflict and unrest but at the same time capacities for expanded understanding.

One hundred years of subjugation cannot be thrown off in thirty years, and I still encounter barriers to acceptance daily. Still, there are bright spots. I remember a specific moment when a student was looking at the nihilistic photographs a Larry Clark—an Oklahoma based artist that captured images of heroin addicted teenagers—and said that she saw bits of her generation in those photographs. Bits of Polish and European youth, disillusioned with a world where job opportunities were few and survival was difficult. Another looked at the American Black Lives Matter movement and observed that they are a response to unequal power structures that date back in the United States for centuries. After a little more pushing, that same student realized that those same power structures—those of white men and women—were in place in Poland as well. These moments of sympathy and pure critical thought, the very foundation of progress and the first step to acceptance of diversity, filled me with hope. Just as America struggles to accept the burdens and the blessings of its own multiculturalism, so too in these moments does Poland move towards moments of acceptance and understanding through these small signs that the next generation might one day come to see difference and diversity as a strength and not a weakness.

McKenzie Hightower went to the University of Notre Dame, where she studied English and Film. She now teaches at Marie Curie Sklodowska University in Poland, teaching second year Linguistic Masters’ students.

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