African-American in Poland by Elliott
on photos for image directory of Poland
Sikora looked at me with kind, albeit worried eyes. Not
because I had flown to Warsaw at the spur of the moment
without booking a hotel room. Not because we were virtual
strangers — having been introduced by telephone
just one day earlier when a mutual friend called from
to announce my impending arrival in Warsaw. Looking at
me, for the first time, outside the customs area at Fredric
Chopin Airport, Mateusz Sikora worried because I am black.
“Polish people don’t see too many blacks,” said
Mateusz, a Polish-born sculptor who spent more than a
decade living in a racially-mixed neighborhood in Melbourne,
Australia. “You might run into a little bit of … well,
According to the CIA World Fact Book, 96.7% of Poland’s
population is comprised of ethnic Poles. Germans, the
2nd largest ethnic group, make up a mere 0.4% of the
population. Belarusians and Ukrainians — the next
most populous groups — each account for only 0.1%.
Poles aren’t accustomed to outsiders, especially
people of color. Which is why Mateusz issued the warning — one
that turned out to be well founded.
When Mateusz took me on a tour of the city the following
day, I ran “into a little bit of racism.” More
specifically, it was a form of racial prejudice served
up not by skinheads or fundamentalists or garden-variety
bigots, but by adolescent Polish girls who had never
seen a black man in person.
One incident occurred as we walked past the Ministry
of Culture, housed in a bleak Orwellian tower that survived
World War II, although more than 90% of Warsaw’s
structures did not. Another incident took place as I
strolled alone past the opulent Royal Meridien Hotel
on Krakowskie Przedmiescie. But the most brazen act occurred
when Mateusz led me to Old Town, which had been obliterated
during the war, and rebuilt — brick by brick — to
it’s pre-war splendor.
Mateusz and I were sitting on a bench, marveling at the
faux 14th-century buildings, when suddenly, a teenage
blonde broke away from a group of schoolgirls and confronted
me. “Please,” she said, her voice flat, her
eyes hopeful. “Can I take picture?”
Mateusz chuckled when she whipped out a camera.
A racial pessimist would raise a wary eyebrow. My ethnicity,
he might say, was being singled out, mocked, carnivalized
by people who live in a country devoid of color. Back
home in the United States, I have been eyeballed by department
store security guards, glared at by suspicious cops,
and regarded on numerous occasions as though I were an
alien in my own country. Had I never left my hometown
of Chicago, had I not been afforded an opportunity to
travel the world, to see myself apart from negative images
often projected upon me at home, perhaps I may not have
taken so kindly to a white Polish girl who stuck a camera
in my face.
Having been through the drill a few times already, I
nodded. As if by magic, a 2nd girl appeared. A brunette.
The blonde girl handed off the camera to the brunette
and ran over to give me an unsolicited bear hug.
The camera flashed. Black and white images were etched
onto color film. Satisfied, the blonde girl kissed me
on the cheek and then grabbed the camera from her friend.
The brunette switched places, hugging me, and grinning
all the while.
“Dziekuje,” the girls said in union, thanking
me before running back to the group of schoolgirls.
“You are very popular with the Polish girls,” Mateusz
said, facetiously. Even before he finished the sentence,
two more teenage girls appeared. Eyes wide and hopeful,
they proffered a camera. More poses were concocted. The
camera flashed again and again.
As they thanked me and turned to skip away, I noticed
that the group of schoolgirls had moved closer. Much
closer. In fact, they were lining up, waiting to be photographed
with the shaved-headed African-American.
Mateusz and I exchange a glance and laughed.
I’ve come to realize that being different — whether
you’re a black among whites, a Christian among
Muslims, or a bleeding-heart Liberal in a land of staunch
Conservatives — is almost always cause for a double
take. More often than not, being different has been the
catalyst for acts of kindness and inclusion whenever
I’m traveling abroad.
I have been coddled by paternal Italians, sheltered by
benevolent Swedes, and protected from encroaching assailants
by big badass Aussies who chose to kick arse before taking
names. Although I am often mistaken for Samuel L. Jackson
due to skin tone and a predilection for Kangol hats worn
backward, although presumptions are made about my prowess
on the basketball court as well as on the dance floor,
I’ve learned to surreptitiously roll my eyes while
I roll with the punches.
It’s the kisses, not the blunders, that frame my