Poles are too white
04.06.2013, Polityka

In London, we discussed New Europeans. How we, Poles, fit into the landscape of tolerance, openness and political correctness in the New Europe.

The discussion was between two writers and two literary critics - lots of intellectual fumes, academic smartness, the ethos of intelligentsia. After the panel, I was approached by a student writing her PhD thesis, of Polish origin but raised in Austria, who said: "You know what I heard recently? That we, Poles, are too white to be... White."

She heard this from someone who had no idea she was born in Poland, that she had Polish parents. He took her for "one his kind", she fooled him with her accent and appearance. "Poles have such white skin" - the man told her with certain distaste -- "Not normally white, like mine or yours, but strangely pale ... It is some kind of different race. They are too white to be white."

I recalled an exchange of text messages with a friend, whom I told that Belgians did not ban the sale of that part of Tintin's adventures that takes place in the Congo. The issue ended up in court because the image of Africans, as depicted in the comic book of the cult Belgian author George Remi, known as Herge, is unfair to the inhabitants of the Congo. Published for the first time in 1931, "Tintin in the Congo" looks down on the society of the colonial Congo, a bit like the Polish poem for kids "Murzynek Bambo" (Little Negro Bambo). But while Africans don't care if Poles feel superior to them, the racism of other whites who colonized Africa has killed millions.

That is why, when my friend said that that "Tintin in the Congo" should continue to be published, also in Belgium, because it is a great comic book, I did not feel like laughing. Afro-Europeans raised in Belgium or France told me how difficult it was for them to build a positive image of themselves and their race, when in school they learned that history was exclusively the history of white people - conquests, inventions, art - all that is good in the word comes from the white race. Black people only got colonized. The culture of the great African continent is rarely mentioned in schools of small Europe. Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, the author of the novel "African Psycho" published in Poland, says mockingly in his book "Black Bazaar": "... just between us, do I resemble the Negroes from the adventures of ‘Tintin in the Congo'? Those big red lips are not the real lips of people living in the Congo, though at that time some history books taught that we have not yet made the transition from ape to man and that we continue to scratch our backs using our toes."

Belgian schools and society changed a lot from the time of the first publication of "Tintin in the Congo" in 2031. The programmes of lay schools pay attention to tolerance and equality, not only racial but also of the sexes (successes of women, with concrete facts, are discussed - in my school there was complete silence on this). Maybe racial awareness in Belgium is so high now that "Tintin in the Congo" will not do any damage? A white kid reading the comic book will know that the weird black characters drawn by Hegre have little in common with their friends of African origin.

The SMS exchange with my friend on whether it is right or wrong to publish "Tintin in the Congo" in Belgium turned eventually into a rather secondary discussion about whether there is any sense in censorship, which we sprinkled with names of those writing for bad regimes, but good artists nonetheless. In the end, in the interest of the relationship, I proposed a compromise: publish the comic book but with a foreword that we are dealing with a work of imagination, which shows the mentality of that time.

While quasi academic discussions are of no interest to me, I am moved by the notion of being raised in alien cultural patterns, by a vision of a youngster who can learn little about "his own kind" at school and the little he or she can is bad. Which doesn't mean that exaggeration in the opposite direction is good - see those who have been raised in the nationalist vein.

But why all this about racism if I started about us, Poles? Because when I heard that we are too white to be White, I imagined "Tintin in Poland". I am sure it would be a bestseller. The hero of the comic book, a likeable know-all with a blond quiff would visit our country, inhabited by people with a skin colour that is different from normal and he would show us a few tricks of civilization. His clever white dog would teach our mongrels how to pee in a civilized way. European schools would mention Poland only in the context of bringing down the Berlin wall.
"Tintin in Poland", created by a foreigner, would become a hit. The Artist would take up the issue of the swans we eat, the TV sets that we fight over in mile-long queues and of dog food, that is our favourite national delicacy. Millions of copies would be sold in Poland and abroad. A work of art is a work of art and even if it carries a message that offends part of humanity it should be preserved, if only to argue with it.

I imagined my own, as a white Polish writer, paraphrase of the quote from the novel of Alain Mabanckou: " ... just between ourselves, do I resemble the whites from the adventures of ‘Tintin in Poland'? Those ghastly white faces...are not the faces of real Poles, even though at that time it was said that we have not yet made the transition from a fawn-blond ape to European and that we still drink vodka straight from the bottle for breakfast, to wash down a rotting cucumber."

photo by Stephan Vanfleteren