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How Does 'White Privilege' Work When It Comes to Eastern Europeans?

Whiteness isn't a one-dimensional mass of privilege and wealth

By Katie JglnPublished about a year ago 8 min read
Photo by IVASHstudio from AdobeStock

I've recently criticized an American TikToker with an audience of 1.5 million people for spreading utter bullshit about Eastern European history.

She made a video in which she claimed that people from the 'Eastern bloc' - particularly Poland - fail to recognize their white privilege and purposefully avoid conversations about colonialism which we apparently took part in. She also claimed that we've been violently racist and anti-semitic for millennia.

That video is now deleted.

And the Tik Toker in question reached out to me in private, asking me to remove my video response to hers. Why? Well, apparently, it 'portrayed her as a stupid American.' Yeah, I didn't do that. Instead, I tried to explain why she was wrong in her original video and why this sort of narrative only feeds into a larger anti-Slavic sentiment that I've lately seen on various social media platforms.

I wasn't surprised that she only kept defending herself and refused to acknowledge anything I was saying. And when I asked her about her sources, she just wrote:

'I spent some time in Europe.'

Cool. That's definitely a much more reliable source than, I don't know, reading historical books or studying history, right?

Contrary to what some Americans think, Europe is a whole continent, not a country. And even though European countries do share some parts of history, we aren't a monolith. We all have different cultures, traditions, speak different languages, and we've been through different things.

While it might be convenient for some woke-points-starved American social justice warriors to see white people as this one-dimensional mass of immense wealth and privilege, they aren't. Especially when it comes to Slavs - the ethnolinguistic group of people residing chiefly in eastern and southeastern Europe.

So how does 'white privilege' work when it comes to us Slavic people? Does our 'whiteness' grant us immunity against systemic discrimination in the Western world? And can you really put us in the same box with other European countries that actually built colonial empires and still benefit from it today?

White, but not quite

I was born and raised in Poland shortly after the fall of the USSR. In a lot of ways, I was fortunate. I was the only one in my entire family who had never experienced the Soviet regime. And when I was 11, Poland joined the European Union.

The future of many young Poles - including myself - started to look bright from that point onwards. We could finally freely move to Western Europe to study, work, and live after decades of being trapped inside the Iron Curtain. And even though I was still young when we joined the EU, I was already beginning to plan my 'escape.'

Although Poland was doing relatively ok in the early 2000s - especially in comparison with other post-Soviet nations - we weren't exactly a paradise on Earth either. We were - and still are - at least a few decades behind most Western countries, both economically and socially.

And that's why when I moved to Western Europe for the first time, I experienced a huge cultural shock. People here were much more privileged and wealthier than I expected. And they often didn't realize that at all.

During my first few years abroad, I felt entirely out of place.

Yes, I'm white. But I'm also Polish, which most people could tell by my accent or my full name (which isn't Katie Jgln, by the way). And being Polish meant I wasn't exactly going to be treated like everyone else.

I also quickly discovered that most Westerners knew fuck all about Poland and other Eastern European countries except for a bunch of stereotypes. To them, we were this mass of poor immigrants coming to the Western wonderland after Mother Russia unwillingly released us from the Soviet regime's sweet embrace to clean their houses, set up brothels, and sell drugs.

Oh, and steal their jobs, of course.

We're the servants, cleaners, prostitutes, and criminals. We're here to scrub your toilets and shovel your shit. We're white, but not quite. We're at the bottom of the white people's barrel.

From slavery to cultural erasure and disappearing off world maps

What bothers me the most about Westerners making all sorts of assumptions or stereotyping Slavs, like myself, is their complete disregard for our complex history. And, no - I'm not only referring to the shitshow of the last century.

Most Westerners I've met only know a bit about the harsh reality of the USSR and what happened to us during the World Wars, but not much beyond that. Which would've been completely fine if we weren't being suddenly put in the same box as Europe's former imperial powers.

But we are. So maybe it's time for a brief history lesson.

The history of Slavic people goes far back in time, starting around the 1st century CE. The early Slavs were, at first, a diverse group of tribes occupying the territories of today's Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Around the 9th century, we slowly started consolidating into bigger societies.

During the same time, we were also captured and sold off as slaves to the Islamic world in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Iberian peninsula. These Slavic slaves were commonly referred to as Saqaliba. We were targeted instead of other Europeans because of our ethnicity and religious beliefs - we were still largely pagan back then. With our gradual conversion to Christianity, the Slavic slave trade diminished, but it still existed until the early Middle Ages.

And even though this wasn't the first time slavery appeared in world history, many historians argue that the term 'slave' has actually its origins in the word slav.

Luckily for the Slavs, the next few centuries were a period of prosperity and relative peace. We established several state nations and unions. We started trading with the neighboring Western kingdoms. We officially become an equal and respectable part of this world. And my home country, Poland, together with Lithuania, created one of the largest political entities in Europe at a time - The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

This dual state was also the first major multicultural melting pot in Europe. While Western Christian countries were busy organizing Crusades, expelling non-Christians from their territories, and doing other 'fun' stuff, Slavs boasted a more tolerant policy towards different ethnicities and faiths. And so, the Commonwealth was inhabited by Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Scots, Jews, Tatars, Armenians, and Germans.

Although some Slavic nations - mostly imperial Russia - did engage in the continental expansion, we have no history of overseas conquests. And it was also Russia that played its part in ending the existence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

In the late 18th century, our territories were split between Prussia, the Habsburg Monarchy, and Russia. For almost two centuries, Poles and other Slaves living in the former Commonwealth were denied their language, culture, and traditions and were forced to speak either German or Russian.

And by the early 20th century, only the Russian Empire and three independent Slavic states survived. For the record, today, there are fourteen of them.

We're still othered

As you can probably imagine, there is much more to our history than I've included in the previous paragraph. But why should any of this matter?

Well, it's no secret that many Slavic countries today continue to struggle economically and socially. Women and gay rights are virtually non-existent in most of them, even those which are part of the EU. Many Slavs are racist, xenophobic, anti-semitic, homophobic, and sexist. Belarus and Ukraine are still at the mercy of the Russian government.

There is no denying these facts.

However, to claim that this is how we've always been or that this is a legacy of our made-up colonial past is factually incorrect. Because it isn't. If anything, it's a legacy of the Soviet Union and centuries of oppression and cultural erasure we endured. We now sadly adapted the same hateful ideologies that our ancestors were running away from. We were othered for such a long time that we felt the need to draw clear lines between different races and faiths to preserve our Slavic identity the moment we regained our independence.

But two wrongs don't make a right.

And to make matters worse, when we leave our homelands to find a better life abroad, we're discriminated against. We're still othered.

We face social and economic discrimination in Western European countries, like the UK, France, and Germany. We're discriminated against in housing, education, health, and work. We suffer xenophobic bullying and verbal abuse. And we're victims of hate crimes.

This anti-Slavic sentiment - also known as Slavophobia - existed at least since the Slavic slave trade, and it reached its peak during the Second World War. Both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini viewed the Slavic race as inferior and barbaric. And, as a result, thousands of Polish people were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp together with Polish Jews. Including many of my distant relatives.

Our whiteness doesn't erase xenophobia

The current fight against racism both in the US and other Western countries is a critical one. No doubt about it. And I know that as a Polish person, I need to unlearn racist prejudices I grew up with, educate myself on the struggles of black people and people of color, and, most importantly, listen to their life experiences which are so far removed from my own.

Like any other white Slav, I'm also aware that I do have 'white privilege.' When somebody looks at me, they don't see the oppression and discrimination my family and ancestors faced. They see a white woman. I blend it with other white Westerners, and that's a privilege that people of color do not have.

But to claim that because of our whiteness, we're completely immune from discrimination in the West or that we're massively privileged because of 'colonization' is incorrect. We aren't.

We don't come from generations of wealth accumulated through colonial exploitation. We haven't participated in slavery - we were enslaved ourselves. Many of us - including my family - have lost everything to Russians, Germans, or both during the last century. We've lost our lands, homes, and material possessions.

Not everything is always black and white. Literally. But, oddly enough, it's usually the same people who scream the loudest about the importance of historical nuance and shared experiences who have the exact opposite approach when it comes to Eastern Europeans. Suddenly our history and our experience abroad don't matter at all because we're white. And that's it.

But maybe if more people were aware of it, they'd stop projecting their own history and guilt on others. Because, ultimately, that attitude only creates more unnecessary divisions.

And do we really need more of that now?

This story was originally published on Medium.


About the Creator

Katie Jgln

Sometimes serious, sometimes funny, always stirring the pot. Social sciences nerd based in London. Check out my other social media:

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