The Polish word “Murzyn” — a racial epithet still frequently used to refer to and address Black people — is at the heart of a campaign in Poland to challenge racial discrimination. The movement in Poland was sparked by the killing of George Floyd by the U.S. police in 2020 and united Black activists and allies with the hashtag #DontCallMeMurzyn.
As a result of the murder, demonstrations were held around the world, and during one protest outside the US embassy in Warsaw, a student was seen holding a placard saying, “Stop calling me Murzyn”, with the image consequently being broadly shared on social media.
The M-word is not only a symbol of anti-Black racism, but also a term that Black Poles find derogatory and racist. This term shares etymological roots with the English word “Moor”, and in Poland it has been used for a long time to refer to black people. For numerous years, black people in Poland, have been highlighting that they find the M-word offensive. When referring to Polish black men and women, the correct terms to use are Afropolacy and Afropolki (Afro-Poles, in male and female form). Nevertheless, these words are not yet recognised by most Polish dictionaries.
In 2020, a YouTube video published by five Afro-Polish women sharing their experiences of anti-Black discrimination in Poland gave momentum to the campaign and started the #DontCallMeMurzyn hashtag campaign. “I hate this word and I try not to use it because to me it has such a negative, harsh overtone,” says Marta Udoh, one of the creators of the video. “Each time I hear this word, I feel like someone was clawing at my heart.”
The five Black women behind the discussion are Udoh, Sara Alexandre, Noemi Ndoloka Mbezi, Aleksandra Dengo, and Ogi Ugonoh. The aim of the video was to highlight the extent of racism in Poland and that the M-word is pejorative and outdated. In 2020 they launched a petition to change the meaning of the word in the Dictionary of the Polish Language published by PWN (the Polish Scientific Publishers), the most important dictionary publisher in Poland.
In a recent declaration, the Council for the Polish Language, agreed with them stating that the M-word “should be avoided in the media, official administration and at schools,” as it is no longer neutral, but “burdened with negative connotations”.
Since the campaign, some of the creators have joined forces to launch a new Instagram platform “Black is Polish”, which seeks to educate people about racism in Poland. Since creating the platform in May 2021, the page has gained a lot of popularity and support, and currently has over 12k followers. The creators post a variety of material in an accessible manner from tips on how to be a be a good ally to the Black community, celebrating successes of Black people and organisations to sharing personal experiences of racism in Poland. The Black is Polish team aims to educate schools and businesses and continue to transform people’s approach at grassroots level.
The Polish M-word
Resistance against the M-word in Poland, started before George Floyd’s death. The use of the M-word was criticised earlier by Polish-Senegalese Mamadou Diouf, who called for a boycott of using this term. In 2011, Diouf released “Mała książka o rasizmie” (A Little Book about Racism). Additionally, he often spoke about against racism in Poland and the racist history in the M-word. Diouf also co-authored with Stephano Sambali “Jak mówić polskim dzieciom o dzieciach z Afryki” (How to talk to Polish children about children from Africa).
Nevertheless, the M-word has deep roots within the Polish language, culture and society, and some Polish speakers continue to be resistant to the campaign, and such educational platforms.
Most prominent examples include the 1924 poem by Julian Tuwim, Murzynek Bambo, (the little Murzyn Bambo). Tuwim’s poem recounts the story of a young black boy, named Bambo, who lives in Africa. It has been criticised for infantalising and othering Black communities, yet it is still on the syllabus in some schools and is known by most Polish children. According to Margaret Ohia, who specialises in racism in the Polish language at the University of California, the main character of the poem is depicted as inferior to the presumably white reader. Unfortunately, the M-word continues to be used even in children’s name-calling when referring to a black child.
In June 2021, Polish preschool’s blackface performance of Tuwim’s poem provoked widespread controversy when white school staff danced in blackface. This happened in Kępno, a town of 15,000 people, to mark Children’s Day, which is celebrated in Poland every year on 1 June. This year, the performance featured employees of a local preschool, most of whom we wearing black make up and “afro” wigs. The set design and costumes were chosen because the school decided to perform Tuwim’s poem for the children. The staff and kids, appeared in front of a jungle-like backdrop, dancing and singing, and one spoke in a mock “African” language.
Racism in Poland
In her research about white supremacy in Poland, Miriam Wojtas uses the example of a traditional Polish chocolate cake to this day referred to as “Murzynek”. Wojtas argues the name of this dessert is a literal translation of the diminutive form of an offensive racial epithet used to refer to a Black individual. She highlights that “this cake is just one manifestation of mundane efforts to distinguish Poland as a white nation, where whiteness signifies power in a Western colonized world order.”
Examples of deeply ingrained racism in Poland extends to other food items such as margarine. In 2014, a type of margarine, known as “Palma” (meaning Palm tree), which depicts a cartoon black person on the packaging, was rebranded to “Palma z Murzynkiem”, meaning a Palm tree with a black person. The producer of the margarine, Bielmar, denied all racist allegations, and said that the logo has been an inherent part of the product for decades, and that changing it would result in a loss of the company’s brand image.
In Kraków, one of the most famous historical tenement buildings is known as “Kamienica Pod Murzynami” (translating to a tenement building under two Black people). The building is located on Floriańska Street and historians demonstrate that the name derives from an outdoor sculpture on the building, which depicts two black men.
By Zula Rabikowska
Zula Rabikowska is a Polish documentary photographer whose work explores the themes of identity, displacement and belonging. Find out more about Zula and her many projects in our interview as well as online and on Instagram!