Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast

Race and Representation - Margaret Ohia-Nowak

November 13, 2020 FulbrightD&I Season 1 Episode 2
Race and Representation - Margaret Ohia-Nowak
Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
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Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
Race and Representation - Margaret Ohia-Nowak
Nov 13, 2020 Season 1 Episode 2

In this episode, Fulbright Poland alumna Margaret Ohia-Nowak and EUR Diversity Coordinator Susanne Hamscha talk about the representation of Black Polish people in texts and images, discursive discrimination and microaggressions, as well as Black activism in Poland. Margaret Ohia-Nowak is a linguist, human rights activist, and cross-cultural training facilitator. She received a Fulbright grant to conduct research for her dissertation at UC Berkeley  (2012-2014). Her research focuses on the manifestation of racism against black people in language and discourse.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Fulbright Poland alumna Margaret Ohia-Nowak and EUR Diversity Coordinator Susanne Hamscha talk about the representation of Black Polish people in texts and images, discursive discrimination and microaggressions, as well as Black activism in Poland. Margaret Ohia-Nowak is a linguist, human rights activist, and cross-cultural training facilitator. She received a Fulbright grant to conduct research for her dissertation at UC Berkeley  (2012-2014). Her research focuses on the manifestation of racism against black people in language and discourse.

Susanne Hamscha  0:05 
#RepresentationMatters. If you're active on social media, you have no doubt come across this popular hashtag. Representation matters because whose stories are told, and how they are told, shapes our perception of the world, our perception of what is normal, and what is different or "other."

Welcome to Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast. My name is Susanne Hamscha, and I'm the Diversity Coordinator for Fulbright in Europe and Eurasia.

If you can't see it, you can't be it. This is what US-American feminist and activist Gloria Steinem said almost 10 years ago with regards to the under representation of women in positions of power and influence. Examples are powerful influencers. Research shows that many people look to peers for cues and guidance, and draw courage from knowing that others before them already forged a path and broke the glass ceiling. When you don't know the possibilities, how do you figure out who and what you can be? This is a question that can be asked not only with regard to the representation of women, but also with regard to the representation of racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized populations.

And that's one of the questions I will explore with today's guest, Margaret Ohia-Nowak, who is a linguist with a special focus on discourse analysis, a human rights activist, a cross cultural training facilitator, and an alumna of Fulbright Poland.

Margaret, hi and welcome to this episode of our diversity podcast. To get us started, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about your main research interests?

Margaret Ohia-Nowak  1:35 
Sure. Hi, Susanne. Thanks for inviting me here. Yeah, as you already said, I'm a trainer. I'm an academic as well. But I would like to say a few words about my ethnic background and cultural background, which is also relevant in terms of my work. So I'm a daughter of a Polish woman and a Nigerian man, I was born and raised in Poland, and I lived a few years in Nigeria, during my early childhood. And as a Polish Nigerian woman, I have experienced prejudice and racist discourse on my own skin. And this is the main topic of my research. And so I look at ways in which people in Poland speak and write about black people in particular people of African descent. So the discourse that I experienced throughout my childhood, is that most Poles used to call me murzyn, which could be translated into an English word, "Negro." And also today, I'm called by other adults very similarly, sometimes with no intention of offending me, or even just describing me.

So as I said, in my studies, I make references to my personal experiences, to incidents of discrimination and to overheard speech as well, that was directed at my person. And because speakers usually think that I do not speak Polish, they assume that I'm not a Polish speaker, a native Polish speaker, which I am, they would easily express themselves even in front of me. Also, as a researcher, I position myself as a black mixed race scholar, who is impacted by discourse, who lives in a predominantly white society as Poland is, and who studies a self-reflexive response to this racially distinct context as well. So I'm interested both in language use and in power abuse and in reproducing domination through this course, and I in my work I've met I often refer refer to microaggressions as well, that I experienced, such as "Where are you really from?" as implying that I was not really coming from Poland. So as I say, these polarizing questions that imply that I was not really Polish, I didn't speak Polish. But I also look at the blatant acts of everyday racism that were directed at my person and are directed routinely at Black people in Poland and people of African African descent living in Poland, even though some of the members of the community were born in Poland and are defining themselves as Polish.

So I'd say this is the basis of my work and I kind of you know, come from that personal position that is a researcher that is embedded in her own research, so to speak.

Susanne Hamscha  4:39 
Well, thank you. Thank you so much also for explaining how you position yourself vis á vis your research. This is a very helpful contextualization. I would like to go back to something I said in the intro, when I mentioned something that has become a common popular phrase when we talk about representation and that is "if you can't see it, you can't be it." Is this phrase something that resonates with you? Did you have role models that you could look up to when you were a child, but also, later in your life when you went to university and you started to build your career as an academic? Or do you feel like you are very much the mold breaker and trailblazer for women of color in your country?

Margaret Ohia-Nowak  5:28 
So in a way, what you said right now about being a mold breaker and trailblazer is, in a way, it's true, because I grew up in Poland in the early 90s, late 80s, when people of color were not visible at all in the streets. And even if there were people of color, and they do live in Poland, most of them do not want to speak about the experiences of race. Maybe it has changed in the last few months after the Black Lives Matters protests, when people are encouraged to speak about the experiences, but before voices like mine were not really heard. They were regarded as subjective as not objective enough, especially in the academia. So in a way this under representation is still going on because of the demographics, but because of the attitudes people may have towards black people and people of color in general.

And the question about the role models and did I have role models in my life, yes, I did have a lot of role models, but they were not necessarily living around me. So I looked up to black feminists in the US, I looked up to political race theorists, and to researchers and scholars that were not really coming from my geographic context. So these were, especially scholars working in the Western European context. But also in the in the US, of course.

Susanne Hamscha  7:11 
You mentioned that you looked up to black feminists in the US. And I think it's interesting that when we can't make sense of ourselves, or our identities in our home country context, we tend to look elsewhere for guidance. And all of us who've lived abroad, know how helpful the experience of being abroad can be in, in making sense of one's identity, right? Because, you know, that experience very often helps to learn more about oneself, you're the new kid on the block, you have the chance to explore parts of your identity that might be difficult to explore at home, you can basically reinvent yourself, right? So I would like to ask you if your time in the US on your Fulbright grant changed how you perceive yourself, and and how you think about your identity?

Margaret Ohia-Nowak  8:10 
Yeah, sure. So my experience in the US as a scholar, as a PhD student, but also as a black woman, it was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had, not only in my career, but just you know, in my life so far. So definitely it did affect the way I saw myself and I do I still see myself. First of all, it gave me as I said, a lot of power, it empowered my academic position, so to speak, because I can see especially in academia that cultural identity, ethnic identity, identity is an argument to use when you speak about issues of race and racism and the racist discourse.

For sure, I was understood in the US academia much better than than I was in Poland. And at the same time, it did change the way I perceived myself because it gave me just strength. And it allowed me to speak about many things that I wouldn't dare to speak in Poland, like, for instance, about my racial experiences, and about using these experiences to contribute, as a contribution to my research.

So yeah, in that sense, for sure, but also the way that I was perceived in the US by Americans, by other people there, the first minutes they saw me before I started speaking, they would think that I'm an African American, and they would already kind of impose this cultural identity on me and all the attitudes, so all the kinds of meanings that are assigned to this identity. And then there was this moment, so when I interacted with someone, and I started speaking, there was this question again, "So where are you from?" It was a familiar question to me. So I would say, I was from Poland -"Oh, really, from Eastern Europe? Are there black people there?" So I see this also as a way of kind of, you know - this confusion: so, okay, you're black, but you're from Eastern Europe. So, the same kind of confusion that people just did not associate certain identities with geographical contexts.

Susanne Hamscha  10:40 
Identity sure is a very complex and complicated thing, right? I would like to go back to Poland, and talk about the cultural representation of black people in Poland in more detail. I know you've worked on the representation of black people in the Polish language, in media in popular culture. And you're working extensively on what is called discursive discrimination. And I wanted to ask you, if you could explain what this means. How is a discrimination created through disourse? How does this work?

Margaret Ohia-Nowak  11:16 
So I think I'm going to say a few words about the Polish context, as well for those of you who are not very familiar, in relation to colonialism and to the history. So despite having no explicit history of colonialism in Africa, and despite a general lack of daily interactions with people of African descent, among the great majority of Polish people, I think racial colonial prejudice and colonial framework is deeply rooted in everyday language practices and an everyday discourse. This also sometimes works as a premise to deny racism as well, because if there was no colonialism, why would racism be prevailing? Which is not true, because it is prevailing through discourse, which is also derived from global discourse and from global consciousness, which is very colonial still.

So Polish speakers, for instance, are often unaware of the racially charged content of their speech, and especially in everyday Polish language, where the habit of associating black people with specific characteristics such as, you know, physical, intellectual, emotional, cultural, it's not always explicitly articulated, but it's kind of based on the deeply rooted polarization between Poles and foreigners. So examples of how black people are portrayed in the Polish language can be found in a range of discourses. And first of all, first is the discursive discrimination: what do we see in Polish language that refers to black people, and how Polish language represents black people. And this is present at all levels of discourse, beginning with education textbooks, as I said, in media, in political discourse, as well.

So for instance, in education, there is this Nobel Prize winner's book by Henryk Sienkiewicz, In Desert and Wilderness, it's a popular youth novel, and it represents a colonial worldview and white people are superior as opposed to inferior black Africans. It's a book that was written in the early 20th century, but it's still existent in Polish curriculum at schools, and it's presented to children as a fact, as a descriptive fact. So with no critical description, or no critical reference to it, then you know, it just becomes a descriptive book of facts and a source of information for for many, many children, and obviously, then it affects the way in which discourse is shaped by them in the adult life.

So the other example in Polish discourse that I look at as a lexical item is that so called "M* word," the word murzyn that is used in everyday speech. And I think it's a good example to look at the word which actively reproduces stereotypes. This word also, you know, it's also clogs the prejudice. So I think that using this word, and I said it before, the word could be freely translated into the word "Negro" in English. But of course, there are the historic differences, semantic differences and pragmatic differences as well. So always I think it's important to remember that it's a different context, that the word is used in this context, which also shapes the meaning in a way. So, in colloquial expressions in Polish language in, you know, historical proverbs and idioms implying that black skin color is dirty, and not washable. These are the phrases that also include the words, the M* word as well.

Susanne Hamscha  15:25 
You just said that the texts and images children grow up with have an impact on discourse in adult life. So the texts and images we see and consume as children influence the way we see the world and also shape our collective consciousness. I would like to pick out one more example of a popular children's book that I know you've worked on quite a bit. It's called Murzynek Bambo. So the M* word is already in the title. It's a popular children's rhyme about a little black boy. And I was wondering if you could tell us more about the origins of this book, and the images and stereotypes that it produces and reinforces.

Margaret Ohia-Nowak  16:15 
Sure, yes, so the rhyme Murzynek Bambo was written in 1935 by Julian Tuwim. And it's a story, as you said, about a black boy, who lives in Africa who goes to school, even though he doesn't want to go to school, or who doesn't want to take a bath, who refuses to study and so on, and so forth. So it's a story that actually presents a black boy as inferior to a presumably white reader. Again, same with the novel by Sienkiewicz, same with the rhyme here. So even though they both come from early 20th century, the semantics that they're in, that the kid do not want to wash himself, is lazy, and so on and so forth. That he doesn't come go to school with us, he lives far away in Africa - the semantics that it conveys is present in many examples of contemporary public discourse today. So I guess this is the danger of this, of these kinds of stories. So specifically, this rhyme, also is a way to exoticize the other. So again, there is this categorization and polarization of, you know, creating two groups, us and them, and in a way, also creating attitudes and reinforcing the stereotypes. And also in that book that our colonial framework-based, you know - that they just represented a very colonial view of a black person.

Susanne Hamscha  18:05 
Yeah, thank you. I think this example takes us right back to the question we started out with, right to the question of representation. And I think it shows quite well, why representation matters, why it is important. And it also illustrates why it is important to also always ask, "Who gets to speak? Who has a voice? Who can tell their own story?" And I know that this summer in Poland, black activists and allies united under the hashtag "Don't call me Murzyn," to fight against racial discrimination, to fight for representation, for their voice being heard. I'm not sure to what extent you were involved in this movement, but I was hoping that you could still comment on it, and comment on its significance for the black community in Poland.

Margaret Ohia-Nowak  18:55 
Sure, yeah. I wasn't directly involved in the movement as in the movement, because I'm pursuing my research on the term for the last few years, so I've been looking at the term more than a few years now. So my most recent article is also about the term itself, but from a linguistic perspective, pragma linguistic perspective, in the social action, I wasn't so much involved, but I do know, women that are involved and we work together. So Sara Alexandre, Ogi Ugonoh, so these two people, two African Polish women that were involved that initiated the conversation. I think this is a very interesting and very crucial moment in Poland, in Poland's history as well.

This is the first moment that the black communities, representatives of black communities, just took a stance, like a very public stance, and it also shows how much the discourse in Poland is kind of, you know, reshaping maybe, because the perspective of black people in Poland was not shown before in a public debate, was not present at all. So who could talk in public debate who are people, you know, even in the event, I think this is an interesting topic to speak about, with reference to the perspective of discourse, how the discourse, from which perspective, the discourse is presented, especially when it comes to issues like racism, or race, racial prejudice. To this day, it's still a predominantly white perspective. But I think through such actions through such initiatives, and such movements, like "Don't call me Murzyn," I think there is the potential for back black communities to have a voice in the public debate, finally. And to kind of combat the systemic racism that prevented them, or still prevents them from speaking out what there is, and speaking not only about the experiences, but just speaking from an expert position.

Margaret, this has been great, thank you so much for sharing your personal experiences and your professional insights with us. I know we barely scratched the surface, and we could keep talking for hours. But unfortunately we have to stop. But I would like to ask you one final question, a short question, if I may. I'm sure you've heard this quote before by Angela Davis, who said, "I'm no longer accepting the things I can change, I'm changing the things I cannot accept." Now, you're not only an academic, but also a human rights activist. And I would like to know what it is that propels your activism? Is it the refusal to accept things the way they are? And and what is the change that you would actually like to see?

I guess my biggest motivation, in life, and in my career, in my work, is other people's lives. And I never really looked at my work as helping myself or doing something for myself, is just to...not even helping others, but kind of, you know, creating a world in which at some point, perhaps it's not even the next generation or the generation after, because I see the social change, as an evolutionary process that will not change at one moment, I see it as you know, contributing to a better world. And I, and it's not a slogan, I really believe it, like contributing to a better world, at some point in the future. And I really have this idealistic approach that we can change it through education. And because this is my basic tool of working, and I chose this because I think that working with children, we can impact the future, and changing what there is in the mind - or even not changing, but kind of giving them a framework to change what's there outside, to go farther and change the communities around them? I think this is very exciting thing to do. And for me, you know, I get a lot of excitement from my work as well. And I really hope it will contribute to the global change, and especially here in Poland that it will be appreciated by many as well, in their lives.

Susanne Hamscha  23:58  
Whose voice is heard in public discourse and who gets to tell their own story? These are important questions to ask when we talk about the representation of marginalized communities, as Margaret said. The danger of the single story is that it reproduces stereotypes and prejudices. We can only break the cycle if we listen to the stories of people from underrepresented communities and diversify representation. 

This concludes the second episode of our diversity podcast. Thank you so much for listening. And please join us again next time.