Multiracial Britain Confuses Poles

Multiracial Britain confuses Poles

Church is mobilised to warn immigrant families after claims of racist behaviour in the classroom

Anushka Asthana and Mary Fitzgerald
Sunday April 15, 2007
The Observer

It is a difficult social and cultural problem: what to do when tens of thousands of immigrants from an almost wholly white country arrive in a nation that has a fierce pride in its multicultural mix?

It is an issue affecting the many Poles coming to Britain, who are being warned to be ready for a country where being black or Asian is not unusual and it is wrong to react 'negatively' to people of different races. The message has been spread through Catholic priests in Poland and is aimed at families moving to the UK from all-white towns and villages. The Polish Educational Society of London approached the priests following claims of racist behaviour among Polish children and their parents. Headteachers reported that pupils were moving their desks away from Asian and black children in fear and saying that white people were superior.

In one case Polish children drew pictures of apes sitting in palm trees and claimed this was what their black classmates looked like, while in a school in Acton, west London, a group of teenagers hurled daily abuse at non-white staff and pupils. According to headteachers, some parents asked whether their children would be taught by 'darkies'.

Aleksandra Podhorodecka, president of the society, which runs Saturday schools for Polish children, said she hoped that the priests would 'pass on a simple forewarning that it will be a multicultural society and they need to behave appropriately'. She said: 'It is difficult to blame the children, because a lot come from rural societies in eastern Poland where there are very few immigrants and some children have never seen West Indians or Asians in the flesh. So to suddenly be thrown into a school with 100 different languages, cultures and religions is a cultural shock.' In a minority of cases, she said, children would react aggressively, but she insisted that most Polish families were very tolerant.

Ania Heasley, who runs a recruitment and employment agency for Polish people, said there were parents whose main criterion when moving to the UK was to find a place to live and a school for their children where there were fewer black people. 'I try to argue and say, if you do not like the racial makeup, why do you come here?' said Heasley, whose company is called Ania's Poland. 'Everybody is white in Poland, apart from a few students. If you see a black person in the street everybody turns their head because they look out of place.'

Jan Mokrzycki, chairman of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, said people were reacting to something they did not understand: 'It was the same when the first West Indian community came to this country. I am not sure it really needs tackling; it will sort itself out in time.'

On Friday, outside a Polish cultural centre in west London, there were mixed opinions. Tomas, 31, a builder who has lived in the UK for three years, said: 'It's true, most Polish people don't like Indians and black people. People don't understand how different things are when they first come here, but after a while you adjust to the system. In the beginning I was the same. But now my best customer is Indian.'

Aleksandra Watorska, a graphic designer living in Gloucester, said she had come to the UK because she wanted her three-year-old daughter Zuzanna to grow up in a multicultural society, while Basia Paczesna-Vercueil, a mother in London, said none of her friends made racist comments. Marta Rabikowska, a senior lecturer at the University of East London, who has researched Polish immigration, argued it was difficult to call the problem racism: 'It is an intolerance of something different, that they have not experienced before.'

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