The protagonist of this text is Dúnia Pacheco; it was inspired by my conversation with her – a woman from Angola who has lived in Warsaw for over twenty years. She described her story and personal experiences in an essay I Learnt Polish to Stand up to Harassment. Let us take a closer look here at issues linked to identity and belonging, placing them in a broader context of reflection on otherness and dis-othering.

What kind of otherness?

“The Other” is a key figure in the understanding of culture and society. It is not so much about any specific attributes but rather about the very existence of “otherness” per se, as a group construct. The concept denotes some form of being different – whether in terms of one’s appearance, behavior, beliefs or values – that make it possible to define and refine the boundaries of what is “ours”, familiar and “normal” when it comes to social norms.1 Otherness is constructed in relation to “others” – it is thus closely linked to defining one’s own identity and sense of belonging, as well as delineating boundaries between groups. This takes place in the course of political activities, through culture and art, or as a result of everyday social interaction.2 The division between those who “belong” and those who don’t is built on the basis of differences that are considered important in a given community. Recognition of where the boundaries of divisions run says a lot not only about the norms and values of the group, but also about power relations – because the Other is often allocated a lower status than those in socially dominant positions.

In the days when social mobility – both physical and virtual – was much less developed than today, the Other (or Stranger) was, typically, a wanderer or a foreigner. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a precursor of contemporary sociology, Georg Simmel, commented on the phenomenon of otherness and strangeness, noting that it is related both to physical proximity in shared space and cultural distance. For Simmel, “to be a stranger is naturally a very positive relation; it is a specific form of interaction”.3 Such inter-relation can lead to the opening up of new perspectives and creation of new values. While acutely aware of the complicated structural context of attitudes to Others, including social inequality, prejudice and discrimination, let us look at the story of an African woman in Poland through the positive lens of otherness.

Poland in the context of Afro-Europe

Unlike the countries of Western Europe, in Poland political, social and cultural movements related to the forming of “Black Europe” have not been prominent. The very concept of “blackness” – well established in the world, while the subject of complex discussion4, has been more or less absent in the discourse in Poland. This is no doubt a result of the “visible invisibility” of the African diaspora in the country, as Paweł Średziński demonstrated in his text Visibly Invisible, highlighting also the stereotypes of Africans among Poles and throwing light on how they came into being.

Allison Blakely in presenting his concept of Afro-Europe distinguishes three different kinds of migration. The African diaspora that is by far the most numerous has been living in the postcolonial countries, due to their complex former international links5. Another significantly sizeable group comprises refugees from countries affected by war. To countries in central and eastern Europe (such as Poland), Africans have been coming mainly for access to educational opportunities. Such division has been additionally enhanced by economic migration.6

The African diaspora in Poland is small;7 but within the country’s ethnically homogenous society, its members are conspicuous for their different skin color, making it all the more noticeable. In today’s Poland, the notion of “race” does not explicitly exist in contemporary social life, in the policies of the state or in national statistics,8 unlike in, say, the USA. The categories of race are social and cultural constructs and, as such, they have been defined differently in specific European countries and throughout the countries of both North and South America. The nuances and cultural codes related to racialization differ, depending on a country’s history, position in a power structure or the relations between its various social groups.9 Regardless of the context, let us be aware of the diverse personal stories of migrants. Let us come back to one such story, and adopt the vantage point of a woman born and raised in Angola.10

I now live in Warsaw

My first question to Dúnia Pacheco involved an attempt to let her define her “place on Earth” in the context of migration between countries and cities.

If you had to specify what you call “home”, what would your answer be?

– I have never really thought about it, but this is something that I get asked quite often. I think that these are the terms in which people expect to define themselves. What I do know is where my roots are. My experience is that I don’t really have any one home – it is Cuanza Norte, Luanda, Warsaw – places I’ve been staying in. But I have no strong attachment to any of these places. But I do have the need to go back to these places, because they have a special importance for me.

The “special importance” is key in understanding the complexity of identifying with a place. Places become important because of what we have experienced there, or our relationships with their people or spaces. In this context, the formal criteria of belonging seem to matter less, although a sensation of being Other must make feeling “at home” more difficult. For example, one’s nationality – which in Poland is a significant factor in defining the national community – may have a number of additional meanings, both practical and symbolic, for migrants. It is also possible to construct one’s identity and a sense of belonging on a different foundation – in opposition to institutional repressions or manifestations of exclusion:11

– At the beginning, I felt rebellious. I told myself I wouldn’t get Polish nationality, because that was not the reason why I was there. It didn’t matter to me. I would show the Poles that this really is not what is the most important for an immigrant and that it’s something that you can live without in Poland. What matters most is feeling safe. I am not any kind of threat to Poland. I am studying, I am working. Every year I apply for my residency permit, because I am an immigrant. That’s all. I don’t have to be Polish. I don’t have to have the nationality. Let me just be Dúnia from Angola.

This illustrates the complexity of individual identities and group boundaries – who can be included as “one of us” and who is considered “the Other” and why. A foreigner who – according to the law – is not a Pole, at the same time feels herself a Varsovian, because this is where she has lived the longest. What’s more, in some situations it is precisely this latter – local – identity that is more important than others, such as those based on skin color, ethnic origin or nationality. This goes to show that the processes of constructing and deconstructing otherness are complex and ambiguous and the boundaries created socially can be fluid.

– I come to Krakow, get into a taxi and say that I came from Warsaw, and the guy starts shouting at me about “you people from Warsaw”. And in that moment, I wonder: he treats me as a Varsovian, perhaps there is something to it. Did he not notice, or what?

Internal intercultural dialog

When confronted with Otherness, the mutual interaction between cultures takes place on different levels. From the viewpoint that relies on individual experiences, the starting point is often strong adherence to one’s own native values, followed by various stages of opening up, reconnaissance and familiarization with new elements, finally the combination of these different pieces into a unique personal identity. Drawing on Angolese and Polish elements, it is possible to create new self-identifications, including “citizen of the world.12

– When my family and siblings lived in Poland, we were all living together as an Angolese family, which had simply moved to Poland. At home we cultivated our customs and traditions. And as long as we remained together, we had a little Angola in Poland.

– Each year I am more open to people. My mentality has changed. It is neither Angolan nor Polish. I am the one who choses what is good for me, what makes me develop and helps me become a better person.

Dúnia Pachco wraz ze swoją mamą. Zdjęcie z archiwum rodzinnego Dúni Pacecho. Dzięki uprzejmości autorki.

Identity issues become even more complex in the context of multicultural families, particularly in respect of parenthood, which requires making clear the norms, values and traditions that are being passed on to the children. This often brings a moment of taking stock of one’s own identity, making more or less conscious choices for the future course of action.

– I keep developing all the time. For this reason, I see as a great plus and a great success the fact that I am Angolan, for many years a Varsovian, and that I and my Polish husband have created a multicultural family, that I speak Polish fluently, I have wonderful friends, and I work in Poland, where I am fulfilling my dreams. I am very proud of all these things. Right now, the greatest challenge for me and my husband is to foster a system of values in our children. One of our family successes is that our children are fully bilingual.

Complex identity

The more complex the society, the more descriptive categories the discourse requires. In countries such as Britain or the USA, the concept of “hyphenated” – or dual – identities in reference to different ethnicities was, until recently, common currency in everyday language, the media and politics. These terms, which aim to reflect the dual (or frequently more complex) heritage, and the mixed ancestry, are applied to migrants who have settled in a new place and their offspring, as well as children from dual nationality families. Thus, we are familiar with such categories as British Asian, British African-Caribbean, Mexican American, and West Indian American, to name just a few.

Although theoretically double identifications are supposed to emphasize the connection to different cultures and highlight complex heritage, they can also reflect authoritarian domination. The labels may refer to features that those who allocate the term find significant, but which are not necessarily so for those thus labeled themselves. Ethnic labels are often inconsistent and vary in how detailed they are; they alter as time goes on and some may be sub-categories of others. For example, Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis are all considered British Asian, while Jamaicans or Dutch Antilleans are West Indian Americans.13 It is interesting to take a closer look at the labels that are currently in use, who uses them in reference to whom, how the labels are arrived at – using ethnic, national, racial or religious categories, what elements are considered the most important, and how such terms evolve.14 For example, in the USA, in the 1970s the (hyphenated) term “Afro-American” was recommended by the Associated Press guidelines, interchangeably with “Black”, while “colored” was to be avoided. By the 2000s, the preferred term was “black”15, only to be replaced by “African-American”, if this was the preference of the person thus described. The current press guidelines are to use “African American” without a hyphen.16 Interestingly, although the word “colored”, with its associations of the racism once prevalent in South Africa, had been frowned upon in the States, in 2019 the term person or people “of color” is the favoured usage, and recommended as such by the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. The terms currently used with increasing frequency throughout the UK media and politics are “BME” or “BAME”: “Black and Minority Ethnic” or “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”, which refer, among others, to Black British and British Asian but are nevertheless subject to controversy17. These examples demonstrate how identification and self-identification are involved in constructing or deconstructing Otherness.

Poland has not yet engaged in discussions related to identity, self-identification and ethnic roots to the same extent that Western countries have. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for the individual to emphasize their connection to different cultures and to draw on their complex heritage in everyday life is valuable in creating one’s own place in society and strengthening one’s self-esteem. This is how an Angolese woman living in Poland sees this:

– In our racially and culturally mixed family, both cultures are equally important: Polish and Angolan. We cherish our roots. We try to pass on to our children both our Angolan and our Polish identity. This is very important for their sense of their own identity.

Everyday dis-othering

What, then, is “dis-othering”? Blurring of boundaries? Coming to terms with differences? Changing the way that we think? Changing our relationships? Conquering our prejudices? Doing away with inequality?

The experience of someone who was “the only black at school” shows that Otherness and the alienation it brings are everyday problems that need to be tackled. The distance between those perceived as “other” and some of those around them often stems from ignorance or from negative preconceptions of the latter. In one-to-one relations, individuals are influenced not only by their own first-hand experiences but also by emotionally and normatively charged acquired images, group labels and cultural codes.18 But it is precisely the small, ordinary, face-to-face interactions that favor mutual familiarization, resulting in changed perceptions that lead to more profound changes in the thinking and behavior of those involved.

– At school, I was faced with the situation that one of my classmates wouldn’t speak to me. His grandmother had told him not to have anything to do with me, because I wasn’t a good person. It really got him down, because what he was told at home and what he saw of me did not tally. And so, two years later, he came up to me one day – because he was aware of my feelings – and said, “You know what, I’m sorry for the way I’ve behaved.” I made out that I wasn’t getting what he meant, so he said, “It was not that I didn’t like you, but I had a problem: at home they were telling me that blacks were no good, but I could see that this was not true, you are not like that at all. So, I want to say sorry.”

Getting to know one another better helps to bring barriers down and create acceptance by all those involved of the Otherness of others. These are ‘meaningful contacts’,19 which generate positive bonds, empathy and respect for diversity. The process itself can be long-drawn and far from straight-forward, yet provide much satisfaction, as long as there is openness, attentiveness and mutual care.

– It was an incredible experience. It was great that he came up to me and said that, opening up like that. It made me see that he wasn’t racist. I began to feel easy in his company. This was a very valuable experience for me as a teenager, as it made me realize that nothing is as it seems.

Today, the multicultural Western societies have become – to use terminology proposed by Ash Amin – “gatherings of strangers”,20 in which “negotiation of difference” 21 is a daily phenomenon. A peaceful coexistence with other relies on a dose of detachment, minimising mutual expectations rather than building strong bonds based on personal friendships. However, what becomes relevant are complex multi-ethnic relations, complicated relationships between specific groups, and also historically-based inequality. These factors do not appear in Poland to the same extent that they do in the countries of Western Europe. In Poland, contact with the African “other” tends to be more individual, and it is not usually perceived through the prism of intergroup relations. It follows that the experiences of Africans in Poland are much more individual and personal than in the West. And perhaps this is the very micro-essence of de-othering.

Translated from Polish by Anda MacBride


Aleksandra Winiarska – a sociologist and cultural expert specializing in intercultural relations. She is a faculty member at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences, University of Warsaw and works with the Centre for Migration Research at the University of Warsaw. Winiarska holds a PhD in sociology and graduated from Intercultural Relation Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Warsaw. Her research interests include, in particular, social interactions in culturally and ethnically diverse society, social integration, and intercultural communication as well as conflict management.

Dúnia Pacheco – dancer, dance instructor, activist, ambassador of Angolan culture in Poland and abroad. Since January 2014, together with her team, she has organized in Warsaw the first festival of contemporary African dances in Europe – the KuduroMania Festival. In 2013, she built and trained a multicultural team of 10 female dancers, whose successes include advancing to the semifinals of the fifth season of “Mam Talent.”.For almost 11 years she has been conducting dance workshops all around Poland. She helps women develop their self-confidence, femininity, and sexuality. She also supports professional dancers and instructors to develop their skills in contemporary African dances, sharing with them not only her knowledge about dance but also about the cultures of Africa.She has been invited to various cultural events in countries including the US, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Latvia.Dunia graduated from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities majoring in international relations and political science.

[1] See, i. a., Antonia Alampi, Bonaventure Ndikung, Geographies of Imagination, Savvy Contemporary 2018.

[2] Various books examine the theme of how otherness is constructed and deconstructed in different spheres and different scope, such as: Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, Routledge 2000; Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others, Harvard 2017; Ash Amin, Land of Strangers, Polity Press 2012.

[3] Georg Simmel, The Stranger [in:] Kurt H. Wolff (transl. and ed.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York: Free Press 1950. Simmel examined situations where “the other”, such as a tradesman, arrived in a community as a stranger and became a part of it. This is different from a situation where the other is dehumanized and excluded from social relationships.

[4] See, i. a., Kwame Nimako, Stephen Small, Theorizing Black Europe and African Diaspora: Implications for Citizenship, Nativism, and Xenophobia, [in:] Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, Stephen Small (ed.), Black Europe and the African Diaspora, University of Illinois Press 2009.

[5] This applies particularly to: Britain, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal.

[6] Allison Blakely, The Emergence of Afro-Europe: A Preliminary Sketch, [in]: Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, Stephen Small (ed.), Black Europe and the African Diaspora, op. cit.

[7] Statistics and the probing of how sound the very concept of an ‘African’ diaspora is can be found in Paweł Średziński’s text Visibly Invisible: African Diaspora in Poland. More about the situation of people of African descent in Poland can be found in the book of James Omolo, Strangers at the Gate. Black Poland. 2018.

[8] Nevertheless, concepts such as a “racial group” or “racial differences” appear in the Polish law as applicable in cases of insult, threats, violence or hate speech, which are all criminal offences. The situation in France is also interesting; see Fred Constant, Talking Race in Color-Blind France: Equality Denied, „Blackness” Reclaimed, [in:] Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, Stephen Small (ed.), Black Europe and the African Diaspora, op. cit.

[9] See group work: Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, Stephen Small (ed.), Black Europe and the African Diaspora, op. cit., in particular the following chapters: Stephen Small, Introduction: The Empire Strikes Back and Allison Blakely, The Emergence of Afro-Europe: A Preliminary Sketch, as well as Kwame Nimako, Stephen Small, Theorizing Black Europe and African Diaspora: Implications for Citizenship, Nativism, and Xenophobia.

See also: Ash Amin, Remainders of Race, [in:] Land of Strangers, Polity Press 2012.

[10] The point of view of black European women has rarely been represented, so it is important to give it exposure – see Stephen Small, Introduction: The Empire Strikes Back, op. cit.

[11] You can find accounts of the personal experiences of ethnic minority migrants in Britain in Nikesh Shukla (ed.), The Good Immigrant: 21 writers explore what it means to be Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic in Britain Today, Unbound 2016.

[12] This can be related to the discourse on the cosmopolitan identity. See, i. a., Kwame Antony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, Princeton University Press 2005. On building identity in multiethnic and biracial families see: James Omolo, Crossing the colour line: Interracial marriage and Biracial identity, 2019.

[13] See also Kwame Nimako, Stephen Small, Theorizing Black Europe and African Diaspora: Implications for Citizenship, Nativism, and Xenophobia, op. cit.

[14] I refer to different author’s reflection on this issue in the UK context:

Snéha Khilay, The Politics of Hyphenated Identities:

and in the American context: Ira Berlin, The Changing Definition of African American:

Readings about identity and identification in Great Britain and the United States include: = Afua Hirsch, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, 2018, Michael Walzer, What It Means to Be an American, 1996 and Sherrow O. Pinder, The Politics of Race and Ethnicity in the United States: Americanization, De-Americanization, and Racialized Ethnic Groups, Palgrave Macmillan 2012.

[15] There is on-going discussion whether to capitalize (“Black”) or not (“black”) – see for example



[18] Cf. Ash Amin, Land of Strangers, Polity Press 2012.

[19] Gill Valentine, Living with Difference: Reflections on Geographies of Encounter, “Progress in Human Geography”, 2008, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 323–337.

[20] Ash Amin, Land of Strangers, op. cit.

[21] Appiah writes about the “world of strangers”: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, 2006.

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