Just a quick note from me and my family: we wish you all Happy Holidays and a light New Year 2020! May the next decade be kind to us all! xxx
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”Charles Darwin
I am writing this letter to express some of the thoughts and feelings preoccupying me recently. Hear me out.
I have spent three years away from my blog, but now I am back, and I have a few things to say. Initially, I assumed I stopped writing because I was scared – you did a pretty good job; you almost made me think I had reasons to be worried.
However, I went away and did my homework.
Here’s what books, podcasts and the wise men and women told me: as humankind, we are doing better than ever. We are healthier. We are smarter. We live longer. We still have work to do: we need to tackle climate change, poverty, outdated education and the growing gap between you and me. But generally speaking, we are so much better off than the generations before us.
The gap between your and my story is indeed growing. I have spent years putting up with your version of events, and I start to wonder: why? Why do you want me to feel so sad and so scared?
And more importantly: what did you achieve to deserve my attention?
You were there in my early years educating my parents on how not to live happily. You gave them homes and jobs. You placed women in the kitchen and men in factories, especially the intellectuals – to make them feel more humble and more crushed. You convinced us all that the binary way of thinking is the only way forward – before the computers entered our homes, actually. You convinced our grandparents that hugging children is damaging, so our parents grew up without much empathy. They got on with their lives. They raised us to get on with ours too. However, they managed to raise us with a robust system of values – one we could at least confront and rage against, but one that provided a starting point. They shared the ancient wisdom with us, but you probably thought they had forgotten it. They did not. They shared it with us as a bedtime story when you weren’t listening. And this we grew wiser and stronger than the generation before us.
So you got a bit worried.
Once again, you wrote our history and thus took away our right to speak our truth and write our stories. At the same time, some of our fathers got tired of hardship and walked out of their factories. Our mothers walked out of their kitchens. And so the walls came down falling. We marched over those walls to greet our friends and our enemies. We all met somewhere in the middle, on the bridge. We all realised that we are made of the same clay – gentle, beautiful and stronger than ever before. We got down to our knees; we worked hard and raised a new world. We allowed you to stay but added new powers (media and courts) to keep your story in check. We called it democracy.
But this made you feel a bit uneasy.
Your story was based on the exploitation of our differences – you forgot to mention that this defines war. While the war was profitable to you, peace was ever so cheap and dull. It allowed us time to think and question your moves.
Our new liberties were a bit much for you to cope with, so you decided to get back to your old story by getting us distracted. You have us what we wanted on the surface. You fed us the freedom to choose between a wide range of ketchup bottles, other goods and affordable loans. You asked us to enjoy the comfort of the new, mindless living while claiming back our newly gained rights to speak our truth freely. One by one, you chipped away those rights claiming that your story and your story alone would keep us safe from the enemy of the date, from each other and ourselves.
Like the ancient founding fathers of nations, you positioned yourself as the one who knows better what’s truly good for us.
You also reminded us that the world is vast, each of us is our own enemy, and we are all eternally alone. We believed you at first. And so most of us gave up the new liberties happily. You placed the default parental controls on our phones and started limiting our access to the free stories online. It worked. For a while, we did have the impression of safety. Men did not have to commute so much, so they also joined the process of parenthood. Women became most successful in the new business world and went back to their kitchens with laptops to build new companies – from their own choice. We had a modern, democratic Europe and so much to see, to do, to buy. We had access to so much online. We did not think about preserving our right to open access to it all. We could afford more, fly on cheap flights to tropical destinations and party until the sunrise. Life seemed so comfortable.
You got worried again.
It was getting out of your hands, messing with your story. So you started telling us that we are not good enough. You introduced the algorithms to separate us into smaller and smaller boxes. You made us feel powerless in our own stories just to promote your own. You weakened our education and national health services, so we grew weak, indeed. You offered us free resilience classes, self-care myth and told is to get on with life. That conflict caused even more pain and divide – but that was your plan.
For a while, we listened quietly. We stopped bothering our doctors and shopped more for magic potions in our fantastic shopping malls instead. We followed the new influencers and switched to better broadband for better, seamless streaming of Netflix. Hours of it. We set up our startups. We did not even have to leave our homes anymore.
You were so pleased to discover that we stopped going out collectively. It’s so much “safer” this way – for you and us. You can do whatever you want. Everyone sat quietly in their own little safety box. No questions asked.
You got worried again.
The systems you put in place were crumbling, and people started waking up to the truth of your intentions. People were rising like dust. More powerful and influential than ever before. We started noticing the gaps in funding, the increasing poverty and homelessness, the lack of quality education for all. So you needed to blame someone, and the EU became a good target. It worked, but not entirely. With smart use of online technologies, you have converted some unconvinced individuals to support your cause, and you took it from there.
But this time we have noticed you. While you thought we would sleep through your next move, we have learned to get involved in the area you reserved for yourself – the political process. And so here we are today. This week is probably not the end of it, but more and more of us are waking up. It’s just a question of time. More and more of us are rising.
As for me, well, I had enough of your voice, so I went away. I sat quietly in the corner of my town and my mind. I stopped talking. I just listened. I mistook my need to hear the truth for anxiety, but as I healed, I also understood that our ancestral mothers spoke to me. I started paying attention to all the stories. I looked into all little boxes.
And what I saw there was more than comforting. I saw young people watching you attentively, but quietly. I saw them form groups on online gaming platforms, shift identities beyond any binary system, and most importantly – I saw them collaborate kindly. I saw the most vulnerable of them emerge as leaders – they knew what was needed for all to thrive. I saw them change the rules of the game.
I also saw something even more magnificent. They learned from our grandparents, parents and us. Instead of changing the rules of the game, they moved on to re-shaping the game itself. They learned to mould their perception of realities into a new, fluid, unpredictable, yet caring world. Everyone was safe. No one was alone anymore.
So I am writing to let you know that I watch your last twitches of hate with amusement. I don’t amplify your voice anymore, but I see your story gradually becoming less and less relating to my child and me too.
Hear me out.
This new generation of humans is so far ahead of your game that no matter what laws you come up with, you are already late with your narrative. They are awake. They participate. They build new, active, hopeful democracy. The new world is already built-in those virtual and offline networks, in those kind and genuine connections. But it is not easily noticeable as it is formed from relationships, not walls. People carry it in their multiple, correlating stories. They do not even dream of rising against you. Why waste the effort on the old, if we can build a new way of being?
They are sitting steadily. Waiting and listening to their new stories. Watching your binary, divisive, exploitative and hostile world view crumbling away with every single lie you speak. They are actively shaping their new future. They ignore your poking and your abuse. They resist it patiently. They are a new kind, you see. They work hard, play well and build trusted connections. They excel at their talents but look back to support those who come behind them and place the most vulnerable at the heart of their systems.
And you still underestimate them with your old tricks.
I do not. I am sitting quietly, admiring their new creations. I rest waiting because I know I do not have to rise anymore. I am still, though, still and steady. I support those young people in every quiet but confident way I can. I am making time and space for them to form their world. I am teaching them tools they will need to shape and lead our new world.
You? You won’t even notice it. You are not paying attention. You are too busy talking.
(Side note: no actual men were harmed in the process of me writing this – the men in my life are giants – my late father, my husband, my son, my boss, my male mentors – they are all giants of the new word and I salute them for their kindness as often as I can. No actual men are targeted by this post – the man here is a metaphor, of course).
[For my early Eastern-European experiences of racism check my previous post here.]
I arrived in the U.K. in April 2006 with a two-year-old son in my lap, a baby pram and a suitcase. I was joining my husband at the time in his hometown, Plymouth, with the prospect of moving to Oxfordshire shortly afterwards. We moved to a small, picturesque village. We were the second mixed family in this small and quiet place. It was known as the residence of the Blackwell family and run by an active community of local residents. My first impressions of the country confirmed what I knew – political correctness was a practised right. I was so relieved!
However, there was another divide, reasonably new one to me: the class system. I quickly realised that my husband’s Plymouth family lived in council housing and had a different version of reality than most people I was accustomed to. I could literary see the difference between my husband’s worldview and that of our well educated, wealthy neighbours. He and they lived in two different worlds, sharing the same village.
I could also see that racism lurked in both worlds; it was just very subtle and hidden behind the closed doors. Some people were kinder than others, and everyone was polite, but I sensed there was more under the respectful tone of everyday interactions. I was busy with my own challenges, though. My marriage started falling apart due to increased control, but also severe racism towards my son and me. If was, of course, a harrowing experience, one I have learned from on many levels of tolerance and the lack of it. In my very own home once again, I could see the hate and the fear of others – notably the different, the foreign elements of their identity. (All of this originating from a volatile, weak personality). I saw racism in lack of respect for my national traditions and blindfolded love for the British (not Comic Relief, mind you – feeding children in Africa was mocked).
Which British though, I wondered. The Plymouth or the Oxford one? Because having studied the Oxford English, the commonly accepted British history and culture, I found it interesting to now discovering different layers to the country:
- defined by the class you are born into, not the group you choose to belong to,
- determined by the type of paper read over breakfast,
- determined by the type of food placed on the table,
- defined by a different language and daily habits,
- characterised by self-victimisation and lack of courage to move beyond one’s own established view of the world.
I started noticing a lot of systemic challenges to the idea of tolerance and unconditional positive regard. I also noticed that lack of tolerance was present in all classes due to this strange categorisation, an invisible divide.
Busy raising my son, I observed the layers of society and made friends in all of them. I volunteered locally and learned even more about the local economy, career building, public services and other aspects of life. I discovered more and more kind people in the village and at work.
When an abused woman becomes financially independent, things escalate quickly. Within a few months, I was so unsafe that I decided to leave my husband. I was pleased to see racism taken ever so seriously by police. I was proud to see that my identity, my humanity mattered to them. I was safe and protected. That day when the policeman’s hand was shaking writing down the racist comments of my ex was the day I realised I want my son to grow up in this country.
I realised something significant: I was not a racist myself, but I became an accomplice yet again. When witnessing some offensive comments about other people, other cultures and that of my nation, I was silent. I was helpless. I was quiet because I could not believe those words. I was so liberal and tolerant myself; I could not comprehend the validity of racist remarks in my own home.
Once again, I was part of the problem.
So I learned to walk away, but resist the abuse and stand up to racism. I learned that remaining silent when others (or ourselves) are violated, is only feeding the hate even more. I spent the following decade raising my son in the spirit of tolerance but also aware of my own and his limitations. We practised the healthy conflict of views and opinions, instead of tiptoeing around each other.
In the meantime, I was also noticing the shift in the general perception of E.U. citizens. Way before 2016. Living in a small town, things become a bit more visible if you are sensitive to trends. Surrounded by very wealthy Daily Mail readers, I was often lost for words. My pronunciation was corrected (please don’t, it’s awfully awkward while the first thought is: would you be able to say the same thing in all the languages I speak?). My accent was “cute”. The fact that I rented and not owned a house was…well, probably temporary? The fact I did not listen to BBC radio was merely outrageous.
I was busy, though. Raising a small boy and managing a job at the first social media agency in the country was so hectic and so exciting that I did not have time to really ponder my place in society. Once again, I was a part of a new revolution. I faced a new industry emerge and quickly became quite established in it. The reality was global, connected around my passions, so I lived in a very comfortable bubble of ultra-tolerant people open to experimentation, to the new, to change.
I left the agency and helped kick off a new one. I learned a lot about leadership and started taking part in in-depth philosophical discussions about truth and sentiment of social media before the mainstream media even dared to pick it up. I reactivated the Polish Lingua site of Global Voices Online and travelled the world with a fantastic group of people. Again, left in a big of a utopian bubble of tolerance. I met my new husband, the rock of a man, who became a better dad my boy could ever wish for and a fantastic husband to me. Again, I was so busy with my own happiness that I did not notice the shift happening in our country.
Gradually, our G.P. practices became more crowded. Our schools had to join up forced and shift to academy model to survive. News of cuts, increasing homelessness and child poverty popped up here and there and disappeared fact in the whirlpool of news about celebrities.
In 2015 things started drastically changing online. Those of us who work in social media noticed new trends coming up. Politicians promoting racist views used the war in Syria and news about the immigrants from Asia to incite hate here in the U.K. I wasn’t proud of my local Conservative MP. I was noticing an increased level of racist comments in my old town. I was even told once to live “the British way” in my own house by a prominent council member in front of all others. More importantly, not a single person intervened.
I was experiencing a shift. But on the surface, it presented itself in silence.
Of course, I was a bit of an odd one out. I did not work on a farm or in a pub as some locals implied in my playground conversations. I was actively participating in the voluntary causes in my town and finally ended up running a few too. I was on the front cover of our local paper multiple times holding festival banners. When a group of young digital journalists coached by me was appointed to a town council award, I was accused of building my own reputation and had to remind the counsellors that we are talking about young people and their achievements, not mine. That’s how upsetting was my visibility. So I was a bit odd one out. And I did not feel the hostility as much as some of my friends because I refused to. I was living the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
But I was also a part of the problem because I was also quiet and complacent.
In early 2016 I was worried sick. Working in social media became a mental health hazard: I was seeing the work of the leading party and some other, more racist groups. Since early 2016 I could not pick up my virtual pen and write. I lost my voice, and I stopped blogging. I pretty much did not sleep for six months in advance of the Referendum watching many friends of mine from the industry blindly re-sharing racism with liberal views of criticising it, but also allowing it a platform to spread.
The day of the vote, at 7 am, I have received a vile racist message from a woman who visited my house almost daily and who claimed to be my friend (despite actually being a mum-school-acquaintance). Her attempt to threaten me only made me sad. She was misunderstanding our history and suddenly feeling that her racist views were allowed. Another, much kinder woman stopped me that day, explained she was hesitant to text me that morning and apologised for the behaviour of her nation. Even though this country is not hers or mine. It is ours. We hugged. We comforted her daughter, who could not vote just yet.
A racist person had no problem, no limitations and no shame to text and abuse me. A tolerant, kind person hesitated to text and could not find the right words. That state of our reality scared me. But it also made me curious. What was going on?
I went back to sit with this new experience all on my own for months. I was still alone in a hostile town. I gained 25% of my body mass in that time and acquired severe anxieties. But I grew wiser. I learned something new about racism.
We were all part of the problem.
30% of this country voted out. We have all spent a few years watching our leaders not representing us in the political process, and we have done hardly anything about it. We stayed at home. We fed on truths we wanted to hear. We stopped talking about politics but continued to travel for holidays pretending that one day soon we might not need that visa at all.
We did not want to be a nuisance. We did not want to be awkward. We did do not want to stick our head out and speak up.
We have been played. Our silence is being used against us daily.
Since 2016 the wave of racism was growing day by day. We have watched new terms emerge – alternative truths, fake media, misremembering of facts. We have listened and stayed silent. Those of us who are from E.U. have suffered a bit more because due to the Brexit narrative, we were tactically placed in a category of people who suddenly have no right to an opinion. Trust me, I feel it each time before another Brexit deadline when even more tolerant of people see me as the walking Brexit.
I learn daily about the less proud heritage of my new country, of this “fantastic” ability of our leaders to divide us and place us on opposite sides of the same discourse. Like in the days when the Black and Asian minorities suffered immediate hate and racism, I am now experiencing the same due to my own heritage, but I cannot say a word. We are, in the end, working towards fair representation. Just not a representation of all of us…
On the one hand, I feel closer at heart to centuries of people who suffered due to their inconvenient heritage, on the other I have no words to describe how lonely it leaves me with my own. Especially when talking about “going back to my country” reminds me of the sheer scale of racism prominent in my homeland…I feel a bit stuck between two worlds and I do not really fit in. I was hoping for a kinder reality here. And so I feel really sad.
I watch the fantastic exhibitions about the history of slavery, female emancipation, LQBTQ rights movement, and I cannot help but wonder: how long do I have to wait to be represented? Is that even possible?
But then I remember. I take my local bus and admire all anti-Brexit street art and I can relax again. Because that is precisely how they want us to feel. We are being played thinking this is just about race or national identity. We cope with nationality checks at school and passport checks at work. We ignore and accept the silence around everyday immigrant heroes…
But we are getting distracted with the racist narrative and don’t look at another area of silent suffering. We cope and accept the increased pressure on our public services. We pretend not to see the increasing amount of poor people, homeless people and the lack of support for the vulnerable of any kind. In our very own city, 30% of children live under the poverty line – every third one – and we are silent about it.
Unless like me, you work in a charity sector and see first hand the level of our struggle. Daily.
Yet, we are still part of the problem. We have arrived at the point where a simple conversation about politics over dinner or lunch is so painful and so sad that we prefer to avoid it. In a brilliant way, the discussion about politics became dirty, unfashionable, and thus not a “thing to do”. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who were kind enough to tell me that I am welcome here (and who listened to me saying the same words to them). In the times of terrible media and government narrative, speaking kindness became too tricky even for the tolerant. We are simply all very, very tired. And quite scared about our future too.
Today our M.P. stated openly that E.U. citizens should not call this country theirs. I sense that maybe, just maybe, he has crossed that invisible line of silence and woke a few of us up.
Today I am coming back to my blog aware that my recent business relaunch is my response to the years of politics trying to cut down our rights to free access to information. So I feel that I am not just talking, but actively doing something about it. And now that I am doing something about it, I am also going back to speaking up.
Because as long as we all keep quiet, those in power will benefit from the silence we allow them. It is time to resist our fears and speak out about the impact the current politics has on us.
I am still learning a lot about racism. I am peeling off the layers of my own assumptions. Daily. I hope that through open conversations, I can learn even more. Join me here or offline, over a coffee.
I wrote this and the previous post to start the conversation about the impact of racism (and other forms of inequality) on me. I would like to hear about your experiences. How do you feel about Brexit and the politics of racism and divide? How are you keeping yourself safe and kind?
UPDATE: When I wrote this post I was so emotional that I lost a decade. Thanks to my kind and honest friends it was flagged up to me so dates in this post are now hopefully correct – my apologies. I have tweaked a few points too, but not too much. Thank you for all kind words of support and solidarity from people who experience the same challenge with silence from all sides of the new divide. I treasure your kindness and your honesty.
“It’s a universal law– intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
Zaczyna mi się robić na sercu znów ciężko. Za każdym razem jak mamy poważne momenty historyczne w tym naszym Niezbyt-Zjednoczonym, atmosfera robi się ciężka a ja staję się, czuję się nagle wizerunkiem problemów.
Wyjechałam z dwóch rasistowskich krajów aby dziecku dać lepszy, cieplejszy start, ale jakoś mnie tutaj ten rasizm dogania.
Dzisiaj oddychać trudno. Mam tylko cichą nadzieję, że młodzi i starszy zaczynają rozumieć, że polityka jest sprawą nas wszystkich.
No ale jest duszno.
Inspired by the current political climate in the UK, this blog post was brewing for a few years now. It is a summary of my early personal experiences and learnings about racism. It will be followed by more in the upcoming few days: UK learnings and personal recommendations for those of you who might want to think about it a bit more. So stay tuned.
You see, growing up in a white, communist, Catholic Poland meant that I personally did not experience racism as a child. Going to the Catholic church, I was brainwashed into thinking about myself as a very tolerant, educated and spiritual (ergo kind) individual. It was later when I started to travel to Denmark for a student exchange organised by my parents, that the scale of Polish racism became apparent to me. Maybe it was at that moment when I had to open my bad on the German-German border in Berlin? Perhaps it was in the way we were still drawing lines between our national identities while using the religious dogma to back it all up?
I am not sure.
In primary school, I was busy managing my abusive mother. Still, I was infuriated by her comments about Jewish people (every-single-time we have watched a Hollywood movie), while in secondary school, I started to question my cultural paradigm. I was tired of commonly accepted jokes about Poles (aka smart), Germans (aka pragmatic) and Russians (aka stupid) or Jews (aka overly frugal). Comments about sending Russians back to Russia, Jews back to Israel and Black people to Africa were common in my very own house – which I found very traumatic. Islam was not mentioned back then, but I think I have seen and heard enough.
Change to democracy did not shift anything in this cultural paradigm, possibly made things worse – we simple changed sides. I was so sick and tired of homophobia, patriarchate, racism and other forms of intolerance that I applied for international studies.
I was lucky. I was sent to Budapest to study American and Hungarian culture.
I had high hopes – I was away from an abusive parent, so the world was my oyster. American Studies introduced me to the idea of rights and liberties, freedom of speech and the separation of state from church, as well as other founding principles of the American culture. However, studying in a white, secular Hungary, I was fortunate to carry the only national identity which was historically and socially accepted in Hungarian society. Poles and Hungarians were friends in many historical events. I was studying Hungarian linguistics and history of the language. I was welcome. I was liked. I was overly praised for my loyalty to the Hungarian heritage.
I felt that racism was all-encompassing nonetheless.
My Polish boyfriend carried the racism flag with him everywhere – stressing the superiority of our and Hungarian nation over all others. His lack of tolerance actually led to me ending the relationship. As an international student, I was also a witness to severe abuse of my Asian friends. Trust me, taking care of friends beaten up by police for the colour of their skin is never fun, mainly if you seemingly belong to the “other, white” side.
I started noticing the layers and intricacies of racism. In many ways, being black or Asian was very difficult – people would tell you to “go home” in the street or overly praise you for your Hungarian language skills (so very awkward!). Being Russian or from the old Soviet block was harder. The difference was not so visible, but it was a disaster waiting to happen – due to fresh and old historical wounds. I could feel it each time I spoke Polish, and it was mistaken by Russian – in that quick shift from hate to kindness in a split of a second. It was there even that first day when my dad asked for directions in Russian and was ignored, but a minute later helped when speaking English. However, being German, French, English or American was quite tricky too – the racism there was gentle, almost invisible. It was hiding in the different menu pricing for tourist in restaurants and higher hotels rates. It was practically silent, like the wind – invisible, but present.
Being Polish was ever so comfortable – I was treated like a Hungarian, but a bit better. I spoke Hungarian with no accent. My intent to blend in and behave in a Hungarian way was rewarded with compliments.
I was feeling welcome.
I was home.
I was also part of the problem.
I was enjoying the hospitality without questioning the status quo. I was on the right side of history.
I was also sometimes using racist terminology without even knowing it. Things were “typically German”, for instance. On some occasions, a racist joke was funny. I laughed. I was blind to the damage of racism, so I was part of the problem.
I was, however, conflicted. Those comments coming from others, especially about my friends, were painful. Yet, I could not see myself belonging to the same paradigm. I knew that I did not like that side of my own identity back in Poland, and I did not like the bit I was learning from the Hungarian heritage.
So I started peeling off the layers, gradually. I took a job at an Indian company and embraced more the fantastic Asian minority spaces in Budapest. I left my racist friends and spent more time in more international circles. Before 2000 it was still easy – Europe was economically and culturally opening, EU was integrating new counties, and cultural diversity was becoming fashionable too. Budapest was always an island hosting 20% of the nation, culturally very different from the rest of Hungary. It was a melting pot of many cultures if you knew what to look for.
Everything changed in November 2001.
In a day, the entire world froze in fear and turned its evil eye on one religion. As a result of the new political anti-terrorist narrative, racism was legitimised. People in power, the educated, the privileged felt free to speak the hostile word of racism even louder. It rang in ripples across the entire Eastern-Europe and reached Budapest too.
I was still at the university, so I had the freedom, time and space for navigating towards more niche, arty, more tolerant people in response to this new world. I started dating a son of a nationally known poet of traveller heritage and a woman who gave up her Hungarian aristocratic background to build a new type of a family. This relationship placed me in a small and magical world of different, brave, quiet, but steady revolutionaries. I learned about the people who were imprisoned for speaking the truth. I saw the impact it had on their lives and their loved ones. I learned about the choices one has to make when in the place of safety. I learned about decisions made from the position of severe imprisonment. I learned when to speak and when to resist.
As I was approaching my twenties, something else was emerging too.
A new revolution, if you like. Our niche musical, literary, radio activities were becoming even more potent with the emerging new technologies. We were starting to blog and use social networks to navigate towards our tribes and expect our reach through mutual interests. We had new ways to connect, to collaborate, to create and to rebel. Hardly anyone in power was even aware of the stuff going on online. Those online connections were making us feel a bit safe offline too. Needless to say, being Asian, gay or female artist was not just accepted but celebrated and pretty fashionable in those new communities.
I surrounded myself with kind and tolerant people so I probably lived in a bit of a bubble. The collective reality was much darker than my own.
And so maybe that’s why we did not see the new wave of racism entering our media outlets, our schools, our universities and our streets? Because it was there. Every single day it was growing stronger.
As the economy started collapsing we all needed someone to blame – and let’s be honest: it’s easier to blame an Asian Muslim student who sits next to you in class than a very few I’m power, right? We did not want to believe it, but this shift was indeed happening.
But we only feel the real impact of racism when it touches us personally – when the public narrative becomes personal.
To me, it was the shift in Hungarian culture towards Poles. The bubble of historical loyalty and love was slowly bursting. I was frowned upon on the bus for speaking any other language than Hungarian. I was called a Poyak (that negative word for my countrymen emerged). I was told to go back home. While verbal and physical abuse towards my Asian friends intensified, I was starting to feel less welcome as well.
One situation touched me beyond tears. When giving birth to my son, I suffered from preeclampsia (dangerous illness with high levels of mum and child mortality). Hungarian hospitals are fantastic, so we were saved. The following day I was in my bed, recovering, with needles still in my veins (in case of sudden changes and need for blood), trying to breastfeed when the hospital worker came in to deliver the free nappies allocated to all mums. Instead of leaving my lot on the table, she took away my own set of Pampers, so I was confused. Another mum explained to me: we each get a few and you had too many. Foreigners should not waste taxpayer’s money.
That’s when I decided to leave Hungary. I decided to find a better, kinder culture to raise my newborn son.
I had enough of racism. There had to be a better way to live.
I moved to the UK.
(Here is will stop, I had no idea this post would grow so fast, so I will need to continue in another one. I would love to know if racism was present in your childhood, though. Did you experience or see it as a young person? Did it affect your choices or your wellbeing? Let me know)
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”Mahatma Gandhi
Czuję się lekka, bardzo zmęczona i smutna. Tak wiele mam obecnie do zrobienia, ale po ciężkim roku po prostu nie mam na nic siły. A poza tym brakuje mi bardzo działki i słońca…Od ponad miesiąca pogoda była tak paskudna, że w ogóle nie miałam ochoty na spacery i na przyrodę. Jest zimno, mokro i raczej nieprzyjemnie.
I nie chodzi mi tu tylko o pogodę. Kraj jest przygnębiony polityką rasizmu, a ja jakoś nie potrafię się odnaleźć. W pracy, na szczęście, mam do czynienia z bardzo ciepłymi i tolerancyjnymi ludźmi. Ale też w tej samej pracy słucham historii ludzi, którzy nie mają nic i bardzo zależą na pomocy kraju.
Słucham Polaków i Brytyjczyków w autobusie. Ci, co nim jadą, są z zasady w pewnej klasie i nie mają problemów z zapomogami, dostępem do lekarstw, obaw o mieszkanie. Więc jakoś tak lekko wypowiadają się o tym, co się dzisiaj dzieje w kraju – a co w sumie działo się od ponad dekady…
Gubię się pomiędzy nawróconymi rodakami (wielu wreszcie pozbyło się rodzimego rasizmu) a Brytyjczykami, którzy to w Brystolu ostro walczą z rasizmem. Brystol jest ciepły, ale kraj się robi mroźny.
Jest mi więc lekko i smutno. Łapię się na tym, że jak już ogłosiłam nową firmę i mogę odetchnąć, chowam się w domu. Nie mam ochoty z nikim rozmawiać. Wygrzewam się. Zastanawiam się nad prawdami, których uczę się od ludzi, którzy nie mają nic.
Jestem smutna i lekka.
Today is my Nameday – a day of celebrations of my personal identity and my relationship with my Dad (we used to celebrate our first names together). This is one of the few most important days in my calendar, so I tend to make it special. This year it is really important to me because it marks an important step in my life journey. I would like to use this day as an opportunity to launch a new edition of my business, Voxel Hub. This blog post contains an update on how I have arrived at this point in my professional life and why I think digital wellbeing is the next core focus of my work. I have posted quite a while ago about my luck in professional life. Most of my jobs were excellent. I worked in innovative industries, with fantastic leaders who showed me the way to grow but also to ask myself the right questions in regards to my life – private or professional. All those experiences and skills I have acquired along the way, shaped me into a person who seeks new challenges all the time. However, that constant need for movement and growth does not feel too heavy – it helps me grow, learn and help others. So today I would like to explain to my friends and colleagues why I have arrived at the point in life when Voxel Hub feels like the natural next step.
Whether you work for yourself or others, you are probably making career choices almost daily. Every single task and stuff you get done leads to your future direction in life. If you pay attention to your life, you can shape it into something rather extraordinary. That is precisely what has happened to me in the last decade of my life. I started my UK career in the first social media agency in the country, but as it grew and moved to London, I decided that living in London was too noisy for my young son. I was a single mum, so I had limited choices, but that did not stop me. I was told a startup was in the making in Oxford, so I reached out to them, and thus NFP Voice was born to support charities with social media work. I was deeply involved in digital for charities and really loved it, but I felt restless. The industry was changing and so doing social externally as an agency became a challenge to our beliefs – that people and organisations should be embedding social into their internal structures. So our work shifted to individual consultancy, and I suddenly became a business owner myself. It took me a few years to figure out the work-life balance and learn how to run a business, but I had brilliant support from my family, friends and colleagues. Only that working from home and running it, running a business and raising a child in a small and hostile town started affecting my overall mental health. Social media became my life-line, and until today, I strongly believe in the positive impact of online connections. Access to courses and life hacks also helped me a lot. I got involved in a few local causes, to balance out my inability to join other mums for a coffee during school hours. I made a few good friends to fill the loss of those lost to the ever-busy life of digital marketing in London.
I was incredibly stuck, though, and I did not know why. On the one hand, my actual circumstances were pretty good – a good job, a loving family, great location… On the other hand, something was bubbling up in me – a realisation that something around us was changing too. Our town became more and more hostile, on some occasions, racist. My son’s school turned into an academy and stopped caring for children – moved to care for results. The cues to the local GP practice grew, and all around me, people became more anxious and more lonely. I was feeling very lonely too. And in late 2015, I started noticing worrying trends online. Six months in the lead up to the Brexit Referendum I got seriously ill. Each time I sat to work int he morning, I would experience severe bellyache. My GP could find no other reason than stress. Only that my life was rather good, balanced… I did not understand what was going on. Something was really bothering me still…
The night of the Referendum vote I got an hour of sleep. I was worried, sick. For a person working in trends, I could see the results coming – I was genuinely not surprised. I was just really shocked that very few of us did see it coming. Next morning, before school run, I receive a message from a mum who after months of weekly visits to my house with her sons positioned herself as my best friend (actually best-mum-friend would be a more suitable term) saying: “I talked to my husband. He is certain that your husband will not get a job in the UK now”. I was experiencing racism and profound cruelty but also an astonishing level of entitlement and bias, which I did not see until then. The same afternoon another mum stopped me and said: ”I honestly did not know if I can text you or not so I decided to share this in person – I am so sorry for what you are going through right now.” And that reaction made me feel very curious. It is evident that everyone in the UK that day was suddenly to take a side and renegotiate their relationships. Still, it was also quite clear that cruelty was loud and forceful, while kindness was too quiet and too polite. At least in my experience, this was the trend I was experiencing in weeks and months in advance.
That day my husband and I decided to leave the small town. Pending our residency application, we would move to Bristol or Italy. Our residency application came through in two weeks, and it was backdated, so clearly we not just welcome but destined to stay. We started working on our plans to move to Bristol while I was processing my learnings from those early Brexit days concerning my profession – social media marketing. It was pretty apparent that the vote was hacked and today we also know how it was done. But I was more interested in two areas: people’s ignorance and general lack of civic engagement (and by extension engagement in the way they work with technology) but also the lack of active resilience and resistance in the times of rising hostility. I spent most of my time since summer 2016 figuring out what was it that bothered me about it all. I did not wake up one day with a brilliant idea of opening a new business and educating people on digital wellbeing. No, I did not.
The idea of Voxel Hub was born out of years of confusion (offline social isolation and thriving online connections) and active search for answers to new emerging questions. On that journey, I have promised myself a few things: to trust myself, to listen to people, to learn and never to assume anything.
I sat back and took time off work. I spent a few months switching off entirely. I was ill due to Brexit news, so I stopped reading news and focussed on my self-care a lot. I got a dog, went back to gardening (perfect time for listening to podcasts) and moved my blogging back to my quiet journaling on paper. It felt like I lost my public voice, but I know now that I was merely in need of quiet time. Time to think. I was confused but curious to explore the more human side of technology.
Next, I went back to my clients for more feedback on my work. I was always curious about social media ethics but their feedback clarified a more significant perspective on my passion – my deep curiosity in the human aspect of social media. It was my clients who made me realise the truth about my work – I was helping them with social media but also with their actual perspectives and feelings about it. One client made it pretty clear that I was her coach and a counsellor too. And that I was pretty good at it. But I was also aware of one problem: I had basics of psychology from my teacher training and books I read, but I was not qualified to do counselling so I was out of my depth! I had to go back to school.
I spent a few weeks learning to hack my life to make space for studies. I designed the family and home running around it and recruited all family members to help me with my new goals. My husband sat and planned it all with me, promised his support all the way. So I started learning a lot. First, I took all available online courses on human psychology, cyberpsychology, coaching and counselling. I learned about systemic challenges to mental health and a lot about personal ones too. I studied biases and learned more about echo chambers – before they were even a mainstream term. I studied leadership and collective thinking. Then I went back to university. At the same time, I dived deep into the practical work of counsellors – I still study and gradually start supporting people myself too.
Additionally, I have stopped assuming things. I explored and questioned every step of my way. I was confident in my skills, but I wasn’t sure about the stuff that was going on for my clients. So I stopped looking at things from my little box and worked hard on my own story and my individual assumptions. I spent over a year in personal therapy (study requirement but also a way of growing personally). I cannot tell you how many times I have shed the layers of my culture, upbringing, past religions and other systems. It is and always will be the most painful and formative part of this process, but it’s worth it. Instead of assuming, I was testing. I tested the idea of a tech hub for young children and their families. I tested running of a local art initiative for collective benefit. I tested online courses, coaching and one-to-one support around digital wellbeing. I started building in my learnings into my daily work too.
As the world started talking about the positive side of mental health and technology I was already in the space where a balanced view on both was not just new, it was a basic human need. I wanted to explore it, but I did not have a term for it, so I was forced to look at academic work around the impact of the Internet on our lives. I found it in London, Cardiff, Birmingham and…yes, in Bristol at the University of West England. At the same campus as their counselling studies. And that was the point when all my explorations started to align themselves into a consistent picture. Moving to Bristol made sense. People were friendly here, so it also helped me heal from my experience of racism and local hostility. I moved beyond my newly acquired anxieties towards a more courageous life. I even jumped out of a plane to celebrate that!
In those last two years of our life here, I started working on the idea of Voxel Hub and my new work-life balance. I joined the oldest youth counselling service in Bristol and continued with my social media consultancy to maintain the right balance between technology and mental health. I continued with my studies. Cyberpsychology is not new, but it took its time to enter the public discourse. 2018 welcomed first positive conversations around mental health and also more balanced research into the impact of social media. Google launched digital wellbeing tools, thus coining the term. Apple introduced screen time tools, and so the idea of wellbeing around technology became relevant to all. Digital resilience, the term which applied to the information security of company systems, starts to be used for the human element of those too. In education, contextual safeguarding is finally implemented with young people actively involved in the process. In the online rights movement, access to information is now the topic too. We even start to research and question the bias in academic research around the impact of social media on humanity. You can now learn some aspects of digital wellbeing online. Digital wellbeing frameworks emerge in a specific context, here’s one for academia. The Internet is 50 years old, but in our daily conversations, we are still repeating the myths (“social media is negatively impacting our lives” or “screens are damaging to our health”). There is so much work to be done! Slowly, the shift is happening though, so now is the time for Voxel Hub to open its doors.
I do have to admit this: the last five years of my life were challenging. I lost both parents. Due to all the stress, I became pre-menopausal and moved to a new biological age (experiencing a hormonal balance for the first time in my life was a bit of a shock to the system). I have lost some significant friends and leaders. I also lost two countries – not a day goes by that I do not grieve for Polish and British democratic process the way it used to be. At the same time, the losses created space for the new. I have chosen to make a difference to the systems around us in the way I am best equipped to do – through my experience and skills. I am celebrating my new family daily – it remains to be my core priority. I am making new friends and welcome new leaders. I am looking at both countries with the hope of young people who are angry but also determined to act and built a better future for us. I am moving away from certainty into a world of unknown. I learn to live with the uncertain, exploring instead of arriving at specific destinations.
Symbolically, launching a new business in the middle of Brexit crisis in the UK is a reminder for me to stay steady and prepared for the unexpected. I can only achieve it by reminding myself to be kind, open, resisting the power and welcoming the change. Always critically questioning the status quo. In my case and in my small way, I will be here to help others explore their individual and collective relationship with technology. I will study our humanity in this digital age. And I hope that you will join me – actively involved or watching, but prepared to point out mistakes and hold me accountable for my assumptions too.
So on my forty-second Nameday, I would like to introduce you to the Voxel Hub – a safe space for digital wellbeing explorations. You are welcome. I hope you can join me.
I have spent the last six months working on the core of Voxel Hub articulating the mission, core services and branding to create a calm space aligned with my values and what I think my clients need. I described it in the brand guidelines and the website’s about section. I have developed a core model of support which combined digital marketing principles with core approaches in mental health support. There is not much large scale research into this area, but what is out there, I have included in the Voxel Hub methodology. I will spend the next six months working with my close and trusted friends on a series of affordable online courses. You will see topics ranging from the language around mental health for online journalists, resilience in the digital age to leadership topics and management of online crisis with appropriate self-care. I have published one free course already and signalled other courses I am working on this winter.
As I continue building the core of the business with digital consultancy and digital wellbeing support, I will also be testing coaching and counselling support, training and corporate packages. All of this will have to happen slowly, as I do not want to change my current commitments, but I am really excited about it all. I hope to have a core of my business work finished by March 2020 (after October, the second most significant month in mental health calendar) for a larger launch here in Bristol.
I remain committed to all my current commitments as they perfectly complement each other, but you will see me writing and talking more about digital wellbeing from now on. I hope you will find those explorations useful.
I am eternally grateful to each and every single person who was there to support me in this journey – you know who you are. Also, for those of you who were experiencing my quiet blog – thank you for waiting, reading and joining in. Voxel Hub would not be possible without you.
(Digital wellbeing is new, and so I hope many will be inspired to take it and make it their own. However, in the Voxel Hub format, it feels precious to me, so I would like to take the liberty to dedicate it to the men who shaped me: my Dad, my Brother, my Husband and my Son. I love you all with all my heart.)