Europe, But Not Quite

The liminal whiteness and Europeanness of Eastern Europe


I am waiting in line with my group of friends. A Dutch person behind us asks where we are from, probably to make the time pass faster. I let my friends respond first. Germany. Netherlands. France. The person acknowledges each country with a nod and a smile. They seem friendly and genuinely interested. Then comes my turn. Poland. Their facial expression twitches. The enthusiasm in their eyes rapidly fades. They take slightly longer to react to my answer. Oh, cool. My friends do not even notice it, but this millisecond of difference tells me everything that I already knew.

A white, European person asks four other white people where they come from. This question is underlain by the assumption of similarity and proximity, warranted by the colour of our skin – the imagined we. The first three responses confirm this assumption, but my answer throws this person off. I am not a part of the imagined we that they so confidently assumed. My whiteness has deceived them and now they must react to an element of surprise that they did not anticipate. It is not that Eastern European countries are actively excluded from the imagined we, but more that they are not automatically taken into consideration. Their inclusion is always a matter of an afterthought; their perceived ‘eligibility’ depends on the circumstances and interests of the Western European person making the judgement. The imagined we is not only white but also European. Eastern Europe is an awkward puzzle that technically fits these ‘criteria’, yet something does not feel quite right.

This anecdote epitomizes how, in social perceptions, Eastern Europeans can function simultaneously as unmarked (because we are white) and marked (because we are Eastern). The relationship between Western and Eastern Europe is emblematic of the dynamics of discrimination and belonging that dictate who deserves to be European and who does not. However, the position of Eastern Europe in the hierarchy of whiteness and Europeanness is rarely discussed. Inspired by scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Brittney Cooper, Donna Haraway, Merje Kuus and Agnieszka Sojka, I wish to open up this discussion. This is, by no means, an attempt to victimize Eastern Europeans or prove that ‘they have it worse’ than people of colour. On the contrary – I want to find the language that can be used to describe Eastern European experiences without simultaneously falling into white supremacist discourses.

Whiteness is an unnamed category of domination of unmarked, white bodies over marked, non-white others. However, instead of approaching whiteness as a homogenous, universal experience of superiority, Twine and Gallagher propose that we situate white identities within the relational and historical context of fluctuating racial boundaries. They conceive whiteness as a performance, contingent on political, social and economic realities. Examining how white identities can be reformulated based on their intersection with socio-economic status allows us to better understand racial dynamics beyond the classical frame of North America and the UK. Such an approach is particularly relevant for studies of European whiteness in which Eastern Europe plays a central role.

Vast bodies of literature relating to Europe refer solely to the Western portion of the continent. Historical, economic, or political analyses focus on Western European countries and use other nations as illustrative outliers or counterarguments. European whiteness is a relational concept where a white Western European body becomes a default identity that everyone else is compared to. Its construction takes place in relation to 1) non-European racialized groups who became a part of Western European societies; and 2) the liminal Europeanness of citizens of Eastern European countries whose citizens have gained intra-European mobility through the eastward expansion of the EU. This is where the nuance comes in: dominating groups can have their own internal hierarchies of domination. Those who belong to the dominant group can be simultaneously dominated by other members of said group. In the European context, Western white bodies dominate both the non-white bodies, as well as the other white bodies.

Because of the high homogeneity of Eastern European societies, many Eastern Europeans become conscious of their whiteness only when they leave their own country. Freshly confronted with their racial identity and its consequences for their positionality, Eastern European migrants find themselves in the middle of an unfamiliar playing field between white, fully European locals and non-white, non-European others. Agnieszka Sojka’s study on the positionality of Polish domestic workers in Spain reveals how their whiteness becomes a crucial tool for the construction of hierarchies of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ immigrants executed by Spanish employers. The preferences regarding the employees’ characteristics are frequently framed in terms of ‘shared values’ or ‘cultural proximity’. What remains unsaid but strikingly obvious is that for both of these criteria, Poles score higher than Latin American or North African migrants simply because they are white and European. However, while Poles (and other Eastern Europeans) are seen as ‘good enough’ to work for Spaniards (and other Western Europeans), the former are by no means perceived as equal to the latter. Aware of this, Eastern European workers try to compensate for their lower position by portraying themselves as superior to non-white migrants and thus playing right into racist stereotypes and rhetoric.

Polish migrants become stuck between ‘real’ Europeans (white and Western) and outsiders (non-white and Eastern). In this case, whiteness is a power category rather than a literal skin colour. Having white skin is merely one of the criteria for inclusion to the group of ‘real’ Europeans. To explain racial inequalities in Europe, we must look beyond skin colour – the default comparative frame in Northern America. Being white in Europe is equally connected to the discourses surrounding Western superiority, civilizations and nation-states. Therefore, while Poles hold many privileges as white and thus unmarked, they are simultaneously put in a named category of Eastern migrants which marks their liminal Europeaness. As Sojka summarises:

“The main argument is that, in the expanding space of the European Union, Europeanness cannot be understood as a fixed position of privilege; rather, it must be understood in the context of broader processes of inclusion and exclusion within the borders of Europe, as well as of socioeconomic and discursive differentiation between its centre and peripheries.”

The orientalist notion of the ‘unmodern East’ supposes that everything that is ‘modern’ is Western. Thus, when Eastern Europeans identify as European, they clearly define themselves as Western. The engagement with Western preconceptions can be observed on both a micro and macro scale. This colonial logic has penetrated the European politics of belonging so deeply that one’s membership to the ‘Western club’ is contingent on their acceptance of the unreconstructed ideas of whiteness that have warranted the dominant position of Western identities in globalized racial hierarchies. Given that transnational recognition can only be gained through membership in international institutions governed by Western ‘norms and values’, countries need to adapt these ideas to advance in the global playground of international relations. Attila Melegh points out how when confronted with the pressure of Europeanization (or rather Westernization), Eastern European countries find themselves torn between different conceptions of what it means to be European. To cope with this identity crisis, Eastern Europeans often resort to racist and xenophobic narratives that serve as pushbacks to not being seen as ‘European enough’. The contribution of Eastern Europeans to the perseverance of systemic racism is undeniable. Dissecting it, however, can shed some light onto the racist dynamics that plague Europe.


Central Europe? Hierarchies of Easterness

Now that we have talked whiteness, we can move to the issue of Easterness. For that, it would be pertinent to briefly revisit Said’s concept of orientalism and the modern-unmodern divide. This is because the hierarchies of Europeanness are necessarily tied to the hierarchies of Easterness. The Western cognition of Eastern Europe is shaped by an orientalist logic because, due to its geopolitical location, Eastern Europe fulfils the function of a doorstep leading from the unmodern East to the modern West. This is not to say that Eastern Europe is situated in the perceived ‘non-West’. Rather, my point is that the modern-unmodern is more of a spectrum than a dichotomy.

Similarly, the fact that Eastern European countries neither participated in the colonial race, nor became colonies (at least of Western Europe), does not mean that the colonial legacy remains irrelevant to their positionality. On the contrary, it is precisely the privilege and power gained through the theft of lives and lands that has made the West so magnetic and desirable in Eastern European eyes. In pursuit of recognition and wealth, Eastern European countries try to mimic the West, hoping to become agents rather than subjects of domination. From rushed neoliberal reforms and adaptation of Euro, to purchasing quick trains that cannot reach full speed on old train tracks – Eastern Europe craves the prestige of its Western counterparts.

However, to achieve this, Eastern European countries must purge their Easterness. The perception of Eastern European countries follows the orientalist logic – the further East, the less ‘modern’. Joining the EU and NATO is an opportunity for Eastern European countries to become seen as more European and less Eastern than those who retain closer ties with Russia. This is because by entering these organizations, governments promise to subscribe to Western ‘values’ (although Poland and Hungary have been testing this assumption lately). Eastern European countries are placed on two opposite hierarchies – Europeaness and Easterness. The most advantageous position (most European and least Eastern) is occupied by those who have the most successfully mimicked the West – the countries that are frequently referred to as Central Europe (notably Poland, Czechia, Hungary, and Slovenia). While membership in the EU and NATO is necessary, it is not enough to be seen as fully European.

To push the perceived border between Europe and Eastern Europe further East, Eastern European countries must employ the same othering practices that Western European countries employ towards them. This relates to Bakić-Hayden’s concept of nesting orientalisms – just as there is a gradation of ‘Orients’, there exists a multiplicity of ‘Easts’. There is no such thing as the East – instead, there is a fluctuating scale of Easterness that countries can move up and down on depending on how they frame themselves. Consequently, Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Europe, are all theoretical projects central to the functioning of politics of belonging and exclusion. The category of Central Europe will not cease to exist because it signifies the transition path from Eastern to Western. While Central European countries construct themselves as different, more advanced, than the East, they are highly unlikely to ever be perceived as fully Western. Even if Central Europe holds a dominant position relative to Eastern Europe and further East, it is highly unlikely to ever escape the shadow of the ‘real’ (Western) Europe. However, the promise of equality posited by membership in international organizations ensures that Central European countries will continue trying to prove that they belong to the West rather than the East. This, in turn, fosters xenophobia in the region as one’s superiority must always be constructed against others.

For Merje Kuus, Central European countries are thus located in “a liminal space, neither [fully] developed nor underdeveloped, neither learned nor wholly ignorant, in the process of becoming mature Europeans”. She argues that while EU and NATO enlargement shifted the borders of Europe further East, the perceived divide of Europe versus Eastern Europe persists. What changed is that Europe and Eastern Europe are no longer monolithic categories but rather a series of discourses encompassing different ‘Europes’ and ‘Eastern Europes’ that are constantly reproduced through the othering practices of both Western and Eastern countries. This is a departure from the conception of Eastern European countries as passive subjects to Western meddling – instead, they are portrayed as agents with a significant degree of constructing power.


We, the non-Westerners

The intersectional analysis of whiteness in the European context reveals the critical effect that orientalism and colonialism continue to have on shaping not only non-white but also white identities. There is no such thing as the white European identity – instead, one’s exact position on the spectrum of whiteness is impacted by their perceived level of Europeanness and Easterness. This position is contingent upon how closely their social, political and economic environment resembles Western Europe. An orientalist logic is reflected here in that the characteristics of Western Europe are deemed to be reference points that all players ought to strive towards. The project of Central Europe has been created in pursuit of recognition and being distinguished from ‘mere’ Eastern Europe. Despite this attempt at differentiation, (Central) Eastern Europe remains seen as a material that can potentially be moulded to resemble the ‘real Europe’ but not to ever become it.

Thus, studying the positionality of Eastern Europe can reveal a lot not only about the relationship of this region to the Western part of the continent, but also about Western-Eastern dynamics in general. Breaking down Eastern European whiteness and Europeanness is a step towards dissecting the racist ideas of domination that have ruled Europe. Furthermore, the case of Eastern Europe highlights the hierarchies within the dominant group, pointing towards a heterogeneity of experiences of domination. Upon reflection, we Eastern Europeans must resist racist and xenophobic attempts to become Western. Based on our positionality, we should know better than to mimic the logic of the oppressor. Instead of projecting our own sorrows and insecurities onto our Eastern neighbours, we should build mutual understanding through shared experiences and empathy.



Cover photo credit: TeaMeister/flickr/creative commons

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Zuzanna Ściborska

Zuzanna is a Polish student currently based in Amsterdam, where she is pursuing a Research MSc in Social Sciences. Her writing focuses mostly on the experiences of Eastern Europeans in Western Europe, particularly in terms of the politics of belonging, economic exploitation and cultural europeanization.