With reportedly 2,000 dead in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and more than 836,000 people displaced as they flee his brigades, bombs and bullets, somehow, amid all the fear and uncertainty, there is still time for racism.
Over the last few days, several reports from the Ukraine-Poland border have indicated that Black people living in Ukraine have had a much tougher time getting to safety. According to CNN, the refugees of color were forced to wait in frigid conditions with no food or water. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s foreign minister said that all people leaving the country should be treated fairly.
“Ukrainians have been prioritized over Africans — men and women — at every point,” Rachel Onyegbule, a Nigerian medical student, told CNN. “There’s no need for us to ask why. We know why.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put the Western world’s inability to see Black people as human in the spotlight. While rallying the troops and his people to fight back against Putin’s aggression, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was successful in appealing to our common humanity. It’s not something that Black and brown people in conflict have really ever been able to do.
Even the ones trying to flee Ukraine.
One CNN producer tweeted about his sister who is from Sierra Leone and lives in Ukraine. Her harrowing escape from the country included walking 10 hours in the cold, sleeping outdoors and abandoning belongings. One student from Guinea said he and other Africans were physically prevented from crossing into Ukraine while they watched white people be let through.
“Unlike with people from the Middle East or countries with predominantly Black or brown populations, for whom war and other devastation are often seen as 'expected,' the Western media very quickly realized the humanity of Ukrainians.”
Though many may feel as if the unprovoked attack on Ukraine is unprecedented, the horrifying truth is that for many countries and people, war has been a constant for decades. But Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians— though constantly under the threat of death and destruction — haven’t been receiving overwhelmingly warm welcomes and worldwide support.
At times, it’s been the exact opposite. In 2015, Hungarian camerawoman Petra Laszlo was filmed tripping and kicking Middle Eastern refugees who had fled from war. She was sentenced to three years probation in 2017 but her sentence was overturned the following year.
Unlike with people from the Middle East or countries with predominantly Black or brown populations, for whom war and other devastation are often seen as “expected” (as if their skin color predetermined whether or not they’d get to live a peaceful existence), the Western media very quickly realized the humanity of Ukrainians. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades,” CBS’s Charlie Agata said. “This is relatively civilized, relatively European.”
Decoding the dog whistle is not rocket science; the outpouring of support for white Ukrainians while ignoring or even impeding Africans’ escape from the conflict is clearly rooted in white supremacy and the idea that we must do everything to stop war in countries like Ukraine while, in brown and Black countries, that’s just the way those people are.
And in the United States, the racist double standard is so extreme that some Republicans are comparing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to alleged problems in other “white” countries — namely, this one.
“We also have neighbors to the north who need freedom and need to be liberated and we need that right here at home as well,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said at CPAC last week, equating a bloody invasion to wearing a mask at the grocery store in the U.S. and Canada.
But still, after some early praise for Putin from former President Donald Trump, who remains the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, and from Fox News’ talking heads, even the GOP had to concede that the Ukrainians were putting up an impressive fight.
Much of the world has united behind Ukraine. Members of Congress are wearing yellow and blue — the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Social media users have changed their profile pictures to declare their alliance with the Ukrainian people, and pundits are musing openly (and dangerously) about the U.S. getting directly involved.
At President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, his lines about the conflict drew bipartisan support. Republicans, whose sole goal is to oppose anything the Democrats believe in, were on their feet cheering and applauding Ukraine. Can you imagine getting bipartisan support for Afghan refugees or Black Lives Matter?
The U.S. is rightly horrified. But the U.S. is also hypocritical.
Turning entire nations into The Other is what leads to wars, genocides and other atrocities. This very thing that the U.S. and its allies are doing — declaring Ukraine good and therefore deserving of our support while either demonizing or flat-out ignoring similar atrocities in non-Western countries — is how wars like the one Russia is waging begin in the first place.
The solution here, however, isn’t to turn our backs on Ukraine. But if the U.S. and the rest of the West want to consider themselves the good guys — the people who defend democracies and the ordinary people of the world — they must, for once, do the same for the people who don’t look like them.