We are living through some extraordinarily challenging times. The pandemic, police brutality, and now, the potential beginnings of another World War courtesy of the devastating Russian invasion of the Ukraine, are streaming across our devices like never before.
The impact on our emotional well-being has been profound. COVID deaths near the million mark in the United States, with black and Pacific Islanders experiencing the greatest loss. Suicide rates for young people—and particularly for black and brown people— have continued to climb. Overdose deaths have also surged forward, with once again the biggest losses among black and brown communities. The disparities between who is valued and who is less so seem only to be growing in such desperate times.
And as we watch with horror as the Ukraine is bombed (including in March, a psychiatric facility that housed over 300 people), it is important that we find a way to both hold space for the realness of that devastation and loss and the obvious terror being inflicted upon its citizens, while also being aware that the trend is continuing. There are at least three ways in which racism and white supremacy are showing up in the Ukrainian conflict. These include:
1. Attitudes about this conflict versus so many others in recent or current events: As Palestinian journalist, Mohammed Rafik Mhawesh highlighted in an article called, “What the War in Ukraine Taught Us,” most of the world immediately jumped to calling Ukrainians heroes for fighting back, while so many Palestinians have been painted as terrorists. While it is true that there are certain differences that stand out with this particular conflict (including the rarity of such a powerful country invading neighboring lands unprovoked, and the potential threat of nuclear escalation should it continue), it’s hard to miss just how differently the world is reacting to this then, say, wars and devastation in Ethiopia or Cameroon. The ways in which the actual wars are different versus the responses and lack of outrage just don’t quite match up.
2. News Coverage: Along similar lines, a stream of news reporters have uttered comments reinforcing the color divide. In an article titled, ’Whose Lives Really Matter? How Racism Colors Coverage of the Crisis in Ukraine,” Salon offered (among others) this selection of quotes:
Others made similar remarks. “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed,” said Ukraine’s former Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, while talking to the BBC, which did not challenge him on the statement. “The unthinkable has happened… This is not a developing, third-world nation; this is Europe!” exclaimed ITV News reporter Lucy Watson in a tearful explanation as to why we need to help the refugees. “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking,” wrote former Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan in The Daily Telegraph. “War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone,” he added.
Once again, the differences in response are displayed in stark relief.
3. Treatment of black and other non-white refugees in the Ukraine: Much like in the US, there are active neonazi groups and perspectives emmeshed with military and police establishments in Ukraine, Poland, and other European countries. Viral videos abound of black and brown refugees in the Ukraine being dragged off of transportation to make room for white families. Border guards at Polish borders have refused entry even to black mothers and their young children. A Time Magazine article offered the following quote in a recent article, ‘They Called Ukraine Home. But They Faced Violence and Racism when They Tried to Flee.’:
“We entered the train last,” Kass says, describing how she and other African women were forced to wait outside as snow was falling, while white women and children were allowed to board before them. She believes her gender is the only reason she was spared being beaten. Groups of Nepalese, Indian and Somalian men described to TIME how they were kicked and beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards who later begrudgingly allowed them to cross over, on foot.”
The message here is not one of disregard, nor are we arguing for the “cancellation” of Ukraine, or the dismissal of its people’s pain and suffering. What’s happening there is terrible, and deserves our attention, as well as our support. However, it remains essential that we keep looking for the untold story, and uncovering what our biases may otherwise lead us to miss.
We have a long and deeply embedded history of deciding what groups of people are worth more fight and outrage than others, people with psychiatric histories included. But, meanwhile, true unity and reclamation of power comes from seeing through all that, and celebrating, valuing, and defending our respective differences. This is true whether we’re talking about the ways that our minds work, the abilities of our bodies, the color of our skin, or the cultural practices of the nations we call home.
Yes, the war in the Ukraine deserves our attention, but so does the underlying belief systems its serving to reflect back to us.
For More on this Topic:
· Viewpoint on Ukraine: Why African wars get different treatment, BBC, tiny.cc/BBCUkraine
· Why the Ukraine is Different, New York Times, tiny.cc/DifferentUkraine
· Whose Lives Really Matter? How Racism Colors Coverage of the Crisis in Ukraine, tiny.cc/WhoseLivesUk
· Ukraine, Racism, and the Wars We Ignore, Puck, tinyurl.com/WarsIgnored
· Racism During a War? It’s Heinous, but We Can’t Cancel Ukraine Over It. NJ.com, tiny.cc/Racismwar
· What the War in Ukraine Taught Us, Palestinians, AlJazeera, tiny.cc/PalestineUk
· They Called Ukraine Home, But They Faced Violence and Racism When They Tried to Flee, Time Magazine, http://tiny.cc/TimeUk