The War in Ukraine and the Ugly Face of Racism

Also available at Media Diversified

What Ukranian Racism is saying about Western Democracy

Lots of people will be shouting, “do you have to bring race into this, at this time of ALL times?” My quiet response to them would be, “I wish that I didn’t have to”. Why? Because it says so much about a nation that in a war, fighting for its life, where many of its citizens are facing the reality of becoming refugees they STILL can find the time to dehumanise fellow human beings, also caught between the crosshairs of this catastrophe.

To hear these harrowing stories of Ukrainians living in bomb shelters in the deeply excavated underground metro stations, cueing up at train stations, fleeing in fear of their lives or walking for hours or sometimes days to their nearest borders is truly heartbreaking. However, what is more disturbing to me, is how in the midst of this unimaginable tragedy, ordinary African, Caribbean and Indian students, who are legally visiting scholars to Ukraine are being made to feel less than human, as though they are lesser than the Ukrainians they, up until this point, have lived amongst relatively peacefully. This quiet story away from the bombast of the mainstream media’s decry of Western civilisational crisis produces quotes from equally desperate and innocent people, where one of them actually says, “I see bloodshot racism in their eyes. They want to save themselves and are losing their humanity in the process…”, as they are being denied water in local shops, whilst trying to flee the country.

I was deeply shocked to hear how some of these students were also threatened at gun point at the Polish borders by Ukrainian police, who tried to prevent them from crossing the border into Poland. The reports of vigilantes (who claim to be supporting the Ukrainian army) threatening African students at gun point is also as shocking as the racist behaviour shown by officials at the (Polish) border check points because some ordinary Ukrainian citizens actually believe that they are protecting their cities from invasion, in this way.

I joined Twitter Spaces to hear how these brave students were rallying around and organising themselves by sharing valuable information about which borders are safe, what to carry, who to contact at embassies, who to go to for transport and so many other logistical issues of material importance to these now refugees; only to hear that racist trolls had infiltrated their Telegram accounts making it that much harder for them to coordinate themselves.

What is particularly galling is that these non-European students had paid their tuition fees to their Ukrainian universities and had legally obtained their student VISAS to study in the Ukraine but apparently these rights that Ukraine via its universities, has been profiting from seem not to matter in this national emergency. Even when according to Reuters, “[c]ities under siege across Ukraine are home to tens of thousands of African students studying medicine, engineering and military affairs. Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt are among the top 10 countries with foreign students in Ukraine, together supplying over 16,000 students, according to the education ministry. Thousands of Indian students are also trying to flee.” These are not insignificant numbers of students caught up in all of this.

OK, so why is this issue so important, many detractors will be saying?

Here is a clue:

“For the first time, the ravening beasts set loose upon all quarters of the globe by capitalist Europe have broken into Europe itself… This same ‘civilised world’ looked on passively as the same imperialism ordained the cruel destruction of ten thousand Herero tribesmen” Rosa Luxemburg (as cited by Paddy Gibson in who unnervingly echoes Aimé Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism.

On the symbolic level, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is important because, as we keep being reminded by mainstream media, it represents an assault on a democratic, civilised European nation. All the messages we are constantly being told is that the suffering of this “relatively civilised and relatively European place” represents the suffering of ALL civilised nations in the West. However, for me what is striking is how the usual universalising of human experience using Western values in this crisis, betrays a naked racism that infers that only European suffering is worth fighting for and preventing. The suffering by fellow human beings residing outside Europe who have or are still experiencing the effects of Western backed wars (in terms of arms sales), whether we are talking about the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq or the current war in Yemen or the military intervention in Libya, is not profiled in quite the same way. It is really noticeable how Ukrainians are quite rightly portrayed in the most vivid of human terms as the most valuable sanctities of life, whilst other human casualties of war outside of Europe have been merely reported as nameless collateral damage, referred to by numbers of casualties.

So, with this extremely human portrayal of Ukrainian tragedy, we are being told that only European/Western life is worth fighting for. So, is it any wonder that our poor non-European students are being victimised because of the colour of their skin, where non white lives don’t actually matter?

Continuing to use the students as a symbolic cue, many of the nations from which they hail will have experienced much the same catastrophic terror caused by British invasion, occupation and colonialism. The feelings of utter terror will have been the same. The struggles against an invading power will have been the same. The appeal for the recognition of humanity will have been the same. The only difference apart from the obvious advances in war technology, is the recognition of humanity. These nations did not have the world’s media mourning for the fall of their civilisations or loss of life. Yet, these nations fought and fought with their huge hearts to eventually win their independence. As Professor Paul Bernal quipped, “You know these empires we’re supposed to celebrate? Our glorious imperial past? This invasion of Ukraine, this is what they looked like. This.” We are feeling the terror of the imperial war machine. And this terror is not experienced any differently whether in the twenty first century or the nineteenth.

All of this is important because in this crisis where even the thought of nuclear deterrents is being mooted, the so-called fight for democracy is showing how existentially sick it is, where it purposely overlooks the cracks in its soul. If this great and shining democracy cannot guarantee that all human beings are accorded human rights and human dignity in good times or bad, then it is not really democracy at all. More importantly, if we are not able to look into the mirror and face the ugly reflection staring back at us whether it looks like an increasingly isolated Putin or a fragile and increasingly savage Ukraine where skin colour is used to bully whilst being bullied by the larger kid in the playground, all the while, the teacher looks on, then what are we in fact, fighting for? If we can’t feel empathy for others having gone through or still going through the terrors of war because they don’t look “relatively civilised” or “relatively European”, how are we really any better than the despotic Putin we are currently reviling? In a world where cooperation is becoming key for our survival as a species, this blind spot will most probably end up coming back to haunt us…

When reporters grandly observe that the survival of our democracies are at stake, I am not entirely sure they understand just how existential their grandiose comments are.

Published by: Ornette D Clennon

Composer, Musician, NCCPE Public Engagement Ambassador. Dr Clennon is also a Visiting Research Fellow in the Research Centre for Social Change: Community Wellbeing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Professor at the Federal University of the Amazonas.

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