Why Ukraine revealed Journalism’s Racism problem

As of recent, news coverage has been ablaze with a fervour of journalistic anxiety. Pervasive is the lament of how Ukraine is “not a developing, third-world nation. [It is] Europe!” and how the crisis has been “very emotional…because… European people with blue eyes and blond hair … [are] being killed every day,”. But why does this blatant racism only seem to be surfacing now?

What seems to underlie many of these comments is this sense of existentialist anxiety which Daniel Hanaan’s remark “they seem so like us” perfectly exemplifies. Edward Said writes of Orientalism which is a concept that describes the way our world is split into two: an Orient and an Occident, an South and a West, a “them” and an “us”. This world is ruled entirely by binary opposition and negation, the West (the “us” Hanaan refers to) gains its definition by being everything the South is not. The West is forward thinking, visionary and intelligent, we are the hub of innovation brimming with technological, medical and otherwise scientific advancements and revolutionary art and music, we are the home of the Greats in every field from philosophy to architecture. So by extension, the Global South must be poor and backwards, it must be technologically outdated and artistically stunted, it must be disease-ridden and war-stricken. Think back to every movie set in Africa and their decision to choose “uncivilised” tribal characters set in villages riddled ith disease and backwardness as opposed to the skyscrapers that crown our capital and the economic prosperity som of us are able to attain, that is Orientalism at work. That is the understanding that underlies the remark of Ukraine not being a “third world country”. According to this world view, warfare is restricted, exported really, only to the self-cannibalising third-world global south. Make no mistake in believing that this is exclusively a fault in media portrayal, in many senses this is incredibly reflective of the way in which the world is currently structured. The United Kingdom and The USA have built their wealth upon centuries of slave trade, much of fashion and clothing today is produced from the sweat and the blood of globally Southern garment workers in sweatshops and our food is picked by Black and Brown near-slave immigrant workers, even today. There is no prosperous West without a suffering South, and bitter is their suffering.

As such, because the stability of the West is so heavily predicated upon the South (so much so that their refusal to accept our rubbish caused massive hold-ups in our own disposal systems) that there is at the least a resignation that this is the way things are or must be, and at the most, a drive towards maintaining the status quo. But then when we are presented with Ukraine, a Western country being ravished by war, it must seem that this order, the very backbone of our society is fracturing. That is what produces that existential anxiety. Because our world is built upon this hierarchy and our comfortable lifestyles afforded to us on the basis of this binary where one side enjoys much more wealth while the other starves; any crack in this divide, any symptom that the world order may be shifting and that the violence and warfare which we export to the global south may be beginning to leak out of the divide and inch closer to our borders, is inevitably existentially mortifying.

But the story does not end there and I am not insinuating that this is the logic every journalist consciously follows, I am highlighting the factors that may subconsciously have influenced this belief. Orientalism pervades our films and literature and music as well as our journalism, so more often than not it’s internalised without conscious thought. As such, it would not be remotely holistic to end here and conclude that much of the anxiety surrounding Ukraine is universally sourced in our subconscious orientalist pro-western views. It is not only a situation of hyper-empathy (which I am not disapproving of. Ukraine does need our support, make no mistake) towards Ukraine, it is also one of hypo-empathy towards the global South. Orientalism severely dehumanises those from the Global South, they are reduced to mere negation, their only purpose being to be everything the West is not. When we report on migration from war riddled Syria, the reports come to us in numbers which we scoff, roll our eyes, maybe even sigh sympathetic but resignedly at. They are framed in terms of potential cost to our government or pests stealing our jobs and livelihoods if they are even discussed at all. Very rarely are these masses ever given a face, and because it is mere human psychology to empathise with what you can name and see, the nameless faceless Syrian refugees are viewed more as pests infiltrating the West, than as unique individuals, people with their own stories of devastation, loss and heartbreak. But Ukrainians do not seem to fit this image of what an immigrant or a refugee is.

Hanaan’s comment, “they seem so much like us” is one of a jarred journalist finally seeing a migrant as the real breathing person that they are. He is not alone in this, another journalist commented about how the Ukrainians fleeing in their cars made the crisis feel so much more real and I have come across many TikToks of Ukrainians playing music, producing art and documenting this traumatic experience of having their homes stolen from them. They have, and are given, voices which Southern refugees and immigrants can only dream of, at least in part because of some subconscious urge toward self-preservation on the part of Western powers. I love that they are being given such a powerful voice and I find their struggle devastating and worthy of support, but I, we, also must question why it’s taken all of Ukraine for this mass movement of solidarity with refugees of war to occur and the answer, again and again, is our racism.

This article uses the terms East and South interchangeably for the purposes of easing understanding.

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