White Supremacy in Warfare and the Palatable Refugee
Watching the discrimination against Africans in Ukraine is unnerving, but a necessary and sobering reminder that even in the depths of darkness, anti-Blackness is still prevalent.
Never did I hope or expect to see an attempt to re-annex the former Soviet Union. Yet with President Vladimir Putin launching military strikes on Ukraine, what once seemed a remote possibility is now reality. As missiles descend, tanks encroach, and bombs explode, the inevitable human sacrifice of war has taken hold. The military and civilian casualties, the internally displaced, and those seeking refuge abroad. An unprecedented two million Ukrainians have fled the country since the conflict began, making this the largest refugee crisis since World War II. When Black students and professionals living in Ukraine attempt to escape, they are met with hostility, racism, and physical abuse.
Scores of African students have reported mistreatment by Ukrainian and Polish military, police, and border guards. Whether speaking to news outlets, or recounting their experiences via social media as #AfricansInUkraine began trending, harrowing reports have unfolded of people being forced off buses, mothers stranded with their children in freezing temperatures, and individuals being redirected as Ukrainian nationals are allowed into neighboring countries.
A sibling trio of Congolese students, Jeancy, Nahomy and Israel — who has special needs, recalled a harrowing experience of being refused water, being called monkeys, and being beaten. Jeancy, was called a “black b*tch” and beaten so ruthlessly that she began to menstruate. Nahomy was beaten to the point of losing consciousness, and was hospitalized in Poland.
Korinne Sky, a Black British student who chronicled her journey to safety on Twitter, recorded how Ukrainian locals began harassing her and circling her car as she and other students attempted to cross the border into Romania, and the Ukrainian military assisted them. In an interview with Good Morning Britain, Korinne and an attorney describe how they’ve become emergency navigators. They direct Black students to safe border crossings, using the intelligence gathered from other students who have experienced abuse.
There is a profound level of hatred, white supremacy, and vindictiveness to racially abuse people while being under the threat of nuclear warfare. For such qualities to arise as bombshells reign, as maternity wards explode, and Russian forces seize control of Chernobyl, is extraordinary.
When confronted with these incendiary allegations, the Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom said,
“We don’t want it to happen…Problems arise when young foreigners are prioritised over women and children of Ukrainian citizenship who are trying to get on the same trains.
“Maybe we will put all foreigners in some other place so they won’t be visible and there won’t be conflict with Ukrainians trying to flee in the same direction. This is something that has to be taken care of and we will be doing it.”
There is no syntactic gymnastics that can make that statement reasonable. First, this is a traumatic experience for everyone in Ukraine. As Ukrainians are forced to flee their homes, these students are attempting to return home. The only individuals being asked to stay are Ukrainian men eligible for armed services. In essence, every other person should be evacuated immediately, without exception.
Moreover, instead of prioritizing people by gender, people should be prioritized by vulnerability. Israel was forcibly separated from his sisters despite being disabled, and upon being returned to them, was covered in bruises. There is no plausible explanation for a disabled man to be separated from his family and abused during an emergency evacuation.
Equally dehumanizing and worthy of note, is the stark contrast in media coverage of this crisis compared to others. When news correspondents express shock and how they’re “unaccustomed” that this could happen in Europe, it demonstrates at best a belligerent ignorance to global affairs and recent history, and at worst an open admission that some lives are worth more than others.
While speaking to the BBC, Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor David Sakvarelidze explained why this was so emotional for him, as he saw, “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” The statement was unchallenged. CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata was forced to apologize after stating his shock at a “relatively civilized” and “European” nation being plunged into war, in contrast with Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a compilation of similar statements from news channels around the world which can be seen here.
These “distant” crises, whether in Afghanistan, Libya, or Honduras, may seem far, but are often created, prolonged by, or have a connection to the United States or Western Europe. There is a direct correlation between U.S. drug consumption, cartel violence in Mexico and Central America, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees from these countries attempting to enter the United States. It’s not that any country is intrinsically unsafe, it’s that external forces interfere and make it so.
When Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor David Sakvarelidze noted his pain from seeing children with blue eyes and blonde hair suffer, I would like to assure him that the brown-haired and brown-eyed children suffer just as much in warfare. Their pain is just as visceral, their nightmares also terrorizing, their trauma detrimental and everlasting. They too, deserve to be met with disbelief at fleeing from their homes at a moment’s notice, never knowing if they can return. They too, deserve to be greeted with open arms at different borders, with promises of asylum. Instead, they’ve been met with border walls, as well as being caged and starved.
As I reflect on the international conflicts I’ve seen in my lifetime, I now have concrete proof that at a moment’s notice, nations large and small, can take in thousands of refugees and welcome them with open arms. It was never the capacity, always the inclination, which lacked. It’s not that there was no appetite to care for refugees, but only to care for those with blonde hair, and blue eyes. For many, these are the only children worth saving.
Never in my life did I think President Vladimir Putin could teach me anything, but his unprovoked and unlawful assault on Ukraine has taught me this: even in the threat of World War III, with nuclear destruction, Black people are not safe. There are people who would unquestionably place me in harm’s way as a matter of instinct. Who would leave me to die or facilitate my death as they prioritized who can survive by Eurocentric phenotype.
If you watch American-produced, post-apocalyptic films, there is a constant criticism regarding the dearth of Black actors, or the lack of character development for the roles they play. Watching what’s unfolding today, I am reminded that cinema is a manifestation of imagination. For some, under the threat of unimaginable danger, Black people will suffer more, and potentially not survive. Not of inevitable consequence, but of intention and volition. So maybe these stories are not discriminatory, maybe they’re foreshadowing.
Note: though this article focused on African students, reports of Asian and Middle Eastern students have also experienced discrimination in trying to leave Ukraine.