Surprise! Oppressed Ukrainians Oppressing Blacks
On the 24th of February, Russia invaded Ukraine. That conflict continues today with no end in sight. Thousands of deaths have been reported on both sides, and millions of refugees have fled the conflict zone.
The Russians insist that the war is an exercise of self-defence. They note that NATO has been absorbing all the former Warsaw Pact countries and is now planning to include Ukraine, thereby introducing the threat of powerful and hostile armed forces on their borders. The Western alliance insists that there is no imminent threat to Russia, and that Ukraine must be free to exercise its sovereign right to choose its own allies and its own enemies.
I understand the reasoning behind the arguments of both sides, and I believe that all the parties involved have made unfortunate and regrettable decisions. It is sad that, as usual, the consequences of political posturing will be borne by millions of mostly innocent people. But that is not the topic I want to address in this piece. Tragic as it may be, I see the war as a mere backdrop to an all too familiar and borderless form of injustice: anti-Black racism.
It is estimated that there are more than 16,000 African students in Ukraine. As the Russian forces advance, many reports have emerged about how Black people are being prevented from evacuating. From Black men, women and children being denied space on trains and public transport vehicles leaving the war zones, to people being separated at the border, kept on the road in the cold and ignored for days at a time, the treatment of innocent Blacks caught in the war can only be described as shameful.
I have travelled widely in my life, and have encountered various forms of racism in every European and North American country that I have visited. In the late eighties and early nineties, I studied in Moscow through the most tumultuous of times, right through the end of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Wild East. I made some friends from all over the Soviet Union (Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kazakhs, Byelorussians etc.) along the way. Interestingly, the women were more willing to relate with us and see us as human beings than the men. I encountered some exceptionally brazen forms of racism. This ranged from the naivety of people who had come to the city from the Siberian hinterlands, and thought Black people had tails, to the gullibility of people who really thought we lived in trees, to the open hostility of people who would see us on the street and scream “monkey”, or “Snickers” while charging for a fight. Though the racism was pervasive and provocative, I would not compare it with the often-disguised, always denied racism of North America and Western Europe, which is consciously built into their social hierarchy, is systemic and foundational to their domestic and foreign policy.
That said, I was unsurprised to hear about the disgusting treatment of Black Africans by the Ukrainian authorities as they attempted to escape the war. I am sure that if I searched online, I would quickly come across sentiments like “What are they doing there, anyway?” or “Why can’t they stay in their own countries?” or “Why won’t their government evacuate them? Is it the business of the Ukrainians to take care of them?” All of these questions are a meaningless distraction by people who lack compassion or sense. It is not that they cannot understand, but such people simply will not understand because they are blinded by their own poorly hidden prejudices. The bottom line is that human beings’ lives are in danger, and they need help. There shouldn’t be any more to it than that. Yet racism is so ingrained in the hearts of many Ukrainians that even the trauma of war cannot diminish its influence.
Don’t get me wrong: I feel sorry for all the innocent people who are suffering and dying every day. The images of Ukrainians being terrorised, displaced, rendered homeless and having their futures threatened moves me to compassion. Nevertheless, I also see how these suffering people have been mistreating the people who look like me in their midst. And the trope of “just a few bad eggs” doesn’t hold water; enough “bad eggs” have done it often enough and on a large enough scale for the issue to become international news from the testimonies of many different affected Blacks. There’s definitely something coordinated and sinister going on in Ukraine in their treatment of Africans. It does not look very different from what I saw in Moscow in the eighties and nineties.
My moral dilemma is this: As I sympathise with the plight of the oppressed Ukrainians, they in turn are oppressing Blacks. From personal experience, I know the nature of racism. An anti-Black racist doesn’t hate Blacks because of anything they have said or done; they hate Blacks simply for being who we are. They hate our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters just for being who they are, and would do them harm, or at the very least deny them good, just for being who they are. Meanwhile, in most cases, we are just trying to live like any other human beings, and do not in turn hate and seek to harm or dehumanise everyone who is not Black. Somehow, that is just not a part of our nature or culture. And it’s not because we think they are superior; it is because we recognise the humanity in every human being even if we don’t like their personalities.
So now I stand at a crossroads. My humanity and belief system demand that I have compassion on the suffering Ukrainians, especially as the news will not allow me to forget their plight for even an hour. Yet in the midst of their suffering, their authorities delight in discriminating against people who look like me, even to the point of endangering their lives and the lives of their families with neither reflection nor remorse. So how am I supposed to sympathise with that?