The myth of racial equality in a humanitarian crisis

Posted in : Blog
Posted on : March 21, 2022

by Sarita Addy, PhD

Trigger warning: Some videos hyperlinked in this article could be triggering for some people.

It has been a mere two years since the world saw Black Lives Matter movements protest across the United States, Europe and Canada to push back against the institutionalization of racial discrimination in policing and law enforcement. Today, as we mark International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we acknowledge that racism still exists, and manifests itself in very unlikely contexts. Amid the Russia- Ukrainian conflict, reports of discrimination in media coverage and in the ways black and brown people were treated at the borders of some neighbouring European countries have reinforced the need for more to be done to mitigate the crisis of racial discrimination across the world.

In the early days of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, several reports of alleged discrimination against African and Indian students emerged. According to some accounts, Ukrainian citizens formed human blocks in crowded subway stations to prevent African and Indian students from getting on trains heading outside the country. Those who made it to the borders of countries like Poland were initially denied entry. These international students who had come to Ukraine to study were not allowed in because Polish border authorities had been instructed to allow entry only to those who held Ukrainian passports. Ukrainians fleeing the bombardment of their home were welcomed with assurances of shelter, food, and the possibility of staying temporarily. Even though Indians, Africans and Ukrainians were fleeing the same conflict, the compassion shown to Ukrainians was not extended to these students who just happened to have brown and dark hues to their skin. Why were there different entry requirements for people fleeing the same situation? Why are Ukrainians more deserving of being treated humanely and given a right to shelter than Africans and Indians?

Some American journalists covering the conflict in Ukraine also exhibited their own unconscious racial biases in how they reported fleeing Ukrainians. They conveyed a reluctance to describe Ukrainians fleeing into other European countries as refugees. Words like “Christian”, “educated”, “middle-class”, products of “civilized societies” were thrown around somehow to distinguish fleeing Ukrainians from the average refugee that Western media had largely constructed and associated with conflict; poor, uneducated, Muslim, destitute, uncivilized, and racialized. In a casually racist way, they implicitly attempted to justify how people they consider to be coming from ‘civilized societies’ did not deserve to have their lives upended. This framing of fleeing Ukrainians is problematic because it implicitly reinforces the idea that conflict and chaos is native in countries in the Southern Hemisphere who are non-Christian and non-white, all the while reaffirming that fleeing Ukrainians couldn’t possibly be refugees in the same way that racialized people were.

This reportage, as disturbing as it seemed to communities of colour, points to how racial discrimination permeates the language that we use to describe the realities around us. But it also unearths the racialized and othering construction of the word refugee by Western media. For the past decades, “refugee” has become populated in meaning with notions of poor, black and brown individuals fleeing from dictatorships, natural disasters and conflict in war-torn regions far removed from the West. This, in turn, affects how they will be perceived and influences the conditions of their reception at national borders. Were Syrian refugees ever described as educated or middle-class or civilized to hint at the possibilities of contributing to the host economy or society? This narrow view of who a refugee is has shown the limitations of that word and how these reporters in question scrambled to distinguish Ukrainians from the average refugee their audiences were used to.

Racial discrimination against international students fleeing from Ukraine can also mean life or death. As a country is being bombarded, and black and brown students are trapped at border crossings, they face health hazards, poor nutrition, inadequate winter clothing for long journeys on foot, and an abject lack of shelter.

I highlight these two incidents because they point to the same thing: racism, both casual and institutional. This war has made clear that racism is pervasive, even in moments of crisis, and more needs to be done. A first step is to acknowledge the existence of racial discrimination in various aspects of our societies and to understand the ways that it manifests itself today. To this end, CCDI has free toolkits and educational guides to help allies be more proactive in the fight against racism.  

As we celebrate International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, think of what more needs to be done in your community and workplace to end racial discrimination. What are you and your organization doing to address racial discrimination for racialized and historically excluded individuals and communities?

Tags International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination IDERD IDERD2022 Racial discrimination Refugees Discrimination

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