Access the Audio Read version of this article directly on Spotify for Podcasters.
With the onset of another war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many have found themselves impacted by the crisis in different ways. Reports of casualties have brought conversations aside from the Ukraine crisis to a standstill, and rightfully so - as the world turns its attention to doing what they can in playing their part. But what has also been quite jarring in its own right has been the way in which many within Western media have been viewing the situation.
“What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East [...] or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to,” Al Jazeera English broadcaster Peter Dobbie said while covering the issue. His words are a glaring reminder of the alienation of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, who the West feels less compelled to look at or care for. After years of Europe giving excuse after excuse for not being able to take in enough refugees - perhaps because images of refugees from the Middle East drowning in the sea were not “compelling” enough - suddenly borders have opened, but only for certain people.
Even though Dobbie apologised, the message is out there. He also isn’t the only one holding such views and saying them out loud on national TV, and none of these apologies are enough. These words aren’t just words, and cannot be untied from the racism happening at the very borders of Ukraine. Reports of Black and South Asian refugees being pushed to the back of lines to prioritise what seems like a “Ukrainians first” policy are being shared both through social media and news outlets - making an already horrifying situation that much more intolerable. What’s perhaps even sadder is that this treatment of people of colour, and those who exist outside the Western sphere of supposed progress and civilisation is far from new.
Where Ukrainian civilians are being lauded as heroes for putting up “fierce, creative resistance” (USA Today), similar efforts to resist Israel’s occupation in Palestine has gotten many as young as 11 or 12 labelled as militants or associated with ‘terror groups.’ Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in how the video of a young girl standing up to a soldier was recently circulated on social media under labels of the video coming from Ukraine’s recent crisis. The video in question (which can be found on Middle East Eye) is actually from 2012, where Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi - aged 12 at the time - was gesturing to an Israeli soldier. The fact that Tamimi’s video garnered sympathy and that she was assumed to be Ukrainian because she is white-passing shows just how deep the divide between “blonde-haired, blue eyed” (BBC) refugees, and ‘others’ really runs.
Global cultures and communities have long struggled to free themselves from perceptions controlled under a Western gaze - whether it be the Islamophobic coverage of Afghanistan that perpetuated white saviour narratives, or how the Syrian refugee crisis often found itself covered in stark factual or data driven terms. Where Russian attacks are happening “on” Ukraine, Israel air strikes take place “in” Gaza, showing clear differences in how victims of war are positioned in Western media.
Critics of opinions like mine are often quick to point out that our struggle to get better representation for other conflicts is taking away from the attention and aid Ukraine needs for now but what I am yet to understand is why these same critics can’t fathom other global crises being put on the same level as Ukraine simply because they aren’t considered civilised enough.
The discrimination doesn’t just stop at a falsely attributed video or an ill-written statement. It is the tip of the iceberg in a system that will always justify American imperialism and white supremacy while calling out others committing the same evils. We need to fight for the optics around these conflicts and crises to change because it is only by doing so that we can begin to unravel a system that justifies the loss of some lives over others. It is undoubtedly true that we should be focusing our attention on Ukraine and attempt to bring some humanity to the situation but that does not mean that we forget Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine or Yemen. Because oppressors are oppressors no matter how ‘politically correct’ they might be, and their victims deserve aid and humanity in equal forms.