“White Journalism” is empathetic to Ukrainian refugees, but sees Black and brown people fleeing war as uncivilized.
I’d strongly recommend being white and European if you must flee your home as a refugee under the threat of violence, war, oppression, or political instability.
Obviously, we should do our best to help the nearly 1 million Ukrainian refugees who have left their borders in the aftermath of Russia’s illegal invasion—regardless of their skin color or national origin.
Why? Because they are innocent human beings desperate to survive and they are requesting help from a global community that can provide it. However, some media colleagues and politicians seem to place an asterisk or conditions on refugees when deciding which ones are worth our attention and hospitality.
It seems whiteness is what magically transforms you into a “civilized” human being worth saving as opposed to inferior Black and brown communities who are also seeking refuge from horrific, ongoing catastrophes in places like Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Haiti.
Unfortunately, many media colleagues in the U.S. and Europe suffer from what I refer to as “White Journalism.” This is the most unfortunate byproduct of white supremacy that colors and distorts the worldview in which white lives, white pain, and white anxiety are recognized, centered, and exalted above all others, especially Black lives. The double standard reveals itself in media coverage, framing, language, political support, and empathy.
You might have seen the viral clip of a CBS correspondent in Kyiv telling his colleagues that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades.”
First, that statement is ignorant of the absolutely awesome history of recent horrors that have originated in Europe, which include but are not limited to two world wars, the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, and the acts of genocide during the Yugoslavian civil war. There’s also the fact that there have been regular spasms of violence between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists (aided by the Russian-supplied “little green men”) in the east of the country since 2013.
But that wasn't even the worst part. The CBS reporter made the mistake of saying the quiet part out loud: “You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”
Translation: Ukrainians, who are white, are obviously “civilized,” and brown folks from the Middle East are not. He also failed to mention Iraq and Afghanistan were utterly pulverized and traumatized by the U.S. and its European allies in their reckless, bloody, and destructive War on Terror.
He wasn't alone with his Orientalist sentiment. A former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine appearing on BBC said, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair…being killed every day by Putin’s missiles.” A commentator on a French news program said, “We’re not talking about Syrians fleeing bombs of the Syrian regime backed by Putin; we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”
When it comes to Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis fleeing horrors in part orchestrated by U.S. and European powers, then doors are closed and barriers and walls are constructed. Since the 2015 refugee crisis, “there are now border fences and walls in 10 European countries that together measure more than six times the length of the Berlin Wall.” Would walls have been built if these refugees had blue eyes and blond hair?
Unfortunately, most of the refugees were Muslims, or “invaders,” as Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, described them. Alas, there was no vacancy or sympathy.
Miraculously, the right-wing anti-immigrant governments of both Hungary and Poland, which have stoked dangerous xenophobia and religious ethno-nationalism, have found space to accommodate Ukrainian refugees.
However, not all Ukrainian refugees are treated equally. There are reports that Polish guards are separating refugees into white and non-white groups. If you’re Black, that means you stay in the back. Africans trying to leave Ukraine have revealed incidents of racism, abuse, and neglect. They have complained about lack of food and shelter and being barred from boarding trains. “Our women first” is what the Ukrainian guards allegedly said whenever a Black lady would try to pass, according to Chineye Mbagwu, a young Nigerian doctor who finally made it to Warsaw “by struggling and pushing her way through.”
She was one of the lucky ones, unlike thousands of Haitian refugees who have tried to seek safety in America only to be met with violence and indifference. Recall the shocking photos of Border Patrol agents on horseback aggressively trying to stop them from crossing. Unlike our staunch support for Ukrainian refugees, the US has visited inhumane treatment on Haitian refugees, often portraying them as being poor criminals.
I, for one, always appreciated President Trump’s racism, because it was pure and often without dog whistles. He clearly articulated he didn’t want immigrants who come from “shithole countries.” You know, the places with a lot of Black and brown people who were on a caravan that was going to invade America right before the 2018 midterms.
Although President Biden has attempted to raise the number of refugee admissions—which fell to historic lows under Trump—last year the U.S. resettled the lowest number of refugees in the history of its refugee program.
This begs the question: Which lives matter and why?
The double standards have been so gallingly apparent. You can see the discrepancy between how we talk about white, European refugees compared to Syrian and Haitian refugees.
You can also see it between the nonstop coverage of missing white girls compared to the often non-existent coverage of missing Black and indigenous girls.
When white men and women attempt a violent insurrection to overthrow a free and fair election, they are “ordinary citizens” engaging in a “legitimate political discourse.” They are apparently suffering from “economic anxiety,” and we must read their “elegy,” reach out to them, and make them feel less angry and afraid so they can stop being racist against our communities.
Black men and women protesting police brutality are cast as violent thugs whose culture has pathological problems. Muslims are potential radicals whose religion must be reformed and whose innocent communities must be surveilled.
I am still awaiting the major newspaper and TV news feature asking white Americans to reach out to Black and brown urban diners to understand our anxiety and fears and learn why a record number of us voted for President Biden during a pandemic. How hard is it to go to a barbershop in Harlem or stand outside an H Mart? But that would require white journalism to see beyond its whiteness, hire more people of color, and reflect upon why some refugees are deemed worth saving, and why the rest are often ignored and forgotten.
I invite my colleagues, and the rest of us, to expand our hearts and have the same level of compassion, concern and generosity for Black and brown refugee communities as we have shown for white Ukrainians.
It isn’t hard. In fact, it’s what civilized people do.