Selective Sympathy and the Clear Racism of the West

Russian aggression in Ukraine has rightly been met with international condemnation. Putin’s aggressive attack on an independent nation is unacceptable and puts the lives of millions in grave danger. However, the response by different governments and the dangerously contradictory narrative has exposed an embarrassing level of hypocrisy. For most, this is not unexpected, but for media that claims to be independent and for governments who are ”leaders” of human rights, the events in Ukraine have exposed their belief in Western supremacy.

For years, Western institutions have employed flimsy claims of objectivity and rule of law in an attempt to disguise their imperialism. But the past weeks has pulled back the curtain, revealing the racism and hatred of the West. News reporters, commentators and politicians have started shouting the quiet part out loud. As the President of Bulgaria said, “These are not the refugees we [are] used to…these are people who are Europeans, so we and all other EU countries are ready to welcome them…these are intelligent people, educated people…some of them are IT specialists, highly qualified.” On the BBC news, the Ukrainian deputy chief officer went unchallenged when he said, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” In response, The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalist Associations were forced to release a statement calling out the explicit bias and racism of the media reporting in Ukraine.

At the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War when refugees were escaping their war-torn nation Bulgaria, Poland and a number of other European nations refused to accept refugees and instead implemented a number of hostile policies to make it harder for refugees to find safety. Even now as Ukrainians try and escape to safety distinctions are being made between those who are white and those who are black. The difference in treatments of two groups of people going through the exact same situation is the clearest demonstration of the value that European nations put on whiteness. 

Furthermore, the language used around self determination and resistance for the people of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to the language used when “reporting” on the Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupying forces. The media accurately describe how the Ukrainians are bravely resisting occupying forces and the injustice of foreign forces occupying their land. As the Palestinian activist, Muhammed Al Kurd described in his Twitter thread, these events have proved that the media has always possessed the linguistic capability to call out the Israeli occupation by its name. The fact that the media has decided not to has exposed news channels clear bias in favor of Israel.

As the famous saying goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In the case of Western media and governments, a white man fighting for his freedom is correctly labelled a freedom fighter while a brown or black man fighting for the freedom of his land is unjustly named a terrorist. The reality is that the media believes in the humanity and independence of Europeans while believing that the savages of the Middle East and Africa need to be tamed. The difference in treatment of similar conflicts is not a reflection on the nature of the conflict, but a reflection of how the media thinks about people.

The response of sport has been the clearest indicator of who Western society deems to have value. Formula One has cancelled the Russian Grand Prix while Poland has refused to play against Russia in upcoming World Cup qualifiers. In addition, English Premier League teams have been showing open support for Ukraine in the last week. Again this response is entirely proportionate and correct. However, in the last month, the Winter Olympics were held in China and Saudi Arabia and the UAE were able to use Newcastle and Manchester City, which they own, to show support for Ukraine although their governments both are partially responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

It should be noted that an important distinction between Ukraine and other countries being torn apart by war is those responsible for the violence. In places such as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Palestine the United States and their allies have been responsible for the violence. The media believes that the goals that the United States and its allies are noble, thus the destruction of innocence is a price worth paying. This, however, does not paint the full picture as Russia has been assisting Assad’s brutal dictatorship and Russia’s role in the continued brutality inflicted on innocent lives has not drawn anywhere near the same level of outrage. 

To be clear, pointing out the hypocrisy of different nation-states does not mean we should show less concern for Ukraine. In fact, I would argue that the response of nations like the UK, which has stopped accepting the application of Ukrainian visas, has been disgusting. But it remains that the different responses highlight how Western discourse decides which lives have value and which are disposable.

As for the future, the bar is set. No longer can the media claim to be the impartial broadcaster of the truth when discussing Palestinian resistance as aggression. No longer can we accept the continued dehumanization of the lives of those in Syria and Yemen. And no longer can governments claim they do not have the resources to grant refuge to those fleeing wars. We now have undeniable evidence of our capacity to articulate and provide relief to those in suffering. We should continue to encourage governments to help those in Ukraine and the media to speak the truth, but the same support should be given to all around the world regardless of their ethnicity or background.

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

About the Author: Abubakr Nanabawa is a graduate of Politics and International Relations from the UK. His interests include foreign policy, history and media reporting.

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