Much of the western media’s coverage of the Ukrainian conflict has centred on the issue of institutionalised racism. Whether we’re discussing France, the United Kingdom, or the United States. The conversation has been perilous, but not unprecedented.
Following weeks of military buildup along the border, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, commanded his forces to enter Ukraine on Thursday, exacerbating the country to destabilise. Citizens are attempting to flee to safety, primarily through Poland, Hungary, and Romanian borders.
According to an official, hundreds of Ukrainians have been killed so far during the invasion. The United Nations reported that half a million people have crossed into neighbouring countries. Though the stats for the war are already incredibly shocking, so was the Western media’s response to it.
“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone,” The Telegraph’s Daniel Hannan wrote.
Due to the obvious whiteness of the Ukrainians and their adjacency to the west, some political commentators and roving reporters are perplexed as to how this conflict could have occurred. It’s as if bloodshed and invasion are only confined to countries inhabited by Black and brown people – and some have been quick to express their outrage at this sobering turn of events, perhaps oblivious to the fact of how this feeds into white supremacist ideology that invalidates the lives of what is known as ‘the other‘ in western countries.
So, not only is there racism at Ukraine’s borders, where ethnic minority refugees disclose being dismissed from safety but there is also bigotry in some parts of the international media. This only serves to institutionalise the dehumanisation of non-white individuals, particularly those in conflict zones.
Only one example… right?
What can be deemed as embarrassing is the sheer amount of western media outlets who have had to apologise or at the very least acknowledge their racial bias when it comes to conflicts and warzones. Al Jazeera English was amongst the many outlets that were forced to apologise. This was following an incident on Sunday after presenter Peter Dobbie said:
“What is compelling is that just looking at them, the way they’re dressed. These are prosperous, middle class people, these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”
The BBC was also chastised after a guest appearance by Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze. He stated that the situation in Ukraine is causing him great distress because he is witnessing “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.”
The list should stop here but it doesn’t. I feel as there are a few other honourable mentions in the racism fuelled commentator category. Kelly Cobiella, an NBC news correspondent, stated “To put it bluntly, these are not Syrian refugees; they are Ukrainian refugees […] They’re white and Christians. They’re quite similar to us.” while Lucy Watson of ITV News has said “Now the unthinkable has happened to them, and this is not a developing, third-world nation, this is Europe” while visibly crying during a broadcast from Poland. Let’s not forget BFM TV‘s broadcast in which journalist Philippe Corbe so empathetically stated “We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”
Have I missed something? War is war. Why should a war in the MENA region garner less sympathy from anyone if racism is not at the heart of the reason? I wish I could say I am shocked but I don’t think any person of colour is at this point. The lack of the BAME community speaks for itself.
Bias in the industry
White people make up the majority of the Western media and political class. In terms of increasing media diversity, Europe has a long way to go. This is also true in the US media, where white people make up 77% of employees at public radio and television stations, compared to 60.6% of the population, indicating that this group is overrepresented. Meanwhile, approximately 94% of journalists in the United Kingdom are white.
Other ways that racism is prevalent in the media
The media has also praised the armed resistance of Ukrainians to the Russians in a way that nations comprised of Black and brown people have not. Sky News, for example, telecasted footage of civilians making Molotov cocktails – essentially bombs – and articulating how to make these devices as effective as possible. Consider if these individuals were Syrians or Palestinians for a second. They’d be labelled terrorists in no time.
Crowdfunding campaigns for this effort are currently being shared on social media, while donations to monetary accounts, such as PayPal, that are suspected of being associated with public aid efforts associated with Middle Eastern countries have been sanctioned.
This is unforgivable. Despite the fact that the media is often a force for good, with channels such as the BBC and Al Jazeera among those to have flagged up on racism at Ukraine’s borders, cohesive progress is required. As I read through the examples above and others, I got the impression that we were living in a chthonic state – a society riddled with immense suffering and injustice. Then I realised that this dystopia is very real and that we can frequently rely on the media to justify, if not sanction, racial disparities under the guise of “putting it into context.”