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What Ukrainian Racism is saying about Western Democracy
Lots of people will be thinking, “do you have to bring race into this, at this time of ALL times?” My response to them is, “I wish that I didn’t have to”. Why? Because at a time when a nation is fighting for its life, where many of its citizens are facing the reality of becoming refugees, they STILL can find the capacity to dehumanise fellow human beings, also caught between the crosshairs of this catastrophe.
To hear the harrowing stories of Ukrainians living in bomb shelters in the deeply excavated underground metro stations, cueing up at train stations, fleeing in fear of their lives, or walking for hours or sometimes days to their nearest borders is truly heart-breaking. What is more disturbing to me, is how in the midst of this unimaginable violence, ordinary African, Caribbean and Indian students, who are legally visiting scholars to Ukraine, are being made to feel less than human, as though they are lesser than the Ukrainians they, up until this point, have lived amongst relatively peacefully.
This quiet story, away from the bombast of the mainstream media’s decrying of a Western civilisational crisis, has elicited narratives from equally desperate and innocent people, some of whom are even being denied water in local shops, whilst trying to flee the country. An article in the Independent, records the experience of Osarumen, who with his family members and other refugees, was forced to leave a bus as it was about to cross a border. He was told ‘No Blacks’. “I see bloodshot racism in their eyes. They want to save themselves and are losing their humanity in the process…”.
I was deeply shocked to hear how some students were also threatened at gun point at the Polish borders by Ukrainian police, who tried to prevent them from crossing the border into Poland. The reports of vigilantes (who claim to be supporting the Ukrainian army), threatening African students at gun point is as shocking as the racist behaviour shown by officials at the (Polish) border checkpoints, because some Ukrainian citizens actually believe that they are protecting their cities from invasion, in this way.
I joined Twitter Spaces to hear more about how these brave students were rallying around and organising themselves by sharing valuable information about which borders are safe, what to carry, who to contact at embassies, who to go to for transport and so many other logistical issues of vital importance to these now refugees. I heard that racist trolls had infiltrated their Telegram accounts, making it that much harder for them to coordinate themselves.
On the symbolic level, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is significant because, as we keep being reminded by mainstream media, it represents an assault on a democratic, civilised European nation. We are constantly being told that the suffering of this “relatively civilised and relatively European place” represents the suffering of ALL civilised nations in the West.
What is particularly galling is that these non-European students had paid their tuition fees to their Ukrainian universities and had legally obtained their student VISAS to study in the Ukraine. But apparently these rights that Ukraine, via its universities, has been profiting from, seem not to matter in this national emergency. Even when according to Reuters, “[c]ities under siege across Ukraine are home to tens of thousands of African students studying medicine, engineering and military affairs. Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt are among the top 10 countries with foreign students in Ukraine, together supplying over 16,000 students, according to the education ministry. Thousands of Indian students are also trying to flee.”
So why are these issues so important at this time of profound crisis?
Here is a clue to the residues of a longer colonial history within these recent events:
“For the first time, the ravening beasts set loose upon all quarters of the globe by capitalist Europe have broken into Europe itself… This same ‘civilised world’ looked on passively as the same imperialism ordained the cruel destruction of ten thousand Herero tribesmen” Rosa Luxemburg (as cited by Paddy Gibson in Solidarity.net.au) who unnervingly echoes Aimé Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism.
On the symbolic level, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is significant because, as we keep being reminded by mainstream media, it represents an assault on a democratic, civilised European nation. We are constantly being told that the suffering of this “relatively civilised and relatively European place” represents the suffering of ALL civilised nations in the West. For me, what is striking is how the usual universalising of human experience, using Western values in this crisis, betrays a naked racism that infers that only European suffering is worth fighting for and preventing. The suffering by fellow human beings residing outside Europe, who have or are still experiencing the effects of Western backed wars (in terms of arms sales), whether we are talking about the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq, or the current war in Yemen, or the military intervention in Libya, is not profiled in the same way. It is noticeable how Ukrainians are quite rightly portrayed in the most vivid of human terms, as the most valuable sanctities of life, whilst other human casualties of war outside of Europe have been reported as nameless collateral damage, referred to by the numbers of casualties.
With this humanising portrayal of the Ukrainian tragedy, we are being told that only European/Western life is worth fighting for. So, is it any wonder that our racially marked non-European students are being victimised because of the colour of their skin?
If we can’t feel empathy for what others have gone through or are still going through in the brutality of war, because they don’t look “relatively civilised” or “relatively European”, how are we really any morally better than the despotic Putin we are currently reviling?
Many of the nations from which these refugees and students hail will have experienced much the same catastrophic terror, in some cases caused by British invasion, occupation and colonialism. The feelings of utter terror will have been the same. The struggles against an invading power will have been the same. The appeal for the recognition of their humanity will have been the same. The only difference, apart from advances in war technology, is the recognition of humanity. These colonialised nations did not have the world’s media mourning for the fall of their civilisations or loss of life. Yet, they also fought and fought with huge hearts, to eventually win their independence. As Professor Paul Bernal has observed, “You know these empires we’re supposed to celebrate? Our glorious imperial past? This invasion of Ukraine, this is what they looked like. This.” We are feeling the terror of the imperial war machine. And this terror is not experienced any differently whether in the twenty first century or the nineteenth.
All of this is important because in this present crisis where even the thought of nuclear deterrents is being mooted, the so-called fight for democracy holds existential cracks in its soul. If this great and shining democracy cannot guarantee that all human beings are accorded human rights and human dignity in good times or bad, then it is not really democracy at all. If we are not able to look into the mirror and face the ugly reflection staring back at us, whether it looks like an increasingly isolated Putin or a fragile and increasingly hostile Ukraine, where skin colour is used to bully whilst being bullied by the larger kid in the playground, all the while, the teacher looks on, then what are we fighting for? If we can’t feel empathy for what others have gone through or are still going through in the brutality of war, because they don’t look “relatively civilised” or “relatively European”, how are we really any morally better than the despotic Putin we are currently reviling? In a world where cooperation is becoming key for our survival as a species, this racist double think will most probably end up coming back to haunt us.
When reporters observe that the survival of our democracies is at stake, I am not entirely sure they understand the existential depths of their grandiose comments.
Dr. Ornette D. Clennon is the Head of Institute at MaCTRI (MEaP Academy Community Training & Research Institute). He is also a collaborating researcher and Visiting Professor at the Federal University of Amazon (UFAM), where he contributes to the theme of decolonial community and liberation psychology. Ornette has also been a Visiting Research Fellow in critical race studies and lecturer in community arts practices and popular musicology at Manchester Metropolitan University (ManMet), where he led its Critical Race and Ethnicity Research Cluster. As a ManMet representative, Ornette was a Public Engagement Ambassador for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). Ornette’s engaged scholarship that bridges the gap between the academy and the grassroots has been recognized with the 2011 NCCPE New Partnership Award. Ornette is a community activist at local, national and international levels, as he works with the MEaP Academy Community Education Centre where he is their Head of Online Learning, The Ubele Initiative, Locality, The Alci Matos Community (Manaus, Brazil), United Nations International Coalition of People of African Descent (ICPAD) in association with OHCHR, MACC (Manchester Community Central), CAHN (Caribbean and African Health Network), GMHSCP (GM Health and Social Care Partnership), Young Manchester, Young People’s Foundation (YPF) and the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education (NRCSE), where he has been their Chair of Trustees.
Ornette is widely published, among his latest books are Alternative Education and Community Engagement: Making Education a Priority (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Urban Dialectics, The Market and Youth Engagement: The Black Face of Eurocentrism? (Nova Science Publishers, 2015), International Perspectives of Multiculturalism: The Ethical Challenges (Nova Science Publishers, 2016), The Polemics of CLR James and Contemporary Black Activism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and Black Scholarly Activism between the Academy and Grassroots: A Bridge for Identities and Social Justice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Ornette is also the Series Editor for the forthcoming book series Palgrave Studies in Decolonisation and Grassroots Black Organic Intellectualism
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