6 Things To Know About Racism In The Ukrainian Crisis
Discrimination against Africans and other people of color in Ukraine reveals deep-rooted bias among Western nations.
March 03, 2022 at 5:10 pm
One week after Russian forces launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, heavy fighting continues in the eastern European nation. One million people have fled the country as cities are bombed and gun battles break out between Ukrainian and Russian soldiers. As Blavity previously reported, African students and residents in Ukraine have been experiencing racism as they’ve tried to flee the war-torn country. Other nonwhite people in the country have also been reporting similar experiences. Here are six important things to know about reports of racism and bias during the Ukrainian crisis.
1. Black and brown people came to Ukraine for educational and economic opportunities.
Since the Cold War, students and workers from many African nations have come to Ukraine for educational and economic opportunities. More recently, NBC News reports that many young African residents in Ukraine came to the country as students. They were initially attracted by the prospects of obtaining affordable, high-quality education in the country. Once there, many of these students said that their lives were comfortable in Ukraine and that they did not experience obvious racism in the country prior to the war.
Additionally, a number of Black and brown athletes have relocated to Ukraine over the years. The country is a top destination for professional basketball players; Adrienne Godbold and Maurice Creek were two of several American basketball players caught in the country when the fighting started. A number of Brazilian soccer players competed for Ukrainian teams and became stuck in the country as fighting started. Other Black and brown athletes have been born in Ukraine, including Olympic wrestler Zhan Beleniuk, who is now the only Black member of the country’s parliament.
2. Discrimination continues in the evacuation process.
Almost as soon as Ukrainians started fleeing the country to escape the violence initiated by Russia, reports began surfacing of Black people facing hostility and being denied transportation while trying to exit the country. Hashtags such as #AfricansInUkraine trended, with videos and reports of African students being made to wait outside for hours and even days in freezing weather while white Ukrainians were able to board trains and vehicles to take them out of the country. Africans also had more difficulty gaining entry to neighboring countries, even as white refugees were being welcomed.
Despite international outcry against this treatment, reports continue to multiply in news sources and on social media of Africans in Ukraine facing hostility as they attempt to leave. Other nonwhite residents are also reporting trouble. The BBC reports that Indian students in Ukraine have also faced hostility and even violence from Ukrainian border guards as they tried to cross over into Poland; Indians studying in Ukraine have appealed to the Indian government to help with their evacuation. The situation is apparently even worse on the other side of the Ukrainian border; one report indicates right-wing nationalists attacked nonwhite refugees in Poland.
3. Europeans welcoming Ukrainians reveals underlying racism against non-Western refugees.
While some people might have been tempted to dismiss these stories as isolated incidents, the number of reports points toward a systemic problem. Furthermore, very public remarks made by a number of prominent figures demonstrate that racism and bias pervade the perception of refugees, not only in the eyes of Ukrainian guards but also in other European countries. CBS News reporter Charlie D’Agata apologized for describing Ukraine as a “relatively civilized, relatively European” place, in contrast to places “like Iraq or Afghanistan that have seen conflict for decades.” European reporters made similar remarks, expressing sympathy for “middle class” Ukrainians or contrasting Ukraine with “a developing, third world nation.”
World leaders have even let their own biases show. As the New York Times reports, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov openly discussed his country being happy to welcome Ukrainian refugees, even though the country had previously been less willing to accept refugees from countries like Syria. Petkov said that Ukrainian refugees were “educated,” “intelligent,” and didn’t make Europeans “afraid,” implying that these things were not true for Middle Eastern refugees.
4. Reports of racism have caught the attention of public officials and celebrities.
As Blavity previously reported, the plight of Africans in Ukraine has drawn the attention of, and comments by, celebrities such as Beyoncé and prominent figures like civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Rapper Young Thug even pledged support to Black people trying to get out of the country. Other prominent people pledging their support for Africans in Ukraine include American music executive Kevin Liles, rapper Strick and Ghanaian businessperson Kelvin Mensah.
The office of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari released a long statement expressing sympathy for Ukrainians while detailing and condemning the “unfortunate reports of Ukrainian police & security personnel refusing to allow Nigerians to board buses & trains heading towards Ukraine-Poland border.” Meanwhile, Axios reports that the NAACP has called discrimination in Ukraine “atrocious and reprehensible.”
5. Russia may be using discrimination as part of its anti-Ukraine propaganda.
The Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry has declared that Africans leaving Ukraine “need to have equal opportunities to return to their home countries safely.” The Ministry, however, also warned that outsiders “not be misled by Russian disinformation” and argued that “there is no discrimination based on the race or nationality including when it comes to the crossing of the state border by foreign citizens. The first-come, first-served approach applied to all nationalities.”
The reports coming from African students and other Black and brown people in Ukraine are not propaganda; there are simply too many stories and too much information to dismiss these accounts. At the same time, it appears that Russian agents are using these stories for propaganda purposes. By Thursday, tweets condemning the treatment of Black and brown people in Ukraine were being shared with hashtags such as #IStandWithRussia and #IStandWithPutin, leading many to speculate that these messages were being generated by Russian bots or trolls to discredit Ukraine. As Blavity previously reported, online Russian operatives have in recent years used the plights of Black people in the U.S. to sow disinformation and create discord.
6. Despite the harsh treatment, many Black people stand with Ukraine.
NPR reports firsthand accounts of students facing harassment during the evacuation process; many of them expressed enduring sympathy with Ukrainians. One student, who was in Ukraine earning a master’s degree in economics, acknowledged the reality that “there’s a war in Ukraine,” adding that “we Africans, we have somewhere to go to. But them — they don’t have anywhere to go to.” The racism and hostility that African students have faced make some of them never want to return to Ukraine, while others hope to be able to come back after the war.
It is not yet clear when that opportunity may come, as fighting intensifies in Ukraine and no obvious end to the war appears to be in sight. Even when the crisis is over, the treatment of Black and brown people during the conflict will continue to expose lingering biases in the West. Hopefully, this will create genuine dialogue and even lead to changes in the ways in which victims of crises are treated differently depending on their race, ethnicity and country of origin.