Comment: Let’s put an end to ‘colour coding’ our empathy for victims of war

The awful situation in Ukraine has highlighted that all victims are equal when it comes to suffering the carnage of war — but some are more equal than others. That needs to change, writes Mark Cantrell

yellow and blue roses resting on a map of Ukraine.
Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

PEOPLE like us.

We’ve been hearing quite a bit of that since Russian forces invaded Ukraine and met a stiffer and more determined resistance than president-turned-warlord, Vladimir Putin expected.

As ever, in times of war, it’s the civilians — the children — that suffer the most.

At the time of writing, the UN says around 1.5 million people have fled their homes and cities in Ukraine; plenty more remain trapped — or have stayed behind to fight the invaders.

Neighbouring countries Poland, Hungary and others have welcomed the refugees with open arms. The terrible situation invokes both the best and the worst of humanity.

No doubt many of us are inspired by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s displays of humanity and defiance; his is surely a masterclass in leadership. So too, are we humbled by the courage and determination of his people.

Ordinary people the world over have rallied in solidarity and support for this embattled European nation. Our leaders send military equipment, humanitarian aid, and seek to cripple Russia’s economy — and its oligarchs — with sanctions.

Military forces muster to safeguard Nato’s borders, but take no action in the conflict itself; how can they, when Putin holds a nuclear gun to the world’s head?

Open fire on Russian aircraft or ground forces and that’s a shooting war between Europe and the US on one side and Russia on the other that will surely burn far beyond Ukraine’s borders. So we watch, infuriated, worried that Putin’s hubris may yet surge our way all the same.

Difficult times, for sure, but there is hope in the huge displays of empathy and support shown to the people of Ukraine. People like us. That is a heartening sentiment, but it comes with a dark underbelly that is anything but.

Sadly, as we’ve been hearing, not all those “people like us” are regarded as people like us. Indeed, for a long time, it’s been too often the case in the West — in Europe and the United States — to regard people with darker skins to be not quite us.

Reports that African nationals — and others such as Indian, Middle Eastern and elsewhere — have faced racist discrimination in their flight from Russia’s assault is but one demonstration of this. The news, it must be said, makes for a bitter taste.

Racism is bad enough as it is; in circumstances like this, it is utterly beyond the pale.

But there is more to this sorry state of mind. Western media has not been blind to the suffering in Ukraine, but it has demonstrated a blindspot all the same: one that has cruelly racist implications for the victims of wars beyond Europe’s borders.

a woman in military fatigues handles a machine gun propped on a brick wall.
Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

In the early days of Russia’s assault, during a CBS News segment, correspondent Charlie D’Agata said of Ukraine: “But this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European [my italics] — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

The Telegraph newspaper’s Daniel Hannan wrote: “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.”

Al Jazeera English anchor Peter Dobbie said: “What’s compelling is, just looking at them, the way they are dressed, these are prosperous…I’m loath to use the expression… middle class people. These are not obviously refugees looking 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.”

while Philippe Corbé, BFM TV, reported: “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.”

Yes, people like us, then; not ‘funny looking’ foreigners in ‘exotic’ places far away, where war is the ‘natural’ order of ‘less civilised’ societies.

It follows, if we accept such sentiment, that European Ukrainians are more deserving of our sympathies than people of colour wherever they may be. Whether we mean to or not, we demote and dismiss the humanity of people suffering every bit as much as those who now find themselves facing Putin’s war machine.

Children of war. Stock image courtesy Pixabay.

The comments made by these media figures above may be innocent in intent (as no doubt they are), but they are rancid in terms of such deeper unintended inferences. This wasn’t lost on the Arab & Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA), which highlighted the above comments.

The organisation has issued a statement calling on all news organisations to be “mindful of implicit and explicit bias” in their coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Arguably, it is something that we, the public — as consumers of news — need to be equally mindful of.

“AMEJA condemns and categorically rejects orientalist and racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict,” the organisation said. “This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.

“It dehumanises and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected. Newsrooms must not make comparisons that weigh the significance or imply justification of one conflict over another — civilian casualties and displacement in other countries are equally as abhorrent as they are in Ukraine.”

The Foreign Press Association — Africa (FPAA) shares AMEJA’s concerns, saying in a statement that it was “disturbed” by some of the comments made by Western media.

“The media plays a pivotal role in shaping the way people see the world,” the FPAA said. “The narratives that are published and broadcast not only influence the way people perceive and relate to one another, but they have a tangible influence on policies that affect how we co-exist.”

The organisation added: “The idea that war is a thing that happens in lands outside the West, is beyond myopic. It is a gross misrepresentation of the entirety of human history. People who are not white are not more innately prone and habituated to violence and suffering. People who are not white are no less civil or incapable of resolving conflict.

“This attitude has been a feature of Western media coverage of Africa for decades. It is glaring in the lack of dignity afforded to black and brown skinned victims of conflict. It is also seen in the lack of nuance and empathy given to people suffering from war and other man-made emergencies (including climate change).

“While its appearance in the case of Ukraine is not surprising, it is irresponsible, reprehensible, and should not be in any way associated with such an important profession as ours.”

Western media needs to do better. We all do.

Sadly, there is an element of truth exposed by such comments. We are shocked by the sight of bombed cities and fleeing refugees, of missile strikes and wrecked military hardware in a European context; we are shocked out of the numbness we otherwise feel towards such sights in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan and too many other places.

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

On the whole, it must be said, war and conflict has become something of a ‘background noise’ to Westerners far removed from the consequences and ignorant of the causes. In our experience, war is safely distant, a kind of reality television that doesn’t touch our everyday lives.

Over decades and generations, we have been groomed to perceive the horrors of war as something that belongs firmly in Europe’s past (again, Bosnia notwithstanding; a kind of aberration that proves the rule) or else in lands far away.

The suffering that unfolds before our wandering attentions, meanwhile, is just the lot of less fortunate peoples and societies it is inferred are not like us.

So, of course, we sit up and take notice when war blossoms in our own neighbourhood. But that’s no excuse to turn a blind eye to the suffering created by wars elsewhere. We’ve done that for far too long, so let Ukraine be our wake up call.

Racism should have no place in human society, least of all within our response to a humanitarian crisis, be it war or some other calamity. Our empathy and willingness to provide succour and support must not be swayed by the colour of a person’s skin.

There was a time when Ukrainians were not deemed ‘people like us’. Like Russians, like Poles — like the Irish — they were not welcome in the ‘white folk’s club’. No, like people of colour the world over their humanity was degraded; they were an ‘inferior’ people in a hierarchy of race manufactured to justify the avarice of powerful States and imperial ambition.

Maybe we should keep that close to mind in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Right now, we’re rooting for the people of Ukraine — and rightly so. But we should be rooting for those African nationals and others caught up in the conflict too. They are no less the victims of Putin’s aggression. More than that, we need to start rooting for the victims of war and repression the world over.

In Yemen, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Palestine, in Ukraine and so many places: those suffering are indeed people like us. We all bleed red. We all shed the same tears.

MC

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Mark Cantrell

Mark Cantrell

A UK writer and journalist, Mark Cantrell is also the author of two novels: Citizen Zero and Silas Morlock. Read more of his work at tykewriter.wordpress.com