Last week, Ukrainian President Zelensky addressed Canadian parliament and asked Canada to do more to help Ukraine survive the Russian invasion.
“You all need to do more to stop Russia, to protect Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said.
He went on to discuss how 97 children had been killed in the war and that he wanted the politicians gathered before him to understand the magnitude of this.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, 2.95 million people have left Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24.
Recently, I saw a meme that said, “Wake up, check on Zelensky, coffee.”
This one hit me a little differently. The meme was widely shared, indicating that many are watching and supporting Ukraine from afar and keeping up to date through their social media timelines.
It also demonstrated that this war for some reason feels less removed than others in many ways, likely because of the very real way it is impacting our everyday lives through inflation, higher food prices and added uncertainty to an already strained supply chain.
It has also become a casual reference—something we can check in and out of at our leisure. Social media has given us unprecedented access to the war, while simultaneously allowing us to trivialize it into a meme.
At the same time, there has been kindness and compassion displayed on social media and in the news, as people book AirBnB’s in the Ukraine, and are helping individuals receive immediate monetary support. It’s heartening to see people buying Ukrainian flags, discussing the injustices on social media and gathering funds and resources for refugees.
It gives me hope to see how much we are doing to help, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t trigger me as well.
I can’t help but think about how different the conversation was when American troops withdrew from Afghanistan with the full knowledge that the Taliban would be taking over. There was outrage and compassion for the people attempting to flee, but the response wasn’t quite the same.
There is the occasional outcry on social media for refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and more, but the response this time felt different. We’ve been seeing people of colour fleeing from “war torn” countries for so long that we’ve become desensitized.
Seeing white people fleeing a war torn country, however, has become a novelty. The images of war we see on social media are hard to absorb, but even more shocking is the realization that we have subconsciously associated brown people with war and white people with peace.
In this sense we’ve failed Ukrainian refugees in the same way we’ve failed refugees of colour: we’ve defined the crisis by colour and made the Ukrainian war and refugee crisis unfamiliar when it’s really not.
It's a global crisis and one that’s been going on for years. The issue isn’t who is fleeing, it's why they’re fleeing as well as what political and social agendas have led us to this war.
The war in Ukraine began almost a month ago now and the coverage has been relentless. The underlying sentiment when you read the news is that war is foreign to the people of Ukraine. War is synonymous with countries like Syria and Afghanistan but peace—peace is European. It’s white. It does not make sense in a place like Ukraine.
Don’t get me wrong, it is heartening to see the support and resources Ukraine and its people are receiving, but why are brown refugees treated so differently from white ones? Why do Ukrainian refugees evoke more support and compassion than Syrian or Afghani refugees?
At the same time, the UN has recently also acknowledged that “non-European refugees have faced discrmination while trying to flee to safety at Ukraine borders after their experiences were dismissed as lies.” . Additionally, there have been various accounts of African and Asian people being “forcibly prevented from boarding trains and buses leaving Ukrainian cities, as priority was given to white Ukrainians.”
Even during a war, there is time for racism. Refugees and immigrants are clearly welcome in historically anti-immigration countries such as Hungary and Greece as long as they are white and Christian.
Recently, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi even said that “Ukrainian refugees were “real refugees” – and his country has pledged to take in thousands.”
Hungary has also indicated that they will support Ukrainian refugees with populist leader Viktor Orban indicating that “we are able to tell the difference between who is a migrant and who is a refugee”.
I care about the people fleeing from Ukraine in the same exhausted way that I’ve cared for every refugee crisis. I just wish the response to the Ukraine crisis wasn’t so disproportionate when compared to that of non-white refugees.
The war in the Ukraine isn’t just another reminder of how tenuous our lives are but a stark slap in the face for the BIPOC community and a reminder that racism and bias are alive and well.
The therapist in me would also like to take a moment to point out that if you, like me, are feeling sad and mad about everything you are reading, this is okay. No one is meant to absorb this much news.
We literally went from two years of the pandemic into a war. We are absorbing more sadness and uncertainty than we are meant to. Be angry and sad but take a step back when you need to.
Taking in the news in small doses is a great way to become informed about what is happening but remember the real work starts with us. What language are we using when we discuss the war in the Ukraine? What articles, memes and information are we sharing on social media or in casual conversation with friends? Are we checking in with our own bias? Are we calling out biased reporting and misinformation?
War magnifies pain and uncertainty, it also marginalizes those who are fleeing regardless of where they are coming from but especially those who are not white. This is a reminder that war is not new, its victims are not new and bias is not new.
It’s our job as consumers of media to do the work to ensure we are not perpetuating more pain through bias, whether it’s intentional or not.
It’s a big job and a sad world, but it only takes one voice to incite change.
About the author
Manjot MannMore by Manjot Mann
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