Please, Stop Using Racist Language To Talk About The Ukraine And Russia Conflict

If you find yourself connecting more with this European war, ask yourself why.
A demonstration in Berlin calling for peace in Ukraine.
picture alliance via dpa/picture alliance via Getty I
A demonstration in Berlin calling for peace in Ukraine.

People are aghast watching the devastating events unfold in Ukraine as the Russian invasion continues. Cities are being sieged, rocket strikes are dropping on civilians, and the news is full of heartbreaking on-the-ground stories and photos.

But the conversation surrounding the tragedy has been troublesome to say the least. Racist, stereotyped language is being used in the coverage of what’s happening.

Multiple reporters have been lambasted for implying that it’s unfathomable that conflict of this degree could happen to ‘normal’, ‘civilised people’ from Europe.

CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata commented: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq and Afghanistan where conflict has been raging for decades, this is a relatively civilised, relatively European city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen”. (He has since apologised).

David Sakvarelidze, the former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, said in a BBC interview that “it’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed” by Russia’s assault. The BBC journalist interviewing him, Ros Atkins, did not challenge the comment at the time. On Twitter, he later posted a thread saying he missed the comment on race because he had “made several attempts to interrupt while trying to be respectful of the guest’s feelings and his situation”. He added: “I entirely agree with those of you who’ve messaged to say such comments shouldn’t pass without challenge.

“I hope, if you’re a regular BBC viewer, you can tell that I always try my best to do fair and rigorous interviews. In this case, though, I missed a question that needed to be asked. Thanks to those of you who picked me up on it. You were quite right to.”

Daniel Hannan, a British journalist and former pro-Brexit politician, wrote in The Telegraph, “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.”

And Al Jazeera English anchor Peter Dobbie said it was “compelling” that the refugees appeared to be “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,” he said. “They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”

Al Jazeera also later apologised.

On Monday morning, Radio 4′s Today programme also showed a lack of sensitivity to victims of other conflicts. Speaking during the ‘Thought for the Day’ segment, Tim Stanley, historian and Daily Telegraph writer said: “Ukraine has touched the West in a way that Syria or Yemen did not.

“And one of the reasons is that being a European country, it looks so familiar. Those streets, being dug up for trenches, could be our streets. And the young men volunteering or being conscripted, could be our sons or fathers.”

There have been other bad faith testaments being shared around the world, some of whom have realised their mistakes, others who haven’t.

The entire conflict has been shrouded in racism, whether it’s Black people and other racialised people left to anguish as they attempt to flee the chaos, or news coverage, or even the views of people watching it all unfold.

Ordinary people are also resorting to racist, stereotyped language and tropes to talk about what they’re witnessing, largely through social media.

Many have lamented the plight of the Ukrainian people, likening this to be the first large-scale conflict since the World Wars. Others have commented that this is the first war to occur during the advent of social media.

Both claims are, factually speaking, false of course. There was the Bosnian War in 1992, with 100,000 fatalities, and before that in Croatia and Slovenia, with the conflict in Kosovo taking place after.

And as for wars under social media, we only have to look at Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, to name a few, all occurring in the last decade.

Many have also pointed out that the conflict in Ukraine and Russia has caused a virtual uproar not seen in previous wars.

While it’s amiss to suggest that everyone showing empathy for this cause and not others is racist, it’s worth considering where this unconscious bias to favour people close to us, who look like us, in streets we’ve walked, comes from.

We spoke to Counselling Directory member Beverley Blackman who tells us there’s a reason these events have particularly resonated.

“Firstly, the British culture is such that we will always back the underdog,” she tells HuffPost. “No matter how pronounced the ‘David and Goliath’ situation, our social construction is that we are unquestioningly – and unwaveringly – behind David.

“Russia is vast. Ukraine is small by comparison. Therefore, we stand behind Ukraine on the grounds of size alone, let alone anything to do with our sense of natural justice and fairness in standing up to persecution.

“Ukraine was once part of a much larger union of countries – the former USSR - and, despite being a developing country with currently high rates of poverty, has learned to stand alone successfully thanks to an extensive grain trade. The strive for success against difficult odds is also something that the British culture also tends to acknowledge and applaud.”

There’s also our own self-interests, adds Blackman, as the conflict is relatively close to our own shores and could encroach upon our own territories, blowing up to full-scale global war.

“We have no idea what weapons Russia has, how Putin will escalate their use, or who he will use them against. Putin is an unknown factor and given the power he currently holds, he has the capacity to wreak havoc on humanity

“Not only this, but we are told that the sanctions we impose will only escalate Putin’s determination for a world war. We are told that innocent people have died as a direct result of the sanctions we, and other countries, have imposed on Russia.

“Not knowing is a difficult feeling for all civilised societies to bear, and there is a desire to pull together against the common enemy, in whatever way we can.”

Given that this is a European setting, something Brits are accustomed to, with people who look like us being attacked in a war that could spill over, it’s no surprise that a quick affinity with the victims has developed.

But in doing so, let’s not minimise situations around the world, nor look to this as uniquely devastating – all war is terrible and we have the capacity to sympathise and advocate for victims around the world.