Only wrong when it’s white

Areebah Bharmal, Distribution Manager

On Feb. 24, Russia began its invasion and attack on sovereign Ukraine, immediately prompting an outpour of international support and coverage. Every news outlet reported on the invasion, rightfully so, and they continue to update on the conflict. 

The same week Russia began its assault on Ukraine, there was an airstrike in Somalia; the day before, there was one in Syria. In sharp contrast to the coverage of the European conflict, however, these conflicts in the Middle East and Africa failed to draw the same reaction. While the international community is flying the blue and yellow flag, pledging their support to Ukraine and standing by the innocents forced to flee their homes, death and destruction not too far away tends to go completely unnoticed with little media coverage or attention. Why this is the case, somewhat ironically, has been perfectly articulated by the media itself.

CBS News Correspondent Charlie D’Agata called Ukraine, in contrast to countries “like Iraq or Afghanistan,” “relatively civilized” and “relatively European … where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen,” and he is not the only one to draw this type of conclusion. While bloodshed in white, “civilized” countries sparks outrage, we are desensitized to the deaths of people of color because of this view that they are somehow less than in comparison. Despite Europe not being where you would “expect that,” as late-night talk show host Trevor Noah points out, European history is filled with wars. Both world wars began in Europe, not to mention the bloodshed caused by colonialism. While D’Agata has since apologized for his statements, the thought processes and ideologies that caused them in the first place remain intact.

Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism discusses the creation of the Middle East as an “other” in relation to Europe during colonial times. Western colonizing nations were seen as superior, and other nations that were being colonized were seen as inferior and uncivilized. These colonial ideas of superiority of certain areas continues to linger to this day, and the difference in the portrayal of areas such as the Middle East in film and popular culture, as well as the portrayal — or lack thereof — of current events in contrast to how events in Europe or other “Western” areas are covered continues to reinforce this idea today. Dismantling these colonialist ideas is long overdue, especially given how this ideology is intertwined with not only public opinion of different conflicts, but also the national response to these events. A family forced to leave their home due to war or violence should be no less tragic when that family is not white, yet the reaction from the public does not seem to reflect this. 

President Joe Biden increased the amount of refugees the U.S. would allow into the country in 2022 to 125,000. This 125,000 total was divided into the regions of Africa, East Asia, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America/Caribbean, Near East/South Asia and an unallocated reserve. However, in response to the Ukrainian conflict, the administration announced it would allow 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the country. The discrepancies in refugee numbers is not unique to the U.S., with European countries more readily allowing Ukrainian refugees compared to those from other regions as well. A Reuters article discussing this topic touched on the response of different European countries and world leaders, including the Bulgarian Prime Minister. 

“‘We have here not the refugee wave which we are accustomed to and we do not know what to do with – people with an unclear past,’ Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said, describing Ukrainians as intelligent, educated and highly qualified. ‘These are Europeans whose airport has been just bombed, who are under fire,’ he said. Bulgaria has said it will help everyone coming from Ukraine, where there are about 250,000 ethnic Bulgarians,” the article stated.

This response from a world leader highlights the lingering colonial ideologies that desperately need to be reversed and the direct impact these thought processes can have. Once again, the excuse of it being Europeans fleeing their homes is seen as a justification for the unequal treatment of refugees.

This is not to say that we should not support and stand with Ukraine. It is important to support Ukrainians however we can and for world leaders to respond to the conflict accordingly. However, acknowledging this conflict should not mean ignoring everything else that is going on, and the difference in coverage and attention a European conflict receives compared to others is unacceptable. The loss of life anywhere should be equally appalling no matter the racial background of those involved in the conflict, and recognizing the different reactions and working to change them is long overdue. We need to actively and consciously work to decolonize our mindset. The U.S. was founded on the idea that all men are created equal, and it is time to make our actions reflect that.