“Good refugees, bad refugees”, the War on Ukraine and Western Media Racism

photo_camera refugiados-ucrania

World public opinion was shocked when a reporter from CBS said that Ukraine is “European, therefore, civilized” insinuating that the Ukrainians deserve, therefore, special treatment and unique refugee crisis management. The same reporter added, while warning that he was choosing his words and was being careful, “this is not Iraq nor Afghanistan.” The Afro-American comedian, Trevor Noah, joked about this (in one of his moments of black humor) wondering: “he said all of this while choosing his words! Oh, my God.” If he were not being careful nor choosing his words, what would he have said? Would he say, “these are white, blue eyed, civilized Europeans, unlike the uncouth and backward colored Iraqis and Afghanis who don’t know how to be targets of US, Al Qaeda and Taliban fire, and can never be good refugees?” Maybe not, but the moment was eerie—of someone trying not to be racist only to end up saying the most blatant racist thing.

“Good refugees,” “bad refugees”; this dichotomy makes me think of Janet Eliot’s famous experiment, “blue eyed” “brown eyed”. Right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Janet Elliott carried out her experiment in conservative Iowa with third graders linking behavior and teacher’s expectations to the color of the eye. Children either over perform or underperform depending whether the color of their eyes is overvalued or undervalued by their teacher. Racism creates a logic like parenting: treat your kid as brilliant and she will grow into that role, and treat her like “stupid” and she will perform accordingly.

Like there is positive reinforcement, there is negative reinforcement. Treat Ukrainians like they are “good refugees” (read “white” and “blue eyed”) and every image of them will show them clean, with manageable bags, well-dressed, “crying in a civilized manner”. On the other hand, Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees wear long and dirty clothes, their women veiled, the men haggard and bearded…they have all the ingredients of “bad refugees.” Their “uncivilized drag” makes them unworthy of our sympathy, except when a three-year-old boy’s body is washed onshore and we exchange his picture on social media as a sign of sympathy with a people from another cultural world. Our humanity suddenly pops up only to disappear again in the comfort of our covert complacent proto-racist daily reflexes.

The CBS reporter was not alone. Some French commentators joined the chorus of those saying, “this is Ukraine,” “this is civilization,” “this is Europe;” you can almost hear their thought: “when you are blue-eyed you are a better refugee.” Ukrainian and Polish guards pushed back sub-Saharan and North African students from the long queues waiting to cross to Poland, saying that “Ukrainians should pass first.” The right to be a refugee is granted based on nationality and is therefore not a universal right protected by International Laws and Conventions.

Racism is notorious for making what should be an aberration look as if it were something natural.  “For God’s Sake! this is Europe! This is Civilization,” forgetting, as Trevor Noah joked , that Europe and the West are notorious for waging the worst and bloodiest wars in history (the 100-year war, Napoleonic wars, WWI, WWII, colonial wars, Indochina and Vietnam, the Balkans, the Iraq War, the War on Drugs, the Wars on Terrorism etc.). Forgetting also that when Europe was living in the Dark Ages, Baghdad was a prosperous and unprecedented center of learning, with physicians performing complex surgeries on the sick and libraries were so big the Mongols used them as makeshift bridges to cross the Euphrates (or so the legend goes).

Aleppo, Samarkand, Cairo, Isfahan, Fez, Timbuktu, Damascus, Baghdad, Toledo, Seville, Granada, Cordoba, Marrakech, Carthage, Bukhara, and scores of other cities were shining with the light of learning and civilization centuries before Europe saw the light of Renaissance, let alone the wisdom of Enlightenment. This is not about who was civilized before whom, but about a Eurocentric racism that sees civilization only through the prism of blue eyes and fair skin.

At the time when Ukrainians are suffering from an unjustified war waged by Vladimir Putin, you would think that reporters, journalists and commentators would resort to what is common to humanity to defend the right of Ukrainians to life, as a sovereign people; but unfortunately, racism is like poverty, you chase it out of the door and it will creep back through the window.

Racism shows itself not in normal situations when people painstakingly hide their real attitudes but in dire situations, i.e. when the specter of war is at the doorstep of Europe again, something unseen since WWII. When fear and anguish overcome reason, the demons of bigotry find their way to the surface.

The Hungarian photographer could not help but kick a Syrian refugee a few years ago although her role was to report an event rather than prevent it. In the heat of action, visceral reactions overcome calm and professional attitudes.

If reporters, journalists and commentators lead the way in reproducing an orientalist rhetoric of racism and ethnocentrism, what will the layman say or do? If opinion leaders are blatantly racist, especially Westerners who never cease to lecture others about universal human rights, that should be worrying to everyone but especially to political leaders who want to use the moral high ground to defeat Putin and his oligarchs.

Europe and the West need to do a lot of soul searching when it comes to their hidden and not so well hidden attitudes towards others be they Blacks, Arabs, Latinos, Muslims, Asians and Jews. It is easy to have ready-made stereotypes that help us navigate the thicket of modern day politics amid a plurality of voices, interests and shifting alliances. But it is challenging to have a critical attitude towards one’s prejudice, a deconstructive stance that would put the World and how we conceive it in a dynamic perspective that we critique as we move on. The former is complacent but dangerous. The second is unsettling but important for a multicultural and hyper-connected world.