Around ten P.M. on the night of February 23, a breaking news alert on my phone told me that Russia had just launched a brutal and unprovoked attack on its democratic neighbor Ukraine, using rhetoric straight out of Hitler's playbook by falsely claiming that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russians and was controlled by Neo-Nazis. I turned off the music I'd been listening to and just sat on my bed in stunned horror for a while. Later that night, I wrote in my diary, "I feel like the world as I knew it, as I was taught to conceive of it in the twenty-first century, is breaking down and no longer makes sense. There isn't supposed to be war in Europe. Things just don't work this way."
But they do work this way in much of the world. Wars devastate many parts of Africa and the Middle East, often invisible to western audiences.
The U.S. contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. As of March 2021, millions of Yemenis were on the verge of starvation, and every 10 minutes, a child died of malnutrition or preventable disease. During America's utterly pointless 20-year war in Afghanistan, around 71,000 civilians lost their lives, many of them due to U.S. and NATO airstrikes. After the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops and the rapid Taliban takeover, the government quickly abandoned its efforts to help Afghans in danger from the regime. European countries have done little to help Afghan refugees while certain politicians fall back on Islamophobic stereotypes. China continues to commit genocide against Uyghur Muslims with near impunity. None of these atrocities have received the same united condemnation or response as Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Part of this is due to the fact that Ukraine has more access to western media and social media. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has proven to be an immensely heroic and charismatic figure. From Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Hunger Games to World War II stories, we're immersed in books and films featuring snarky, outmatched, mostly white (although fortunately this last detail is beginning to change) protagonists resisting tyranny, and for many of us, Ukraine's struggle evokes these popular images.
But we would be remiss not to reflect on the racist dimensions, both explicit and implicit, of our reaction to Russia's invasion: we care a lot more about war when its victims are primarily white and Christian.
There have been numerous reports of people of color being segregated from white refugees, being pushed to the back of the line by Ukrainian soldiers and others fleeing the war, and being denied the same humanitarian services as their white counterparts. Some European leaders have plainly stated that white refugees are more desirable than people of color.
“These people are Europeans. These people are intelligent. They are educated people. ... This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said shortly after Russia invaded. Far-right French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour supports giving some visas to Ukrainian refugees but says that Arabs are still unwelcome.
Advocates and writers from Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan are calling out western media for embracing double standards when it comes to refugees. The racial politics of this war demonstrate who is seen as a full person, and thus worthy of sympathy, and who is dehumanized, marginalized, and ignored.
The Russo-Ukrainian war should be a call to action for everyone who believes that all refugees are people with inherent and infinite human dignity and that everyone deserves to live free from aggressive violence. This should be a time for Americans to take a good, long look in the mirror and examine both our attitudes toward war and its victims and the way that international systems insulate powerful nations from being held accountable for their actions.
However, racial double standards should never, under any circumstances, be used to justify Putin’s war. I’ve seen a lot of whataboutism in online discourse about the war, comments to the effect that American and western European bellicosity and callousness toward Muslim refugees somehow justifies or minimizes Russia’s unjustifiable actions.
Two wrongs absolutely do not make a right. The Ukrainian family fleeing shelling in Kyiv is just as precious and worthy as the child starving in Yemen or the family fleeing Syria. Conversations about racial double standards in war are critical, but only if those conversations are constructive and recognize the human dignity of every person affected, regardless of race, religion, nationality, or any other factor. War does its best to strip us of our common humanity; we must not let it.