When Skin Color Becomes a Passport
When the refugees are blonde-haired and blue-eyed, the reception is very, very different
Like virtually every person in the free world, I’m pulling for the citizens of Ukraine. Their plight is the real-life embodiment of David versus Goliath — good versus evil. I find myself pulling for them, despite their ridiculously long odds.
What is especially compelling to observe is the evolution of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president. He has risen to the occasion, going from a politically inexperienced comedian to a hero of almost mythic status.
With a storyline like this, one would think that the narrative pretty much writes itself. Unfortunately, some in the media keep saying the quiet part out loud. The first few days of the conflict have seen one incident after another of reporters displaying their blatantly racist, bigoted, and colonialist points of view — on live television.
The media shows its racism
The media dips low-key racist tropes into their commentary so quickly reporters seem unable to prevent themselves from uttering the pejoratives.
For example, Charlie D’Agata, a senior foreign correspondent at CBS News, seems aware he is treading on shaky ground as he makes the following comments describing the difference between Ukrainian refugees and those hailing from Afghanistan or Iraq:
This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European, I have to choose those words carefully too, city.
The offensiveness of his comments notwithstanding, D’Agata seems not to recall that Iraq was quite civilized before the US invasion of 2003, as was Afghanistan until the Soviet Union attacked the country in 1979. His offensive comments are at the 11:20 mark in the video below.
To his credit, D’Agata issued an apology soon after his ill-advised comments. That said, the fact that he made such statements at all underscores the media’s comfort with the racialization of military conflicts and their accompanying human tragedy.
Sadly, D’Agata wasn’t alone. In the last week, numerous reporters and politicians inserted their prejudiced views on whiteness, religion, and class into what should be a discussion focused solely on the rising humanitarian crisis.
ITV News correspondent, Lucy Watson reporting from Poland, exhibits complete dismay at the thought of a conflict in Europe rather than the third world:
Now the unthinkable has happened to them [Ukrainians], and this is not a developing third world nation, this is Europe.
What’s compelling is just looking at them, the way they’re dressed. These are prosperous middle-class people, these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East [or] North Africa, they look like any European family you live next door to…
Even Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, made racially insensitive comments during an interview on BBC:
Sorry. It’s really emotional for me because I see European people, with blue eyes and blond hair, being killed, children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets.
The overarching implication is that the more white and European the refugees, the more deserving they are of the world’s support and empathy. The media’s description of Ukraine as “relatively civilized, relatively European” is media code language portraying Ukraine as “more worthy” of our collective empathy and, by extension, our role as their potential saviors.
Conversely, this brand of subtle racism and bigotry portrays less white areas of the world, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and the entirety of the African continent, as less “civilized” and, therefore, less deserving of our aid and compassion.
One only needs to note the difference in the reception of Ukrainian refugees and those from Syria, both fleeing Russian militarism. Al Jazeera describes the political dissimilarity:
European politicians have also expressed support for open borders towards Ukrainian refugees, using terminology such as “intellectuals” and “European” — a far cry from the fear-mongering used by governments against migrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
When asked to explain why Poland’s border policy for Ukraine is so dramatically different compared to its policy in the case of Syrian refugees, MSNBC’s Kelly Cobiello made the following blunt assessment:
Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighboring Ukraine. I mean that, quite frankly, it is part of it. these are Christians, they are white.
On Twitter, one user’s comment was even more succinct. “Skin is a passport. Epidermal citizenship.”
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