Americans’ reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the depths of compassion of the American people. We have prayed for Ukrainians, raised money for Ukrainian refugees, and elevated Ukrainian and Russian voices that oppose the Russian government’s attempted occupation of a sovereign nation.
Perhaps what has stirred our empathy most is how Ukrainians seem to be so much like us. They enjoy the fruits of democracy and capitalism in ways that seem familiar to ours. When we see them walking along well-paved roads or fleeing in well-made cars, we can place ourselves in their shoes. We can imagine how fearful we would be if the order of our lives was suddenly upended, and our safety thrown into jeopardy. We can imagine also our own desires to protect our homes and our families.
But our ability to view Ukrainians as like “us” cannot be untangled from our propensity to view white people with greater admiration and empathy than we do Black and brown. This is partially rooted in the tendency to associate whiteness with innocence, goodness, and belonging, and to view Blackness and brownness as guilty, dangerous, and “other.”
CBS reporter Charlie D’Agata evoked this idea when he described Kiev as “relatively civilized, relatively European,” unlike, he said, “Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades.” (D’Agata has since apologized for his choice of words.)
“They seem so like us,” wrote Daniel Hannan in The Telegraph about Ukrainians. “That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”
When people with those backgrounds are victims of conflicts, we are rarely reminded that they are “like us” by media personalities. We don’t start viral hashtags like we have seen with #StandWithUkraine. We don’t share family portraits of their families, remarking on how similar they are to ours, as we have done with photos of president Volodymyr Zelensky and his family.
It is even more difficult to imagine American citizens sharing admiring posts of Black, brown, or Muslim people creating makeshift weapons as they fight their oppressors, as many have done while sharing pictures of Ukrainians making Molotov cocktails to defend themselves against Russia. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine Americans sending money directly to fund fighters in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, or Yemen, or openly sharing Facebook posts that instruct users how to do so without fear of being seen as aiding foreign state actors. But today, Americans are circulating social media posts that contain information about donating toward the Ukrainian army’s resistance.
When we extend compassion toward Ukrainians because they’re “so like us” but deny the same compassion toward Black and brown people in similar situations, we miss an opportunity to save lives. We save Ukrainians, but we do so to the exclusion of others – and there is no need to choose. This has become clear as European countries that have said they can’t accommodate refugees from Black and brown countries now enthusiastically welcome Ukrainians. They – we – have had the capacity to welcome asylum seekers and refugees, but have been less likely to do so enthusiastically when they are Black and brown.
In Ukraine, for example, Black and brown Ukrainians are even more vulnerable as they seek refuge in the region. Ukrainians of African and Indian descent have posted videos that show them being excluded from evacuation efforts that prioritize the evacuation of white children and women, while leaving African children and women to wait in limbo. Black and brown people in Ukraine, many of whom are students, have also reported greater difficulty fleeing to neighboring European countries, with some saying they were turned away at borders without being given the opportunity to show their student visas to prove legal migration. Their stories remind us that the myth of white supremacy reaches far, and the shadow of xenophobia is long.
Its shadow reaches our shores as well. I can’t help but think of this as we mark the tenth anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death. He died at the hands of a man who assumed that he could do whatever he wanted, could decide who did and didn’t belong within the geographic boundaries he established, and could decide who would live and who would die. When Trayvon fought in self-defense, he was killed, and his humanity was posthumously debated among those who refused to believe that a 17-year-old Skittle-eating child might have a right to defend himself against a full-grown man stalking him in a car. Unless you had a Black son, nephew, sibling, or relative, Trayvon wasn’t “like us.” This could be seen in the striking racial divides about the not guilty verdict for the person who killed him.
According to our legal system – and the 54% of Americans who agreed with the verdict – Trayvon couldn’t defend himself from his oppressor. And now as Ukrainians fight to defend themselves against an oppressive force, we must ask why we as a society so easily empathize with their fight and not with Trayvon’s.
I won’t pretend to be an ideal global citizen. I’m not. Though I believe that #BlackLivesMatter, I didn’t know that thousands of people have died during the last year as a result of a civil war in Ethiopia until I started doing research for this blog post. I also haven’t donated to Ethiopian or Yemeni refugees, and I haven’t started any hashtags to raise awareness of the victims there.
As I acknowledge this, I am also trying to discern why. When I do so, I must admit my own internalized belief systems. One of these systems states that my status as an American can and should protect me from danger. This belief is rooted in an idea that aligns America with whiteness, and a belief that proximity to whiteness provides a measure of protection in a power structure that has favored anti-Black and anti-brown colonialism. This means that even though I know my Blackness makes me more likely to face oppression, I still expect my Americanness to protect me from the impacts of warfare. Many of us do.
This doesn’t mean we lack the capacity to care about what happens elsewhere. Clearly, we do have that capacity. In fact, the American people’s response to Ukraine’s devastation has underscored our ability as a society to care for people beyond our borders.
My prayer is that we learn to extend this same empathy toward not only the people of color within our borders, but also toward the Black and brown people outside of them.