The racial bias of Western media’s reporting on the Ukraine war

By Hannah Rajalingam

Since the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine broke almost one and a half months ago, the global response has been united in supporting Ukrainians. Countries all over the world, even some that would typically choose to remain neutral, have heavily condemned Vladimir Putin’s actions. This rise of support was incredibly powerful and moving; businesses were putting up Ukrainian flags in their storefronts, bars were pouring our Russian vodka in the street, and schools were welcoming refugee children with open arms. In a time of so much conflict and dissent over topics of national and international importance, these moments were astonishing. People around the world were united against an unhinged, powerful leader.

I’m not writing this to negate the importance of our national response to the Russian-Ukrainian war, I’m writing to show how we have treated wars in different countries, in different parts of the world, with much more divided and biased reactions. Footage of the war in Ukraine from dozens of news outlets and social media platforms has shown the resilience of the country’s people. Civilians have gathered bottles to make Molotov cocktails, a Ukrainian grandmother hands sunflower seeds to a Russian soldier so that when he died sunflowers would grow from his grave, people protested in occupied Kherson, Ukraine, and so much more. And throughout the world, we have hailed their clear bravery, their refusal to submit to an authoritarian government. 

But this has happened before. War in the fight for democracy is something that nations old and new can easily recognize. However, the public response when that fight comes from nonwhite countries is a far cry from united. During the Syrian war, when the country’s citizens were fighting for their right to democracy, especially by Europe, Syria was condemned for the violence. Refugees were not welcome in most European countries for the fear that they would be letting in “terrorists.” It was only 4 years after the start of the Syrian war that Germany and Sweden began letting in refugees –and even then it was only because of the deal they brokered with Turkey making sure that Turkey would “slow the flow of migrants and asylum seekers crossing into Europe by returning ‘irregular migrants’ attempting to enter Europe through Greece to Turkey.” Poland’s Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński said in 2017 that letting Syrian refugees into Poland was “dangerous” and would “completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country.” Poland today has let in 1.2 million Ukrainian refugees and President Andrzej Duda told reporters that Ukrainians would be welcomed with open hearts.

For many people of color in the US, the racially biased reactions from European leaders probably aren’t surprising. Brown and black people in other countries have often not received the same attention, support, and respect for national or international conflicts. This conflict has drawn attention from all around the world and revealed the underlying bias in how we view conflicts in foreign nations. Reporters from fairly reputable news sources have expressed shock at seeing people that are “blue-eyed, blonde-haired” and like “any European family that you would live next door to” experiencing the violence of this war, especially in a place that isn’t “like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European –I have to choose those words carefully, too– city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

It’s disheartening to see in these comments, especially how we have come to attribute war in strictly non-European places, as though Europe has had an ever so peaceful history. The many advancements European countries have had in war technology are a result of a need to respond to war, and until the second half of the 20th century, this warfare is what they were known for. The idea that the Middle East was born to be a place of conflict is horrifyingly inaccurate and dangerous to the biases we have seen influence political decisions. Much of the conflict we have grown used to seeing in the Middle East came as a result of powers like the US and the former Soviet Union treating it as a battleground during the Cold War. While the US and other European countries have played the Woodrow Wilson card of merely wanting peaceful, democratic nations in the Middle East, we have seen time and time again a lack of recognition of their role in the conflict, their support of authoritarian leaders that will work with their economic interests, and condemnation for the people that dare to fight for against those governments.I continue to stay as up-to-date with the news of the war in Ukraine as I can, but I ask that we don’t forget those who have been fighting for the same refugee for years. The people countries have rejected for suspicions of them being “terrorists” are in need as well, and while we swell with rousing support for the Ukrainian people and anti-Putin sentiments, we must apply these same actions to understand the causes behind conflicts in the Middle East and how we might support those refugees. If we are to talk of respecting sovereignty, we must call on ourselves and our government to treat non-power nations with the same respect we are showing for the people of Ukraine.