Let’s take a simple test. Ask yourself these questions: has Facebook ever placed a non-white nation’s flag on the top of the list as a choice for profile photo frames? Has Saturday Night Live ever had a Syrian, or Palestinian, or Yemeni choir open their show? Did liquor stores ever stop selling Russian vodka when it was involved in the Syrian civil war? Did Shell or BP or any other major fossil fuel company ever stop doing business with Saudi Arabia despite massive human rights violations or its murderous war in Yemen? I think the answer to these questions should come easily.
One might accurately say that this is merely performative activism that has little to no impact on the real conditions of people suffering from war. And that is correct. But there is more to this than simple virtue signaling.
In the past few weeks, reporters from various networks have been lamenting the war in Ukraine as different because it is supposedly a “civilized” country. The odious message here is clear: war is not the normal state for “white” countries. But the implication is even more odious: Ukrainians deserve more of our sympathy than Afghans, Palestinians, Rohingya, Somalians, Syrians, etc.
In other media, lavish praise was given to Ukrainian kids making Molotov cocktails to fend off Russian invaders. Just days earlier, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) for allegedly throwing one. This same media was silent except for dispassionately repeating the IDF version of events.
These commentaries and the framing of events do not happen in a vacuum. Over the last several days as people fled Ukraine to neighbouring European countries, scores of Black and Indian refugees were turned away, many at gunpoint, while white-appearing people were allowed to cross over. Some have had to walk for many kilometres in frigid temperatures to reach the border. Many had infants and small children with them.
And on social media, a photograph went viral which showed a young, blonde-haired girl bravely confronting a soldier. It was erroneously attributed to being a Ukrainian girl and a Russian soldier. But the outpouring of sympathy was telling. When it was revealed that the girl was Palestinian and that she was courageously confronting occupying Israeli soldiers on her family’s land, that sympathy faded off the newsfeeds of many whose shameful hypocrisy was clearly demonstrated.
The prevailing arrangement of power in our world has been designed to eclipse the suffering of the Global South. We are told the lie, sometimes quite plainly, that war and calamity are a given to certain places in the world and have nothing to do with this arrangement or the exploitation and brutality that go with it. These attitudes are widespread in the mainstream, corporate media as well as among politicians of every stripe. And they often manage to filter into the way ordinary people think about world events and crises.
Without a doubt, war reveals our prejudices, biases, bigotries and indifference in a way that other situations do not. And the world has been set up as a hierarchy that puts white-appearing nations on the top of the list for collective sympathy. But regardless of what cynics might suggest, it does not have to be this way. We don’t have to pick and choose where and with whom we build our solidarity based on racist lies. We need only begin with the time-tested axiom: no human is alien to us. And go on from there.
Kenn Orphan, March 2022
*Photograph is of an African father attempting to flee Ukraine and is by Umit Bektas of Reuters.