Many in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East support Ukraine, yet, there is a sense of deep discontent with the way their own local conflicts have lacked the coverage, global focus, and outpouring of support we have seen emerge over the past few days.
This is neither whataboutism nor a distraction from the war fought by a valiant people. My words are not intended to limit or dilute your support for Ukraine but to invite you to expand your compassion to include others who have been overlooked.
I am heavily referencing examples from the Ukrainian context as this has sparked a global outcry at the ‘ hypocrisy ‘ of Western nations.
To be clear – I stand in solidarity with Ukraine, its people, and its inspirational leadership. It is heartwarming to see so much love and support for this nation worldwide. I have also donated what I can to help with rescue and relief efforts.
However, as a scholar of politics and history and as a woman of non-European ancestry: my response is incomplete if I do not acknowledge the glaring double-standard that the world’s response to Ukraine has been.
Racism is, of course, alive and well in many parts of the world, but it is not the focus of this essay.
It provides the context for why non-European lives and conflicts appear to be valued less and explains why more significant effort and more humanistic reporting in these regions are critical.
To understand the disparity in reportage and the understandable anger that so many feel, all you have to do is to look at the way journalists have been covering their reports on Ukraine – and compare them.
Journalists are shocked, traumatized, and honestly surprised that this has happened ‘ in Europe’, with images of scared or hurt ‘ blond-haired and blue-eyed children’ seared into their memories .. that this is happening in a ‘ civilized ’ land, unlike Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan or somewhere in Africa.
These statements undoubtedly trigger deeply-held epigenetic memories of non-European peoples as their ancestors were told their land had to be subjugated because they lacked civilization, and their lives were worth less than their (allegedly) benevolent European rulers.
As a member of the British royal family put it, it is ‘ normal ‘ to see conflicts in places like Africa and Asia, but it is ‘ alien’ to see it in Europe. Coming back to the present, that is a powerful statement on how strategies of ‘ othering’ continue to pervade discourse.
And all of this is being said in shocked, sometimes visibly traumatized tones as journalists and other observers are simply unused to seeing trauma in non-black or brown bodies.
In other words, the presence of conflict and trauma in non-European countries has become normalized.
And the best way to make something invisible, or beyond question, or simply not worth engaging, is to consider it ‘ normal ‘.
In contrast, the shocked tones and traumatized delivery of news reports from Ukraine signals that something truly horrific, abnormal – that now requires unprecedented attention and action – has occurred.
How would that read to someone whose country is in a more severe crisis?
( And yes – whilst the crisis in the Ukraine requires immediate support and engagement, there are worse things happening on the planet going completely unreported )
In Ethiopia, 52,000 civilians were killed in the past five months, where starvation is being used as a weapon. Women are subjected to mass rape, yet there is no outcry. Not even a sliver of acknowledgement – this is just one of many examples.
Just as it is critical to ensure a unified global response to Ukraine’s war, it is equally important to recognize the discontent created through the erasure of so much (othered) human pain.
People respond to what they see through the media. The way the news is delivered shapes public response.
When journalists cannot contain their own shock and trauma, they impart an additional layer of meaning. They are certainly not neutral actors in the generation of public opinion.
Non-European journalists have responded, stating that they have not been allowed to cover local stories as media houses for fears they would not be able to be ‘ objective’. However, that standard has not been applied to Ukraine’s coverage.
This is a great thing for Ukrainians.
However, I hope it is also a wake-up call for mainstream media channels and journalists to do the same in other conflicts.
When they signal ‘ normalcy’ even when reporting on a mass violation, people ignore it as there is no emotional engagement; therefore, there is no need to respond or act.
From Ukraine, we see powerfully engaging images and videos that show the courage, resilience, emotion, humor, and creativity of a people under siege. This is an absolutely valid depiction and one that should become common elsewhere as well.
A little girl singing ‘ Let It Go’ from her underground sanctuary has gone viral. Photos of men and women carrying their pets across the border or to shelters move the viewer to want to help such a compassionate nation because they can see them and empathize with them as fellow humans – who are able to be kind even when fighting for their lives.
This is a profound testament to the humanity of Ukrainians.
However, if one is willing to look, we will also see this humanity amongst the many whose stories have not been afforded the same humanity, compassion, and empathetic engagement.
Such humanistic reportage needs to become the norm rather than the aberration. Not just for Europe, but the rest of the world.
Instead, in Africa, Asia & the Middle East, we are exclusively shown images of children starving and covered in flies, people in states of absolute poverty and hardship, over and over again.
The subject is erased and becomes an object in need of perpetual rescue.
By forcing coverage to ignore the human factor in the name of staying ‘ objective’, the stories of people suffering in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are erased, blurred into one brown-black mass.
All that inspires is compassion fatigue and denial.
The kind of global response we see now towards Ukraine will be far more likely to emerge in other contexts if we change the terms of reporting and engagement.
There are so many stories of heroism, courage, kindness, and humanity in the face of desperation from Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Israel & Palestine – that have simply not been told.
Let us break the culture of rendering black/brown trauma invisible by acknowledging the stories of hero(ines), survivors, leaders, carers, and families with empathy, humanity, dignity, and compassion.
Dr. B. Bairavee
© Bairavee Balasubramaniam, 2022. All rights reserved.
Image by geralt on Pixabay. Public Domain.