Thursday June 30, 2022

Racist streak

March 04, 2022

The conflict raging in Ukraine between Russian and Ukrainian Slavs, the latter with the support of a tribal coalition of nations across sub-Scandinavian Europe, has exposed much more than the fragility of peace on the disease-ravaged subcontinent. It has also revealed a mean streak of racist exceptionalism with which many Europeans, and people of European heritage, tend to regard themselves.

It has been impossible to miss the shock among Caucasian journalists covering the war, sparked by Russia’s invasion under the pretext of supporting ethnic allies in the eastern tribal enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, which it has recognised as independent states, at the idea that this could happen in Europe.

“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking … War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone”, wrote Daniel Hannan in the UK’s The Telegraph. “We are in the 21st century, we are in a European city, and we have cruise missile fired as if we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, can you imagine”, a commentator wailed on French TV.

Reporting from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Charlie D’Agata, a correspondent with CBS News in the US, declared Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, 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”. He later apologised.

The pearl-clutching is of course nothing new. When covering events in the US during the Donald Trump administration, especially the 2020 elections, reporters would regularly exclaim that such chaos was expected of the ‘Third World’, not the US. ‘America is a Third World country now’ was a headline of Fortune magazine following the unhinged first presidential debate between Trump and his eventual successor, Joe Biden.

It all harkens back to Chinua Achebe who, in his 1977 review of British writer Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, noted that “for reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry, the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization” and needs constant reassurance by comparison with Africa. To Africa, we can add Iraq, Afghanistan and much of the Global South.

In essence, the journalists are seeking to affirm white European exceptionalism and virtue by outsourcing its ills to the ‘developing’ world. What Achebe wrote, regarding Africa is true of much of the non-white world which “is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray – a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate”.

Ironically, European moral deformities have been on open display since the Russian invasion, which is itself grossly immoral and unjust. The reported treatment by Ukrainian guards of Africans, Indians and other people of colour trying to flee the country remains an indelible stain on its otherwise heroic stand against aggression.

Excerpted: ‘Covering Ukraine: A mean streak of racist exceptionalism’.