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Ukraine: Racialized Discourse across a North/South Divide

The Russo-Ukrainian war began in February 2014, with the Russian annexation of Crimea. Eight years later, the war has escalated. On the 24th of February, 2022, Russia proceeded with a full scale military invasion on the state of Ukraine, marking a new phase of conflict in the European region. As it stands, the situation is critical, and the intensification of violence and threat to world peace continues. It is of major concern for the international community.


It is unfortunate that it is often only at the very height of a crisis that a wider analysis of global issues can be made. This is because when such crises occur, they become the focal point for intersecting issues, making visible that which is otherwise left unnoticed due to structural hierarchy. Structural hierarchy here refers to the way in which the international system orders people, communities, nations and regions, whereby some groups are considered a priority over others, and such ordering is presented as the norm and thus left unquestioned - both deliberately and unintentionally. The conflict in Ukraine is no exception, and this article will focus on the wider discursive implications of the invasion, specifically those of a racialized nature across a Global North/South divide.


The narrative and the discourse that has been afforded to Ukraine has been remarkable in its contrast to how other conflicts in the contemporary world have been reported upon. This difference is dangerous for the subtle yet strong racialized norms that it entrenches and reinforces, bringing about a worldview that normalizes violence and suffering for bodies of the Global South, yet treats it as unthinkable for the Global North.


The emphasis on white bodies being the bearers of violence has been a focal point for news reporters when discussing the conflict in Ukraine. NBC’s news correspondent Hallie Cobiella is reported stating, “To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine [...] They’re Christians, they’re white. They’re very similar [to us]”. Another incident occurred when being interviewed by the BBC, David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor spoke: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed”. The emphasis on white bodies, and the idea that ‘they are us’, is a form of cultural violence. This is because it contributes to the long standing idea that the concept of a refugee is very much codified as bodies from the Global South, and so the idea that this conflict is of greater concern as it is impacting the citizens of the Global North creates a racialized divide, one which normalizes the suffering for one part of the world, and completely unthinkable for another.


Despite the emphasis on white bodies being the bearers of violence, another difference in the forms of reporting being witnessed is the absence of the ‘aesthetic of suffering’. Mariam and Irisa write that graphic images from the Global South: “produce our reality and inform our perception that the ‘norm’ for certain communities is that they are already prone to violence or suffering”, and that in comparison, “the majority of depictions we see of Western communities affected by disasters, showcase resilience and not pitiful victims, showing portraits of them when they were alive and happy rather than of their death”. Indeed, it is the same for the citizens of Ukraine. They have been reported as a nation resilient to invasion, people with agency, with a need for support and resources, but no need for saviorism as they are not bodies to be acted ‘upon’. Again, this contributes to an idea that people in one part of the world are agents resilient to conflict, whilst the nameless in another part are prone to suffering as part of their plight - creating a further divide in the international order.


Such discourse is not only powerful in narrative; it produces tangible consequences. Reports emerged that whilst citizens were leaving the borders to seek refuge in another country, those of black ancestry were being denied safe passage to leave. Alexander Orah was asked to leave a train leaving for Poland, as it was supposedly for “Ukrainians only”. If the discourse of reporting is not enough to demonstrate the North-South divide, then such occurrences can be used as the point in action, where in this ‘exceptional war’, the exceptional bodies are being treated as more important than the bodies that are deemed typical of standard ‘refugee-ism’. Such codification of bodies is cultural violence as it normalizes through rhetoric other forms of violence, be they structural or physical. It leads to inequality and a reduction in empathy as inhabitants across borders accept violence against bodies in the Global South as novel. Most importantly, it is extremely divisive, leading to a world of binary opinions that distract from being able to help all bodies that need it.


Highlighting how the discursive narrative around Ukraine has contributed to violence allows us to become more aware of international divisionary biases and of avenues to act against them.


Firstly, there is a need to continue to be vocal in supporting fights against structural injustice. Previous social media activism that has complemented movements such as Palestine, Black Lives Matter, or #MeToo, has demonstrated what Edward Said termed the “permission to narrate”, meaning that social media has enabled the circumventing of mainstream media outlets, and so those who are suffering injustice and conflict are able to now exercise agency with voice, rather than being continued to be spoken ‘for’ as normalized bodies of suffering. Borders exist in narrative, so changing narrative by highlighting double standards, and bringing agency enables us to pull those borders down and move towards equality for all.


Secondly, by being more informed of a wider context and understanding the historical causes for why war might happen ‘over there’ and seems novel ‘over here’, we can better understand the international system and the structural violence it continues to organize. Such knowledge thus opens avenues for de-normalizing conflict in certain regions, whilst also condemning conflict in ANY region, on any peoples.


The immediate outpouring of support for Ukrainians from the international community is a wonderful example of humanity. From military assistance to housing refugees, the circumstances are demonstrating that avenues do exist to help those in need, and such support can and should continue as necessary. One form of assistance has been the booking of Airbnb’s without travel by international influencers, as a means to get money into the hands of Ukrainians as fast as possible. In a wider context, we can also use this as a pivotal moment to critically confront our bias, in order to fight for equitable humanitarian responses across the international sphere. The evidence of humanitarianism in Ukraine can aid us in moving towards a world of peace where structural hierarchy does not continue to contribute to an escalating and discontented international order that normalizes and legitimizes warfare through extreme divisiveness. Our hearts should be with the Ukrainians and also with all those who have to, and continue to, resist violent conflict.

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