Covering Ukraine: A mean streak of racist exceptionalism

Western moral deformities are on an open display amid the war in Ukraine.

[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]

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.

The warm welcome accorded to white Ukrainian refugees by Ukraine’s neighbours in the European Union is in sharp contrast to the hostile reception experienced by people of other races, from other places, on arrival at Europe’s doorstep. And the Europeans have not been shy about the reasons for the discrepancy.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov declared: “These are not the refugees we are used to. These are people who are Europeans, so we and all other EU countries are ready to welcome them. These are … intelligent people, educated people … So none of the European countries is afraid from the immigrant wave that is about to come.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also said: “We will accept anyone who needs it. The Ukrainian society gets more afraid and stressed. We are ready to accept tens, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.” This is while his country continues to deny entry to mostly Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian migrants and asylum seekers on its border with Belarus.

In the UK, which has contemplated pushing back non-white refugees into the English Channel, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly said Ukrainians can go in visa-free if they already have family there.


It is worth noting that when the journalists shocked by the pristine continent’s descent into the muck which they believe is solely reserved for the rest of humanity, deign to mention the contradictory stances towards asylum seekers, they do so in passing. The word “racism” appears to be studiously avoided.

The irony of European powers taking in refugees created by Russia’s aggression while shutting out those generated by their own invasions and occupations is apparently also lost on them. As is the fact that while Russia is condemned as it should be for invading someone else’s country, the same countries shouting the loudest about international law and the UN Charter and resolutions are happy to ignore Apartheid Israel doing exactly the same thing to Palestinians. No calls for sanctions or isolation there. No celebration of the bravery of people in Gaza and the occupied West Bank in standing up for their freedom against a brutal occupier.

But then again, Israel did not invade a white European country, and we know they think certain behaviour is acceptable, and to be expected, when directed against people on other continents.

In fact, one feels towards the North in much the same way comedian John Oliver responded upon hearing that former US President George W Bush, who ordered the disastrous and murderous invasion of Iraq in 2003, was condemning Putin. “Hold on, George. Not from you,” he retorted on his show, Last Week Tonight. “You are not the guy for this one, because that statement only would have made sense if it ended with ‘Oh s***, now I hear it. Sorry. I’ll shut the f*** up now.”

Rather than shut up, perhaps it would be better if they showed a little awareness and a little consistency.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.