Not only has the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought to light the awful tragedies that accompany armed conflict, but the subsequent refugee crisis has also uncovered deeply seated racism in the country.
Reporters have documented dehumanizing treatment against international students from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East in Ukraine. This treatment also extended to racialized permanent residents of Ukraine, including a long-time practising Nigerian doctor.
While white women and children were given priority on vehicles departing the country, African women were barred from trains leaving Kyiv even though there were empty seats.
These incidents demonstrate a racist logic that positions some people as vulnerable, and others as beyond the realm of moral obligation to receive protection. Black and racialized people, it seems, are not as deserving of care.
As Black Studies researchers in the field of education, we study how colonialism and anti-Blackness shape what we know. Although some have been shocked by these reports, we are not surprised.
The contradictions inherent in the incidents of racism occurring in Ukraine are part of a long legacy of the exclusive ways the West defines who counts as human.
Appalled, but not surprised
The liberal notion of western society was forged during the 15th-19th centuries when Africans were enslaved across the West. Because of this, liberal conceptions of justice do not consider Indigenous, Black and racialized persons to be on the same level as white Europeans.
For example, the French Revolution pursued the values of liberté, egalité, fraternité even while the French fought to uphold Black enslavement in Haiti (then known as Saint Domingue).
Similarly, the American constitution declared that “all men are created equal” while declaring that Black persons counted as only three-fifths of a person.
The 1948 UN Declaration of human rights was created to contest Nazism and anti-semitism, but did not seek to redress centuries of colonialism of racialized people. Author and poet Aimé Césaire pointed out: “Europeans tolerated Nazism before it was inflicted on them… because until then, it had been applied only to non-European people.”
Different levels of ‘human’
Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter explores the contradictions within our working definitions of what it means to be human. She explains that since the rise of Renaissance Humanism and the spread of colonialism, western origin stories have used a binary opposition between an ideal Human and a “dysselected other,” where the “other” is Black, Indigenous or racialized.
Beginning in the 15th century, when Europeans began colonizing the Americas, European intellectuals introduced an origin story that considered rationality the defining characteristic of being human.
In contrast, they framed Indigenous people in the Americas, and Africans everywhere, as inherently lacking rationality, marking them as less than fully human. This logic justified European colonialism and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Africans and their descendants would be viewed as enslaveable by nature, supposedly the most lacking in reason.
Around the 18th century, a revised origin story placed all human groups in a supposed evolutionary hierarchy in which white people were seen as the pinnacle of human development.
All these origin stories have one thing in common: they require the dehumanization of non-white, and especially Black, people. The idea of Black humanity becomes an oxymoron.
As the crisis in Ukraine shows, this continues today, allowing some human beings to be disregarded as what Frantz Fanon calls “les damnés.” The racist behaviour at both individual and state levels is rooted in longstanding origin stories.
The boundary between ‘humans’ and others
The prioritization of some people over others, based on racist logic, is a result of these origin stories.
Some reporters have expressed disbelief that a refugee crisis could occur in Europe among people “so like us.”
White Ukrainian refugees are treated differently than racialized refugees from places like South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and Haiti.
For example, Canada has accepted the same number of refugees from Ukraine in the last three months as from Afghanistan over the past year, despite longstanding promises to accept Afghan refugees.
European countries that originally resisted admitting racialized refugees have now felt moved to provide refuge for their fellow white Europeans.
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The imagined racial boundary between selected and dysselected explains this difference in treatment. This boundary is so entrenched, that even when racism is pointed out, it is difficult for many to avoid.
When asked about the reports of racism, Ukraine ambassador to the United Kingdom Vadym Prystaiko said:
“Maybe we will put all foreigners in some other place so they won’t be visible… And (then) there won’t be conflict with Ukrainians trying to flee in the same direction.”
A vision of ‘the human’ for all humans
Genuine change begins with a re-imagined notion of the human. Wynter advocates for the rupture of these definitions of the “human” and replacing them with a revolutionary definition that values all humans.
Wynter also says that a revolutionary notion of the human is best crafted by those who most experience the discrepancy between the current definition of the “human” and their own humanity.
Indeed, throughout history, Black freedom movements have been essential to challenging dehumanizing conditions. They have recognized the futility of depending on western systems to correct themselves since they are founded on anti-Blackness.
In this spirit, we pose these questions for consideration:
- What does it mean to be human, and what will it take for us to recognize everyone’s humanity, vulnerability and dignity without condition?
- What might be required to make ostensible spaces of refuge into true refuge for everyone?
- How might the experiences of Black and racialized persons in this crisis be embraced as the foundation for necessary policy change?
- What can we learn from Black Studies and Black liberation struggles toward crafting a vision of the “human” in which all humans count?
Philip S. S. Howard, Assistant Professor of Education, McGill University; Bryan Chan Yen Johnson, Faculty Lecturer, School of Continuing Studies, McGill University, and Kevin Ah-Sen, PhD Student in Education, McGill University