Posted on March 15, 2022

The Invasion of Ukraine and the Moral Conflict of Sympathizing While Black

Nicole Phillip, The Week, March 6, 2022

Like other devastating turning points in history, many of us likely remember how and where we heard last week’s harrowing news: After weeks of rising tensions, Russia had invaded Ukraine.

As we read the updates from the comfort of our relatively peaceful countries, we’ve experienced these same feelings of sorrow, fear, and sometimes guilt before. But there’s another feeling that members of marginalized ethnic and racial groups often experience when Western and other industrialized countries face turmoil: cognitive dissonance.

After all, how does one reconcile supporting a nation in anguish with the knowledge that the same nation exacts harm against you?

Even in times of crisis, sometimes the oppressed can also be the oppressor. In the immediate, chaotic aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the United Nations admitted that non-Europeans living in Ukraine experienced “different treatment” by military officers, border guards, and groups of civilians while trying to flee the country, according to Filippo Grandi, the organization’s High Commissioner for Refugees. While Ukraine was certainly not a racial utopia before Russia’s invasion, it’s disheartening to know that even in the midst of devastation, anti-Black racism can remain strong.


While people scramble out of the country, the Ukrainian military divided people into groups of white and non-white, one Afro-Ukranian resident alleged. {snip}


The people of Ukraine need help, resources, prayers, and support; like all humans in crisis, they unequivocally deserve it. And that’s true even if some of their compatriots, soldiers, and officials deny the same care to Black people.

But that denial makes solidarity truly difficult for many Black people and people of color. As Dr. Ayoade Alakija, the World Health Organization special envoy for the ACT-Accelerator, explained on Twitter, “Black Africans are being treated with racism and contempt in Ukraine [and] Poland. [The] West cannot ask African nations to stand in solidarity with them if they cannot display basic respect for us even in a time of war.”


But for people of color, particularly Black people, experiencing crises like this is never that morally simple. There’s a real ethical quandary here. Blanket demands to stand up for other people — as is so often and so carelessly expected of the Black community, which in America is broadly held to Martin Luther King Jr.’s standards of nonviolence and forgiveness — can feel deeply unfair, particularly for those personally affected by these acts of racism.

{snip} But if you see Black people question or even falter in their support for Ukraine, ask yourself what you’d feel in our place.