When immigration no longer a wedge issue: Ukrainian refugees and journalistic humanization of white plight
Mar 29, 2022 - 11:00 AM
ISTANBUL (AA) – Interlocked between imperial interests, Ukraine occupies unenviable geography. It stands between the revitalized Russian empire and the seductive draw of Europe, pulled westward by an affinity for democracy that spurred the Russian invasion of late February that spiraled it into war.
Many Ukrainians stayed, stood against the Russian storm, and fought as media outlets showcased. The courageous resistance was embodied by the nation’s charismatic president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who traded his tailored suits for army green fatigues. The visuals of millions of Ukrainian refugees flowing out of Kyiv and Lviv, and cities and villages beyond and in between, were intercut with war theatre scenes, in real-time, across television and handheld displays.
Writing for the Washington Post in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, I observed: “Instantly, and rightfully, the world lauded Ukrainians brandishing Molotov cocktails and forming citizen-soldier legions as “freedom fighters.” The images of middle-aged women brandishing rifles, former heavyweight champions sacrificing luxury for love of the land, and a president rebuffing offers of evacuation and proclaiming “this is the last time you might see me alive,” powered a global narrative of good against evil; of David versus Goliath.”
Ukrainians are ‘real’ refugees, why not Muslims or Africans?
The grand narrative of the besieged Ukrainian underdog was indelible and undeniable. It shaped the chorus of western media support for the Ukrainian resistance and the millions of refugees flooding neighboring nations and Europe and dissolved traditional divides on immigration across the continent and in the United States. Immigration was no longer a wedge issue. At least, not for Ukrainians.
However, it remained virulently divisive when the refugees were Arabs or Muslims, Black or Brown immigrants washed from their homelands by western war or economic despair.
The stunning double standards were on full display in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, the thick of the wartime stages that followed. Media outlets across the United States and Europe and their respective political spectrums humanized the plight of Ukrainian refugees. Meticulous vignettes about real people packing their bags and fleeing their homeland powerfully connected the refugee crisis with viewing audiences worldwide. Ukrainian refugees had real names and stories, with real children and real lives left behind for an uncertain future in a foreign land far from home.
Stories of non-white refugees often untold
These were the stories untold and unpublished about non-white refugee populations. Millions of Syrian refugees remained faceless and flatly represented, if at all covered by media outlets, despite their massive number and harrowing struggles across countries and continents. Bereft of the humanizing tales that invite humanitarian support and the prospect of policy support, the bulk of western media coverage devoted to Syrian refugees centers on xenophobia or the Islamophobic resistance of populist politicians and pundits.
The racial juxtaposition could not be any clearer and is often platformed by the very media outlets that make human appeals for Ukrainian refugees. While Syrian and Afghan refugees long between statelessness and media silence, outlets like France 24 tend only to make mention of them in relation to the far-right populism sweeping through the nation.
In the midst of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the French news outlet finally ran a story that involved “Arab refugees.” However, it did not specify which ones. Nor did it extend the journalistic care or humanizing storytelling given to Ukrainian refugees. Rather, it referred to them as an indistinguishable monolith, tethered to the hateful voice of far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who said, “If they [Ukrainian refugees] have ties to France, if they have family in France… let’s give them visas.”
Zemmour then compared them and continued about “Arab or Muslim immigrants,” stating, “There are people who are like us and people who unlike us. Everybody now understands that Arab or Muslim immigrants are too unlike us and that it is harder and harder to integrate them.”
For media outlets, mention of “Muslim immigrants” is relegated to the reoccurring theme of inassimilable aliens – not real humans in need of a safe haven.
Some are ‘worthy subjects’ for western media, others not
On the one hand, the impulse to cover and call out the racial double standards is commendable. But, it always stops there for Arab and African, Black and Muslim refugees. There has been no shortage of stories  comparing the rush of love directed at Ukrainian refugees to the xenophobia unleashed against non-white immigrants, by European and American media outlets. However, this coverage is not followed up by what Afghan, Syria, and Rohingya refugees need — the humanizing tales and layered storytelling that is faithfully extended to Ukrainians.
Non-white refugees do not simply exist to evidence racism in refugee resettlement and immigration. Nor are they a homogenous bloc that only warrants reference to gratify the liberal sensibilities of journalists, or entire media outlets, keen on representing themselves as non-racists. Particularly when their media coverage, or lack thereof, shows otherwise.
The power of whiteness is most luridly on display within the media. Its gatekeepers, in western nations, are overwhelmingly white, and naturally, their journalistic lens sees the world through its exclusionary contours.
The racism coming from the mouths of populists and pundits regarding Ukraine found unison among liberal and centrist media voices.
Charlie D’Agata, of CBS News, cried  on air, “[Ukraine] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose these words carefully – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
His message was clear. “European” meant “white,” which together stood for everything wholly, holy and “relatively” civilized. Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, the two nations were decimated by two decades of American war and terror, which stood as bastions of incivility, extremism, and forever war. Immigrants fleeing these nations, and scores of non-white societies decimated by war carried the threat of terror with them. Stained with this stigma and lacking the whiteness carried by Ukrainian refugees, they were cast as undesirables by the very nations that opened their borders and arms to the blue-eyed and blond-haired victims of the Russian siege. Then, cast as unworthy subjects of news stories that the Ukrainian refugees received by endless video reel and newsprint.
Media ethics should be revised
Yellow journalists have always pervaded the media. But even more influential is the imprint of whiteness, which skews journalistic ethics and uplifts the stories of those that look like the people who hold power, believe like them, and share kindred traditions. The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalist Association swiftly condemned the racism pervading media coverage of Ukraine and the neglect of non-white refugee populations in the days after the Russian invasion.
It maintained through  a formal statement that “Newsrooms must not make comparisons that weigh the significance or imply justification of one conflict over another — civilian casualties and displacement in other countries are equally as abhorrent as they are in Ukraine.”
Media ethics are built upon the cornerstone of fair, balanced, and objective coverage. A mission marred by the heavy hand of whiteness, within newsrooms and more intrusively on the very screens that breathe life into humanity, and deliver aid to struggle.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Anadolu Agency.