Being Black in war-torn Ukraine is a stark reminder of racism

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A hand print with the Ukraine flag colors
Ukraine Hand: image by David Peterson

Russia has invaded Ukraine. The European NATO countries bordering Ukraine have welcomed its traumatized neighbors. However, their open-arm welcome is in stark contrast to the black international students left out in the cold for days where temps dip below freezing without life-saving humanitarian assistance. Ukrainian police and border security officials’ double standard demonstrated that black lives don’t matter.

“As long as you are Black, no one likes you,” told Ethel Ansaeh Otto, told ABC10 TV. Otto is a student from Ghana trying to flee Ukraine like many others. “Mostly, they would consider white people first. White people first, Indian people, Arabic people, before Black people.”

Ukraine is under siege and people are making a frantic dash to NATO countries, like Poland, Hungary, Moldova, and others for safety. Reports of acts of discrimination and violence against Africans have surfaced. Sadly, anti-Black racism will also be part of Ukraine’s war narrative.

A deluge of footage and reports posted on social media shows the mistreatment of Africans: taken off trains and told to walk to the border; chased back from the border in specific countries; hit by police armed with sticks at the same time. While white Ukrainians were allowed entry others are moved to the back of the line and told to wait, or simply flat out told by border officials they were “not tending to Africans.”

With an order that all women and children are allowed to leave Ukraine and head to the border, black mothers, many of whom resided in Ukraine for years, were physically prevented from getting on trains and buses.

Poland should erect America’s classic Jim Crow “white only” placard of the countries welcoming Ukrainians fleeing the war since its double standard toward Africans is on full display. Polish nationalists have attacked Africans and made false claims of theft and crimes. “One group of Nigerian students having been repeatedly refused entry into Poland have concluded they have no choice but to travel again across Ukraine and attempt to exit the country via the border with Hungary.”

To bring global attention to the blatant double standard and inhuman mistreatment of black Africans during this crisis, the hashtag “AfricansInUkraine” is being used on Twitter because mainstream media weren’t initially covering the abuses.

Anti-black racism is global. When wars erupt in European countries, African diaspora blacks have difficulty being safe or getting back to their home country—especially if the country they are in is anti-America.

For example, Russia likes to stoke America’s black/white racial tensions. Many are worried how basketball phenom Brittany Griner will play into it as Russia turns a deaf ear to the world’s plea to stop its war on Ukraine. Griner was arrested in Russia last month for allegedly possessing a vape with cannabis oil. Since January 23, the State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for Russia because of “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and harassment by Russian government security officials, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.” According to Russian authorities, if Griner is found guilty, she could face between 5-10 years. Griner was on her way home when detained at Moscow Airport.

Griner’s troubles, however, remind me of Valaida Snow’s during the Nazi Germany era. Snow played concerts throughout the U.S., Europe, and China. On a return trip to Denmark after headlining at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Snow, the conductor of an all-women’s band, was arrested for allegedly possessing drugs and sent to an Axis internment camp for foreign nationals in Wester-Faengle. After 18 months of imprisonment, Snow was one of the more fortunate blacks to make it out of Nazi Germany, released as an exchange prisoner. She was, however, both psychologically and physically scarred from the ordeal and never fully recovered. Snow attempted to return to performing, but her spark, tragically, was gone.

Russia’s Ukraine invasion helps the world see what our inhumanity toward each other looks like. Also, it highlights the persistence of a global racist social order even in a humanitarian crisis. Everyone has the right to cross international borders during a conflict, notwithstanding their religion or racial identity.