Western rhetoric may rightly be considered as clever propaganda to halt Russian atrocities in Ukraine, but such discourses can easily take a giant leap forward to amplify the hierarchies, oppression, White supremacy and categories of colonialism.
Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine will come to an end eventually, but the media representations and narratives of the war will remain in our minds for a long time. Three specific and related dimensions of ideological discourse are evident in the Western media representation of Ukraine, and need to be deciphered.
The reconfiguration of Whiteness
The Western media and politicians have been accused of double standards in portraying and responding to the war in Ukraine. Matters went even further when they basically categorised refugees as “Ukrainians” and “others”. The starkest example was the consistent portrayal of Ukrainian refugees as civilised rather than “uncivilised and backward” refugees from elsewhere, notably the Global South.
What is striking in such representations of the war is the return of what is, in effect, blatant white supremacy within mainstream politics. It can be even said that the myths of modernity have been reinforced, and European-ness — a euphemism for Whiteness — has been reconfigured as a direct result of the war in Ukraine. The racial framing, the comparison of the war with other regions such as Syria or Afghanistan, and Ukrainians as European refugees compared with other refugees are clear examples of such a reconfiguration process.
With this, Western Europe — aka white supremacy — is once again positioning itself at the centre of the world and humanity. It does this not only through a disproportionately high level of news coverage or by saying explicitly that white-skinned subjects are the only ones to be considered to be deserving of “human rights”, but also by rearticulating the categories of civilisation, progress and development.
How, I wonder, do East European Ukrainians, who are usually associated with being backward, lazy and irrational in Western Europe, suddenly acquire such Whiteness so as to be deserving of the rapid political and military response that we have witnessed? We should not forget the previous categorisations of East Europeans as “dirty Whites” and their legacy of being subject to the historical west-centric “inferiorisation“. Geopolitical interests have ensured their label shift to a category of Whiteness while Muslims or others in the Global South (the supposedly sub-human others) are not shifted thus. In other words, in the race regime of Europe, Ukrainians are still culturally, morally and biologically superior to those coming from the Global South. Such discourses do not aim merely to show the compassion of Western Europeans towards their fellows of the same race, but also deliberately normalise the exclusion and oppression of non-European refugees.
Such discourses are so powerful that even the Ukrainian authorities repeat them. In an interview with the BBC, Ukraine’s deputy chief prosecutor emphasised that, “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair” were being killed daily. In another example, Ruslan Stefanchuk, the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament), claimed that, “Ukraine is defending the border of the civilised world.” Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted that, “We need a wall between civilisation and barbarians.” It is no coincidence that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that, “This is a war against Europe,” and “We are the defence between civilisation and Russia.” The implicit discourse being repeated in such narratives is that, unlike Syrians, Afghans or Vietnamese, the Ukrainians are white, and civilised Europeans are being bombed and killed.
This is unsurprising because, as Jozsef Borocz rightly observed, “Whiteness is a system of global privilege making.” Hence, even Ukrainian politicians try to be a part of the global privilege-making of the European race regime to get recognition. The reason is that, “Whiteness is not [only] a question of skin colour… It is a category of power, privilege and (im)morality.”
Such rhetoric may rightly be considered as clever propaganda to halt Russian atrocities. However, these discourses and representations can easily take a giant leap forward to amplify the hierarchies, oppression, White supremacy and categories of colonialism. Consequently, it becomes almost impossible for a European — even for the non-European world — to emphasise a non-European subject morally, politically and emotionally.
In his seminal July 2020 article, Borocz gives as an example something similar to the present situation. He indicates that in the 19th century, it was possible for European people to identify with non-European subjects morally and politically. However, with subsequent colonial narratives, it was no longer possible. Hence, Western media and European political leaders have used the war in Ukraine strategically to reconfigure the idea of Europe as a “heaven” or “the centre of humanity” which is challenged by evil Russians politically and evil Muslims morally. Not surprisingly, the war in Ukraine is compared to the Greek War of Independence, which is deemed transformative in reshaping European political identity.
Commodification of suffering
Turning the war in Ukraine into the commodification of suffering is the second dimension of the Western European media representations of war. What is central in today’s Western media space is the construction of Ukrainians as suffering others with a plethora of pictures of destroyed buildings, dead bodies and fleeing refugees. The intention is not only to inform but to target people’s emotions. This form of mediated intimacy might seem necessary to urge the audience towards a moral response and action. However, this mediated suffering and mediated ethics mostly, as Shani Orgad explains, “is an ethics of click, donate and (possibly) forget it.” As a result, the victims of this mediated ethic are Ukrainians who were left behind at the mercy of donation campaigns on TikTok.
More importantly, such representations function impeccably to hide the real dynamics and the realities on the ground. For instance, the role of the US and the EU in exacerbating the conflict is almost completely absent from the mainstream media agenda. While militarisation was not on the EU agenda previously, several European countries are now investing even more heavily in their militaries. This shift has occurred without public outcry, partly because of the media hype and scaremongering.
The dehumanisation of Russians
The third dimension of the Western media representation is the continuous dehumanisation of the Russians on the international agenda. These representations have led to a wave of “cancel culture” against all things Russian. For instance, Russian artists were banned from international music competitions; concerts featuring Russian music were cancelled; and Russian scientists and academics in the West are living under extreme pressure. Even Russian sportsmen and women have been banned from tournaments. This “cancel culture” has become a farce: Tchaikovsky’s popular 1812 Overture was removed from a concert by the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra, for example; and the University of Florida has decided to remove the Karl Marx Group Study Room nameplate.
All of these linked dimensions of the war in Ukraine are pervasive in Western media and will have an impact for years to come. Such acts and rhetoric will likely make the world dangerous for Russians, just as it has been for Muslims ever since 11 September, 2001.
This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.