Racism on the Ukrainian/Polish Border

Photo of train at the Przemysl Glowny station in Poland. The train is behind a cyclone fence, and people can be seen on the train. The Przemysl Glowny sign is visible.
Photo by Mirek Pruchnicki from Wikimedia Commons.

I was disgusted, but not entirely shocked 

The racist treatment of people of color trying to flee the Russian terror has received much attention as of late—shocking and disappointing the world.

What’s going on?

When CNN initially covered incidents of racism on the Ukrainian/Polish border a few days into the Russian invasion, the first thing I noticed was the men in the crowd. It confused me, since it had been announced that all men between 18 and 60 were to remain in Ukraine to defend the country. Then it hit me—they were men of color: two Pakistanis and an African. Seeing them get passed over in favor of women and children did not initially offend me, but when I saw a Black woman and her baby get rejected, I became angry. 

My mind began running in circles. I was confused. When did black and brown people come to Ukraine and how long have they been there? The news mentioned that immigrants were coming from South Asia and Africa to attend medical schools in Ukraine, where classes were commonly taught in English. Patrick Esugunum, “who works for an organisation that assists West African students wanting to study in Ukraine,” notes that “Ukrainian degrees are widely recognized and offer a high standard of education” (BBC). Since the Soviet era, foreign students have been encouraged to study in Russia and Ukraine; most are from India, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Nigeria. Okay, that explained why people of color were in a historically white country. I also understood why those young men were leaving the war zone; it was not their fight to die for.

I saw an update to the situation on the CBS Weekend News on March 13. African, Asian, and other foreign students were told “white people first” and “this is not free for you” when they tried to enter Poland. The news stated that “racial discrimination is not new” and referenced the crisis on the Polish/Belorussian border when Syrian refugees tried to enter Poland after being lured to the border by Belorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in November 2021. The Bulgarian prime minister noted that “these are not the refugees we are used to” when referring to the educated African and South Asian refugee students attempting to leave Ukraine. By that time, Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, had established an emergency hotline to assist foreigners attempting to leave Ukraine. Once outside Ukraine, foreign refugees were given 30 days to move to another country or return to their home nation. CBS interviewed Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Ph.D. student and expert on race and foreign policy in the former Soviet republics. She lived in Ukraine in 2013 and said that racism in Ukraine is not new, it has just been exacerbated by the war. CBS went on to note that this crisis at the border is being used to “spread disinformation” by the Russian government.

Witnessing racism first-hand in Kyiv

As someone who spent three weeks in Ukraine in 2002 as part of a student/teacher exchange program hosted by the U.S. State Department, I was surprised to see any people of color in Ukraine. One of the nine students I took to Ukraine was an African American girl. Most of our trip was spent in Odessa, which being a port city had more diversity than the rest of the country. Still, there were few people of color in Odessa. Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, was significantly less diverse. Aside from my student, we only saw one other Black person in the three days we were there, an American businessman about 35 years old.

My student endured some disturbing incidents in Ukraine. On multiple occasions, individuals walked up to her and called her the “N” word. Some men approached her with interest that made me uncomfortable; they were clearly attracted to her. One man explained that he had spent time in New Jersey and wanted to chat her up. Fortunately, my student had the maturity and self-assurance to deal with the awkward situations that ensued over the three weeks we were there. I was nervous for her, but she was always under the supervision of our host teachers or her host family, so fortunately nothing terrible occurred. We had a few conversations over the three weeks to sort out what she was experiencing. To be clear, most all of the Ukrainians we encountered on our trip were wonderful people who treated my African American student with the same respect as my white students.

Ukraine is a white nation

All of Eastern Europe is white. Up until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, most Eastern Europeans had never seen a Black person in their lives. Even now, I suspect that most Ukrainians outside of Odessa, Kyiv, and other major cities where a medical school exists have still never encountered a black or brown person. They are isolated and insulated. The family I lived with for three weeks was upper middle class. The father was a dentist, and they lived in a private home, not the multistory apartment buildings that are commonly shown being bombed by the Russians. The Ukrainian students hosting our group joked about “villagers” more than once. I got the impression that rural people whose families had lived in the same village for centuries were still very traditional in 2002. Watching the blatant discrimination at the Ukrainian/Polish border, I theorized that the worst of it was coming from people with little or no exposure to people of color. 

Racism is a learned mindset 

Parents teach their children to hate and to fear, and it’s easier to fear people with whom you’ve had little or no exposure. For example, in 1930s Germany, antisemitism was highest in rural areas and small towns where there were no Jews. Urban Germans had Jewish neighbors, frequented Jewish businesses, and in many cases had relatives who married Jews. They generally did not buy into the vile propaganda. Similarly, Ukrainians who have never interacted with someone from Africa or South Asia are more likely to have a biased and fearful view.

Racism toward Africans and South Asians attempting to flee Ukraine, along with the existence of white supremacist groups in the Ukrainian resistance forces, has prompted many Americans to withdraw their support for Ukraine in Putin’s war. Just like in the United States and the rest of Europe, there are white supremacists in Ukraine, but they are not the majority of the population, nor are they supported by most citizens. As the granddaughter of Jews who emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1911 to flee antisemitism, I am acutely aware of the evils of white supremacy. Jews were the original “outsiders” in Eastern Europe and the historic target of hatred, along with the Roma (Gypsies). Overall, the same people who hate Blacks and other people of color hate Jews. I get it.

American vs. Ukrainian racism 

The United States was founded on racial diversity—and racism. Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations have only been exposed to significant diversity for 30 years, with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. All things considered, that is a very short period of time. I am not excusing the racist behavior we have all recently witnessed in Ukraine (and Poland), rather my goal is to supply some context to the ugliness that occurred at the border. Given that people of color have only been in urban Ukraine for 30 years, it will take some time for rural Ukrainians to acclimate to their new world by overcoming their prejudice, and unfortunately, some Ukrainians—like some Americans—will never break free of their notions of white supremacy. 

A plea to my readers

Please don’t hate all Ukrainians for the terrible behavior of some desperate people during the worst time of their lives. Above all, don’t side with the Russians in this conflict, because when it comes to racism and diversity, they are no more enlightened than the Ukrainians. Plus, Russia is the villain in this conflict, not just for Ukraine, but for the world given their nuclear stockpile that Vladimir Putin has threatened to use.

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