• IOWA Project

Subverting Racial Hierarchies in Ukraine and All Areas of Life

Updated: Apr 1

By Yehudah Webster


As people in Ukraine continue to resist and flee from the horrors of the Russian invasion, there have been many inspiring stories of courage and support, as well as alarming reports of racist exclusion, discrimination, and abuse of African students and other POC immigrants also striving to escape to safety. Over 4 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine, including People of Color and Africans living, working and/or studying there. And yet, in the midst of this mad dash to flee a shared source of violence and suffering, POC and Africans are also up against the racist hierarchies of power, value and care, prioritizing white people and their needs first, Black/African heritage people and our needs last, with other POC somewhere in between.


Since the start of the conflict, African immigrants and other POC in the Ukraine have been sharing accounts of racism that’s hindered or blocked their ability to escape to safety. Under the hashtag, #AfricansinUkraine, you’ll find accounts of POC/Africans waiting in frigid cold lines for hours to days while white counterparts skipped ahead to safety; videos of officials dragging POC/Africans off trains to make space for white Ukrainians; and reports of physical and verbal assault from border officials in Ukraine and neighboring European countries. Jessica Orakpo, a Nigerian medical student studying in the Ukraine, shared with the BBC that she and other Africans were told by officials that organized transportation was for “only Ukranaians, that’s all, and that if you’re Black, you should walk'' the 8 hours to the border instead of taking the short bus ride available to others. Pets were even allowed entry on buses alongside their Ukrainian owners before Black and Brown folks. Indeed, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, Filippo Grandi, affirmed in early March that "there are instances" of differentiation of treatment at the borders based on race.


This racist “differentiation of treatment” reflects the global difference in deep concern and care in response to the war in Ukraine, a country with predominantly European/white citizens, versus the lack of global concern and care applied to recent violent and deadly conflicts in majority Black/African countries, i.e. the civil war in Ethiopia or the Saudi-backed war in Yemen. These conflicts in Africa and the racist discrimination in Ukraine are all examples of the intersecting institutional and interpersonal manifestations of racist hiearchies of power, value and care that place white people and their needs first at the expense and oppression of others, and the needs and care of Black/African heritage folks last or not at all. This racist hierarchy of care has been expressed by some European/white people, naming openly that the war in Ukraine is devastating at least in part because of its impact on other white people with “blue eyes and blond hair.”


As we live into a personal/communal/global practice that concretely cares for white people over others, we become active perpetrators of racist hiearchies that contribute to a racist system of exploitation, dehumanization, and disregard of Black and Brown bodies and our needs. In all areas of life, including the case of people fleeing Ukraine, we must ensure that our care is not at the expense of others as racist hierarchies predicate.


To be a holy light to the world, we must hold the complexity of the moment and not just care for some hierarchically, but care for everyone in a balance that moves us all closer to liberation.

As change makers, our work of changing systems must also include challenging and subverting racist hierarchies of power, value and care within ourselves and others. We do that by investing more energy and resources in communities that historically and currently receive the least societal concrete care, bringing it into balance with all other areas of care in life. We do this best by living a balance of care: care for self; care for others - in this case fellow Black/African heritage folks; care for opponents; and a connection with YHWH/The Living Presence to ground and anchor this balanced approach to concrete care.


Unsurprisingly, Black women experiencing and bearing witness to racist hiearchies of power, value and care playing out in the Ukraine, have led the fight in challenging and subverting these racist hierarchies through organizing concrete care for the Black/African heritage and other POC folks stranded in war-torn Ukraine. Korrine Sky, a Black British/Zimbabwean medical student who also experienced egregious racism when leaving the Ukraine, amplified the “crying out for help” of other Africans, and connected with fellow Black organizers, Tokunbo Koiki and Particia Daley, to provide relief efforts directly to Black/African heritage folks and “rescue Black lives.” They swiftly formed a global campaign and organization, Black Women for Black Lives, which has since raised nearly $304,000 in funds, liaising with folks on the ground and disbursing resources to support the overall evacuation of Black folks from Ukraine. Baruch HaShem they have not been alone in this effort and have been joined by other grassroots efforts, i.e, the Global Black Coalition, a collective of organizations and Black activists and leaders.


In just a couple of weeks we’ll be celebrating and commemorating our ancestors’ liberation from oppression. Even as refugees, we are commanded to not oppress the other because we too were oppressed, a law we receive 36 times throughout the Torah. Despite the need to focus on our own survival, the Torah commands us to not oppress strangers who live with you, but rather to regard the other “as one of your citizens; you shall love them (him) as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I YHWH am your Elohim” (Vayikra 19:33-34). This is what it means to be in a balance of care. Even as we seek escape from injustice and oppression, it must not be at the expense and oppression of others. To be a holy light to the world, we must hold the complexity of the moment and not just care for some hierarchically, but care for everyone in a balance that moves us all closer to liberation. As we approach Pesach, it's incumbent on us to also remember the central commandment to not oppress the other. To in fact care for the other as we would care for ourselves.


I invite you to join me in subverting racial hierarchies in ourselves and others by investing time and financial resources in concretely caring for the Black/African heritage and POC folks neglected in Ukraine by joining the efforts of the Global Black Coalition and/or Black Women for Black Lives.


If you’re ready to build a personal and communal practice of a balance of care to continuously challenge and subvert implicit and internalized racism in and ourselves and others, then please be sure to join us next month for our Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out webinar: Closing the Empathy Gap with Compassionate Care.


Wishing us all a meaningful, liberatory, and agitational Pesach ripe with growth, challenge and taking concrete action to subvert racist hierarchies of power, value and care in ourselves and our communities.


B’shalom,

Yehudah


*This article and the balance of care framework is inspired by Valarie Kaur's Revolutionary Love and the spiritual practice of Mussar.