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Racism in Western reporting of the Ukraine war. How should we respond?

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Racism in Western reporting of the Ukraine war. How should we respond?

Some Western media commentators have expressed surprise that the death and destruction normally reserved for the non-White world should be taking place in ‘civilised’ Europe. For Cesar Augusto Mba Abogo, the question is how should we respond?

Yesterday I had a discussion with ‘Eyu’, the fictitious name under which I disguise a famed Nigerian communication specialist with whom I very rarely disagree. Our conversations, far from anger, heat and division, often concludes in awe, surprise and curiosity.

It was an interesting conversation that reminded me that each of us has their own ‘rider’ and their own ‘elephant’.

According to American social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, the ‘rider’ is our conscious reasoning, that stream of words and images of which we are fully aware; while the ‘elephant’ is the mental processes that occur outside our conscious boundary but which in fact control most of our behavior. The rider occupies 1% of our mind and the elephant occupies 99%.

As people we are divided by many things: religion, politics, economics, sports, etc. Too many things if you ask me. Some important. Some not.

We are not always in absolute control of what we think or say or do. By consciously or unconsciously putting ourselves against something or for something, prevents the truth from appearing clearly before us most of the times we: it is an unfortunate characteristic of our minds but it could hardly be otherwise because we are moral beings.

Racism in reporting of the Ukraine war

The subject of the discussion between ‘Eyu’ and myself and was the ongoing war between two nations twinned by history and culture that is being waged on Ukrainian soil. Not the war itself but the spillover effects of this war.

I am talking about subtle and not so subtle racism reflected in commentaries by politicians and the media. I am talking specifically about the racist humiliation which some media – unfortunately too many – have subjected Africans and people of African descent, Middle Easterners and other peoples.

Eyu shared his indignation with me. and he sent  me a battery of media coverage of the war in Ukraine in which journalists from various media, men and women, microphone in hand and in front of the camera, did not hesitate to express their surprise, indignation, frustration, sense of helpless and outrage that they were witnessing the suffering of White people, blue-eyed and blond Europeans, in a conflict.

But they did not stay only there – they also stated that this was to be expected in other latitudes, which they did not hesitate to point out so that viewers, in case they had any doubts, could look at the world map and know for which places and human beings the suffering caused by war should be reserved.

Invariably these were places populated by the non-White segments of the world’s population – Africa, the Middle East and even Asia – places these commentators regarded as less ‘civilised’ than Europe.

One of the journalists, after giving precise geographical references and defining the phenotype of the people that the viewer should expect to see suffering the horrors of the inhumanity of war, did not hesitate to say that he was choosing his words “carefully”.

Trevor Noah asked the question for many: “that was you choosing your words carefully? That was the careful version? So, what were you gonna say if you weren’t choosing your words carefully?”.

At the end of the battery of audiovisual messages, Eyu sent me a message saying: “Shame on them.”

Who should be ashamed?

I had already seen the videos. I responded immediately: “Shame on us!” And that was the crux of the debate with Eyu. The question is, whose racial shame, is it? The journalists in the West whose overt racist vexations we have witnessed? Or, is it ours – the so called “Darkies?”

I said to Eyu that we, the vexed, should focus more on our shame, the shame that now and suddenly, we seem to be noticing and coming to terms with the media’s narrative on where the locus of violence should be situated.

It was there in full view before the Ukrainian war and it will continue after the war. The war on Ukrainian soil has only been an excuse for it to surface. And so naturally, all of us, darkies and non-darkies alike, could not help but say in a very African-American tone, à la humorist Dave Chappelle, “Goshhhhh that was racist!”

The racist coverage of the Ukrainian war by some media and some journalists, too many to be ignored, forces us to take a stand and to be indignant at the same time.

However, my opinion, and this is what I conveyed to Eyu, is that beyond indignation what we really need to do is to take a step back, apply some moral psychology and analyse the situation we are in.

It is this: the media and journalists who have so outraged us, have their riders and elephants. Even if they wanted to, they cannot control their racism. That framing of the mind is more than four centuries old. I am convinced that none of the journalists we have seen say in private to themselves that they are racist. But many of them are. That fact is irrefutable.

Not even a mind devoid of light would argue that the world we inhabit and which inhabits us is not inextricably linked to racism.

Now, the dilemma for us is, as the Afro-Spanish humorist Asari Bibang said lucidly in a tweet, “only the black identifies with the black, with the white we all suffer, because they have made us all sensitive to their pain, which is human pain. A humanity in which we all want to be seen”.

The Black referred to in Asari Bibang’s tweet can be read as Trevor Noah’s “Darkies” or Ava Duvernay’s “underestimated and overlooked outcast” in the sublime series titled Collin in Black and White.

Some infamous media and infamous journalists have reminded us once again these days that they are immune to our pain.

Our shame is that we were so surprised. And this is where the framing effect comes in.

The idea is very simple and fits well with the rider and the elephant we all have in our minds. Several media and journalists who have outraged us, when speaking or writing, consciously or unconsciously, have a framing. And that frame, can in many respects be racist, sexist and whatever else you want to add.

We should, without passion and applying moral psychology, protect ourselves from the most pernicious features of that frame. The racism that has come to the surface these days is not the most harmful thing: the most harmful thing is how they subtly force us so called “darkies” to look at or think of ourselves.

The blatant racism we have witnessed is only the finger pointing at the moon.

We have a responsibility to free our minds from this framing. If we do not, the challenges facing our continent and other developing countries, as we begin this third year of Covid-19, will be very difficult to overcome.

The great obstacle to the realisation of our potential is this psychological framework. My recommendation? Let us take seriously, very seriously, the words spoken by Bob Marley more than four decades ago – “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind.”

We are sensitive to the pain of all those who suffer the consequences of war because we have the capacity to recognise ourselves in the humanity of those who do not look like us. We should not lose sleep over the fact that some media and journalists, in a gesture of unusual sincerity, tell us to our face that they do not recognise our humanity as this is not the greatest harm they do to us.

Eyu answered me by saying: “True”.

Cesar Augusto Mba Abogo is the former Finance Minister of Equatorial Guinea and current country head for the AfDB in Mozambique.

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