Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve been bombarded with news coverage of Russia’s military escalation against Ukraine.
Why should Black folks care about any of this?
Because we don’t live in the world by ourselves, and our skin color doesn’t protect us from the impact of global events. By now, you should be well aware of the Kremlin’s attempts to sway Black voters via disinformation in the 2016 election and the Kremlin’s growing influence in Africa, which isn’t to benefit the people of the continent. (Sure, America sucks at engaging Africa, too. But, I’m not defending America. I’m raising awareness about Russia’s shenanigans.)
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, told me recently that Putin sees things very much through an ethnic lens. When he and President Joe Biden were meeting with him about Russia’s 2008 attack against Georgia, Putin stared intensely into their eyes and ran his finger down the side of his face and said, “‘You know what’s wrong with you Americans? You look at us and assume we think like you—and we don’t.’”
To McFaul, that was a clear message that “We are Slavs, not white people.”
Like America, Russia is a settler-colonial state and we as Black folks need to understand how leaders of such states operate because we aren’t that far behind when it comes to being on the lower end of the totem pole of racial oppression. Yes, in America, Ukrainians are white. But over here, many of my Ukrainian friends tell me Putin and Russians who think like him view them as white trash. Many Ukrainians very much see themselves through the lens of race when it comes to Putin’s revisionism of their shared history. In a 5,000-word essay last summer full of ahistorical claims, Putin argued that Ukrainians and Russians are one while ignoring Joseph Stalin’s early 1930s Holodomor, which many scholars claim was a deliberate, government famine to publish Ukrainians fighting for independence against the Soviet state. Estimates vary but the death toll tallies in the millions.
Tens of thousands of foreign students study here and many of them come from Africa, mainly Nigerians. Any attack would put them in a precarious position, as many do not have paperwork to enter Europe. There is also a native-born Black Ukrainian population in this country. There is no census data on their numbers, but figures range from thousands to tens of thousands. It is impossible to know without data, but it is not uncommon to see Black folks walking around Kyiv speaking fluent Russian or Ukrainian and walking with their white family members. A friend of mine, a Black Ukrainian, worries about a Russian invasion and shared with me that, while she is proud to be Black, she feels the trauma of the Kremlin’s aggression as much as any white Ukrainian.
Anytime I am asked why Black people should care about anything that is considered non-Black, I refer them to Malcolm X’s call to condemn the U.S. at the United Nations for its abuses against Black Americans. Even a highly pro-Black activist like Malcolm knew the power of solidarity.
I suggest we follow his lead as it pertains to Ukraine because colonial conquest of any nation should alarm us all—be it by Russia or even our native United States.