The humanitarian crisis that is developing in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought to the fore the deep-rooted, and often under-reported, issue of anti-black racism in Europe.
Reports from Ukraine and Poland reveal systemic acts of racial discrimination against people of colour, especially those from Africa.
Speaking to CNN from Ukraine’s border with Poland, a Nigerian student Rachel Onyegbule said:
“More than 10 buses came and [left]. We thought after they took all the Ukrainians they would take us, but they told us we had to walk, that there were no more buses. My body was numb from the cold. Ukrainians have been prioritized over Africans – men and women – at every point. There’s no need for us to ask why. We know why.”
There have been accounts of police brutality, organised attacks, denial of services, and many other acts of overt racism. The fact that even war victims have found it in themselves to be racist in the midst of war is a shocking indictment of the hatefulness of human nature.
The legacy of Soviet Russia
Thanks to Soviet Russia and the Cold War, Ukraine is a popular higher learning destination for African students. Before the war, there were 16,000 Africans studying in Ukraine.
They come from all over the continent – Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast, and even Tanzania. These students make up close to one-quarter of all international students in Ukraine.
In the 1920s, the Soviets established institutions for African students. Initially, many of the students went to study in Moscow’s secret International Lenin School (MLSh) and Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), where they received training in Marxism and Leninism, underground work, espionage and guerrilla warfare.
Despite the Soviets’ internationalist outlook, racism was already highly entrenched in Russia. In 1932, black students wrote a letter to the Soviet leadership complaining about the ‘derogatory portrayal – that is, as monkeys – of Negroes in the Soviet Union’. The list of signatories had a pseudonym of a person quite famous in East Africa – Jomo Kenyatta.
In USSR’s attempt to impress international students, many were later directed to a more developed Soviet enclave of Ukraine. At its peak, one-third of African students in the USSR were studying in Ukraine, in cities such as Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Odessa.
Racism on steroids
However, racist experiences persisted. In 1975, Africans in Ukraine protested against their portrayal in the media and against the government’s non-responsiveness to their plight.
Jonas Joseph, a Tanzanian engineer who spent seven years studying in St. Petersburg in Russia, opines told me recently that the race situation has got significantly worse after the fall of the USSR.
“There are many acts of racist violence which are not reported in the media,” Joseph told me. “The government actively suppresses such reports.” He blames Putin: “He is racist. He has actively encouraged racist groups.”
Jonas knows what he is talking about. His body bears marks of racist hate. Twice he was violently attacked in Russia – once he was left for dead, only to wake up in the hospital two days later with several stabbings.
The second time he managed to outrun his attackers after they had beaten him severely. They were caught – but security officers exerted pressure on him to withdraw the case. Or else. He had to.
While many people are familiar with the heinous stories of racial discrimination in America, racism in Europe tends to get much less coverage, until they are amplified by stories such as black footballers missing their penalties, Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oxford, or – in this case, a major war in Europe.
Many European nations have instituted laws that ban racism. As a result, racism has become overt, expressed in undetectable personal prejudices.
Often that translates into denial of opportunities for victims, as it was done so blatantly in Ukraine and Poland.
The modern world has been extremely unkind to people of black skin. But it has not always been this way.
The Greek experience
When the ancient Greeks infamously characterised ‘others’ as barbaric, people tend to misconstrue that as racism. However, the Greeks only had politics and governance rather than colour and ethnicity in mind.
The Romans similarly were equal-opportunity offenders – they enslaved all conquered peoples regardless of background.
Blacks didn’t suffer discrimination for their colour, as evidenced by the presence of a black Emperor in Rome, by the name of Septimius Severus.
Up to the 1400s, a lot of black people in many parts of northern and western Europe had not changed. It was the Jews who were getting the wrong end of the racist stick then.
Some scholars go as far as to suggest that there was a tendency towards Negrophilia in Europe.
It was only through interactions between Christians and Muslims in Iberia, where Muslims had been ruling for 700 years when things started to change.
In the early days of Islam, Arabs started to gain increasing control of trade with East Africa through the Indian Ocean.
Through the trade, millions of slaves were transported to the Middle East and India. In the 870s Basra, for example, had 15,000 African slaves.
Thus, Arabs grew up associating blackness with slavery – even the Arabic word for black people – abid – means slave or servant. That is the attitude that Muslim Arabs passed to Europeans.
In Iberia, though, Muslims and Christians had both black and white slaves. But a number of factors conspired to condemn Africans to perpetual slavery in the minds of white Europeans.
Firstly, the changing attitude of Europeans against the enslavement of fellow European Christians. Secondly, the easy access of slaves from the Portuguese journeys in West Africa. Thirdly, the development of theological justifications for enslavement and for permanent servitude of blacks.
Therefore, being black became being sub-human. So, just as Jews were ostracised for their ‘dirty blood’, the black ‘race’ was dehumanised. A white person may be the stupidest, the poorest, and the weakest of his people – but he will sleep soundly because he is at least not black.
It is a long time since slavery was abolished in Europe, but the attitudes of former slavers appear to have changed little. The presumption of superiority arising from power, genetics or ideology persists, and this is what manifests itself in horrible racist incidents.
The anti-black racism is very unique. Being ‘black’ is not a quality that can be changed by learning, hard work, integrity, or any other distinction. No amount of protests can change that.
The sooner people of African descent learn this the better. Thus, instead of focusing their campaigns towards changing others, the focus should be on what blacks can change – themselves.
For example, 1 in 20 university students in Africa study abroad, compared to only 1 in 250 Americans. That is, Africans are the most mobile of all tertiary learners with over 400,000 currently studying beyond their borders.
That translates into billions which are spent abroad every year. In Ukraine, Africans contribute over USD 100m (estimate) to the Ukrainian economy annually. This is immense power – which can be wielded to deal with racism.
So, for example, if Africans choose to boycott Ukraine until it has dealt with its racist culture, especially now as it is getting its ass whipped by the Russians, the losses will make Ukrainians much more sensitive to people of colour in the future. Negative incentives might work where positive incentives failed.
Better still, Africans can choose to develop competitive universities at home so that the billions spent abroad can remain within the continent. I guess, this is what DuBois meant by saying ‘less whining, more work’ in his essay named ‘The Conservation of the Races’.
Racism is a product of power dynamics. Only power will free Africans from racism. Only when others understand that pain will follow their actions, will they end up modifying their behaviour. Unfortunately, the only thing African intellectuals have taught Africans up to this point is to whine.
Ukraine is yet another call for change.
Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available through firstname.lastname@example.org. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.