The Russian invasion of Ukraine has unveiled some ugly colonialist tropes in the western world about the kind of places where conflict happens, and the kind of people who end up displaced by it.
One senior foreign correspondent at CBS, Charlie D'Agata, had to apologise after he said on live television that "this isn't a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully too – city where you wouldn't expect that or hope that it's going to happen."
A distraught deputy chief prosecutor of Ukraine, David Sakvarelidze, spoke to BBC News about seeing "European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed".
The idea that this shouldn't be happening to 'civilised', 'white', 'prosperous', 'well-dressed', 'middle-class', 'Christian' folk with blue eyes and blonde hair is the most disturbing kind of European exceptionalism
Asked about Poland's warm reception for Ukrainian refugees, Kelly Cobiella of NBC news, theorised: "Quite frankly . . . these are Christians, they are white." She wasn't suggesting this is her view, merely characterising what she perceives to be Poland's. This wasn't the case for the Al Jazeera presenter Peter Dobbie when he said: "Looking at them, the way they are dressed, these are prosperous – I'm loath to use the expression – middle-class people, these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East [or] north Africa. "
The idea that this shouldn’t be happening to “civilised”, “white”, “prosperous”, “well-dressed”, “middle-class”, “Christian” folk with blue eyes and blonde hair is the most disturbing kind of European exceptionalism. It also reveals an anxiety about the fragility of western hegemony, which suddenly looks decidedly more precarious than it did. To be fair, many of those perpetuating these tropes were reporting live from warzones in high-stress situations, trying to capture their sense of unreality at what they were witnessing, and failing badly.
The invasion has prompted some soul-searching, too, about the unified humanitarian response, particularly from countries that have previously turned away refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. The Bulgarian prime minister, Kiril Petkov, had no qualms about confirming that this is, indeed, a very selective compassion. "These are not the refugees we are used to . . . [they are] intelligent people, educated people."
What is happening in Ukraine has jolted the West out of its complacency, and watching that realisation dawn on the faces and in the words of some commentators has not been edifying. It is a sobering reminder of how much of the western world is steeped in a thick stew of colonialist tropes. Still, it is an over-simplification to suggest, as some have, that the strength of the global reaction is only because it is white Europeans who are suffering.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, it shook all of the West's certainties, not just the lazy, ugly ones we prefer not to think about. This is a war many believed was impossible now: a war involving cavalcades of big tanks rolling into cities and children hiding in bomb shelters. It is a vanity project by a bloated, paranoid, ruthless megalomaniac – who was until recently seen as "someone you could do business with". And now it poses an existential threat to the world as we know it, this hot war that may become a cyberwar and even a nuclear war.
The fact that many young people are watching it happen in real time on their phones contributes to their sense of proximity to it. If Vietnam was the first television war, and the Gulf War was the first to get the rolling news treatment, and the Arab Spring was seen as the Twitter revolution, this is the so-called TikTok war. It is certainly not the first to be covered in real time on social media, but for many young people, it is the first they will witness live and unfiltered.
Ukrainian people didn't ask to be a wake-up call about white European exceptionalism or colonialist tropes about conflict. They didn't ask to be patted on the head for their bravery
They can sit in their bedroom in Kilkenny and listen to TikTokker Kristina Korban in Kyiv talk fluently, in English, about the struggle of rationing out the remaining food for the now – she has to stop and count them up – 17 people taking refuge in her home. They can listen to Putin's deranged ranting about neo-Nazis and "empires of lies", and contrast it with the steely resolve of Volodymyr Zelenskiy. They can witness the distressing aftermath of a missile strike in Chernihiv that killed 33 people. They can hear the screams of raw, human anguish. Afterwards, they may not be able to unhear them.
Two things can be true at once. It is true that this invasion has exposed the worst of white, western exceptionalism and the dangerous, dithering complacency that underscores it. It is also true that it has brought out the best in many people: the Berliners who flocked to the train station to offer a home to strangers arriving from Ukraine. The Polish people manning stalls at the border offering food and essential supplies to refugees.
It's worth remembering that Ukrainians didn't choose to be either an inspiration or a cautionary tale. "I don't mean to be rude," Inna Sovsun, the Ukrainian MP, said on Twitter, in response to US secretary of state Antony Blinken who spoke about the "inspiring resolve Ukraine is showing". "But I don't want to be inspiring. I want to be able to read a book to my son in our home before he goes to sleep." What she wants, she wrote, is western countries to stop trading with Russia and impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Ukrainian people didn't ask to be a wake-up call about white European exceptionalism or colonialist tropes about conflict. They didn't ask to be patted on the head for their bravery. They didn't ask to unleash a spate of navel-gazing about why Europeans were so certain this couldn't happen to "people like us". Those are issues the rest of Europe will have to confront. What they did ask for, what they are asking for, is for Europe, the US and Nato to take meaningful action.