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Who Deserves Our Compassion?

com·pas·sion | /kəmˈpaSHən/

“To suffer together.”

"The feeling that arises when you are confronted with another's suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”

The Greater Good Magazine

Who deserves our compassion?

I've asked myself this question often, but perhaps not more than in the past week as the world witnessed Vladimir Putin's old-school colonial incursion into Ukraine. This land grab was not gussied up like the “gentleman’s agreement” struck at the 1884 Congress of Berlin, which allocated Africa—and its resources—to various European states. Nor was it presented as a 20th century neocolonial exercise in protecting democracy. Nope, this was an 18th-century smash and land grab.

Rightfully, the world responded with horror, empathy, and compassion as people attempted to make their way across Ukrainian borders to safety while Russian tanks rolled into the country. As we watched valiant efforts and saw people stuck in overnight traffic jams, walking across borders, and taking refuge in subways, our collective sense of compassion was—rightfully in my view—evoked.

When pray for Ukraine profile pics popped up on social media, I thought yes! Let us pray for Ukraine and lobby our governments. But I also wondered where the prayers were for Ethiopia, Palestine, or many other places where people are being bombed daily. Where is the outrage? The widespread compassion?

While I knew the answer, I didn’t want to know it. I tried to tell myself that the mere mention of Chernobyl, and Russia’s nuclear capabilities, had people shook, hence the global outcry. But my wilful delusion did not last long as media on both sides of the Atlantic answered the question of who deserves compassion loudly, explicitly, and frequently.

A CBS News reporter in Kyiv explained war as a surprising injustice to unfold in Ukraine stating “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city—I have to choose those words carefully—where you wouldn’t expect that.” Sir, if those were your censored sentiments, what was your original comment going to be???

And it did not stop there. A BBC reporter stated on air that the situation in Ukraine is “really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed, children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles.”

Soooooo we shouldn’t be as impacted and have as much empathy or compassion when the children being killed by missiles have brown skin? His comments are a masterclass in saying you believe in white supremacy without actually saying you believe in white supremacy.

These sadly are not isolated incidents. A host of other footage, some of which can be found here, reflects a global narrative that disregards the value of Black and brown lives.

One day I will dust off my international relations degrees and write explicitly about the relationship between colonialism and racism. But for now, I will simply point out the irony of Europe, which has fought numerous proxy wars in Africa and Asia, and instigated not one but two world wars, being surprised about an invasion.

Sadly, with the war in Ukraine, the lack of compassion exhibited toward people of color did not stop with the media. Instead, as Black and brown people in Ukraine tried to flee to safety, they were frequently met with discrimination and violence from Ukrainian officials. The videos of students of color being beaten and thrown off of transport to neighboring countries are a stark reminder of why we must continuously assert that “Black Lives Matter.”

In a world that has been profoundly shaped by the colonial incursions of “civilized” nations, Black, brown and indigenous lives are valued less. We see this in pay and health disparities, access to resources, and the ability to flee from harm. As people of color, this is an issue that not only plagues us in war but in daily life.

In the face of such consistent racism, and lack of compassion, you might be asking what then do we do? As I suggested in last week’s newsletter, we focus on what we can control.

Those of us whose identities are all too often marginalized can control our response. In a world that consistently tells us we are less than, we can extend compassion to ourselves daily and deeply. We need not internalize the lie of our inferiority or that we are somehow deserving of suffering and hardships. Rather, we can recognize the very real implications of racism, Islamophobia, and nationality—among other fault lines—while also remembering that we do not have to be defined by it or consumed by it. In the words of Maya Angelou, “You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”

The second thing we can all do is speak up, amplify the messages of those most impacted by marginalization, and support the remedies they propose. Amplification is critical because, without it, some injustices would be ignored. Initially, this was the case with people of color trying to leave Ukraine. Despite first-hand accounts of discriminatory treatment and corroborating video footage, their claims were dismissed as Russian propaganda.

With the amplification of the injustice through social media, mainstream media began to report the story. So much so that the UN has acknowledged the issue, but more importantly, an international coalition of activists and human rights lawyers has formed to ensure that alongside others impacted by the invasion in Ukraine, Black and brown people can make it to safety.

Friend, I started this Thursday Thought by asking who is deserving of our compassion. The answer is everyone.

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