Letter to the Editor: How Russian Propaganda Appears on Simpson’s Campus (Part 3)

by Dr. Safin, Special to The Simpsonian

I spend most of my day thinking about Ukraine, but I rarely post about it on social media or bring it up with friends as I know people don’t want to hear about it anymore, and I cannot just ignore hurtful responses. Last time I spoke about it on campus was in March 2022 when I was invited to be part of a panel. I ended up crying in front of a full room of students and colleagues–fortunately, everyone in the room was very supportive and patient. However, after the aforementioned lecture (Part 1) and an instance of a [non-psychology] colleague choosing to express frustration to me that Ukrainians were having a privileged war experience because they’re “white”, I felt compelled to write this letter. My primary message is “Don’t do anything the Kremlin wants you to do”, and my secondary message is “Don’t be a jerk to people, especially those experiencing trauma.” It is important to note this person was white, not to hint at their identity (irrelevant, this isn’t about them), but because this message is typically propagated by privileged white people (and/or Kremlin propagandists) to use the plight of other refugees to undermine support for Ukraine.

Acknowledging and calling out privilege is important, but it should be used as a tool to fight oppression, not bully victims of oppression. For instance, I was very encouraged by the March to End the “Isms” that took place on campus recently, as it involved people speaking out against various forms of discrimination. The key was that everyone was supporting each other rather than trying to argue about which “ism” was worse and which was getting too much attention. Indeed, solidarity is essential for marginalized groups, and it’s not surprising that my family received more support from non-white people, especially those who were refugees themselves, because they know how traumatic it is to flee your home due to war. 

In fact, in March of 2022, an Iowan group of refugees from African countries organized an anti-war protest to support Ukraine. The speaker urged people of all backgrounds to unite against oppression and violence. Later, an Iranian-American friend offered financial help, a Bosnian refugee in Europe provided housing, and even my mechanic (also a refugee) went out of his way to offer emotional support. This is in contrast to the privileged white Americans who share the same concerns as the Kremlin about Ukrainians getting too many thoughts and prayers. It’s no surprise that most people who reached out to help were not white, as they were refugees themselves and most refugees are not white. It is insulting to imply that all of the people of color who support Ukraine are doing so out of internalized racism rather than their recognition of common humanity. 

Now I am not saying that Ukrainians should be immune from criticism, and it would be completely appropriate for you to check my white privilege if I said something like “I lived in New York during the height of stop-and-frisk and have never been stopped or frisked by the NYPD because I was a law-abiding citizen.” I had and still have the privilege of not being afraid of encounters with the police. That is a position of privilege, but seeing the destruction of your home every time you go online is not. Still, is it a stretch to think that calling Ukrainians privileged is Russian propaganda? 

I wouldn’t necessarily think so if not for the complete absence of articles raising the issue of white privilege of the Russian government. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, shot down a civilian airplane (Malaysia Airlines Flight 17) killing hundreds of European and Asian citizens, committed war crimes in Ukraine and Syria, and yet the world (including NATO countries) continues to do business with Russia. It is now presiding over the UN Security Council. Is it white privilege, nuclear power privilege or something else? I can’t tell you, but I do find it notable that the conversation seems to focus on the privilege of the victims (Ukrainians) rather than the aggressor (Russia). In the U.S., we have a big problem with gun violence and a lot of the perpetrators are young white men. If you started seeing posts about the privilege of victims of gun violence rather than perpetrators, wouldn’t it sound like a distraction from the issue? We all have some privilege, but if you choose to focus on the privilege of victims of violence, homelessness, and hunger, you have really lost the thread. 

It’s clear to me that race isn’t the reason Ukraine is finally getting support after 9 years of war (we didn’t get any whiter, but actually more diverse and elected more women and people of color to the elected office). My empirical research confirms what previous studies have found – people are a lot more sympathetic towards women and children, and those are the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees due to restrictions on able-bodied men leaving the country. All of that aside, you have to ask, who are you helping and who are you hurting when you tell a Ukrainian that they’re privileged to have their trauma be so public. You can and should care about other refugees, but you’re not helping any refugees by suggesting extensive coverage of Ukrainian suffering equates to privilege (indeed, public coverage of personal trauma only traumatizes further). You are helping Russia, though, by reducing enthusiasm to help Ukrainians and by taking energy away from Ukrainians. I could have been using this time to volunteer to help refugees (NA4Ukraine.org – we need volunteers!), as I do every week, but instead, I had to write this extremely long letter. Remember, you can make up your own mind, but before you share your thoughts, think about who that will serve.

P.S. I will talk about Russian Propaganda and many other disinformation campaigns in my May Term course. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in helping Ukrainian refugees feel free to contact me. If you’re interested in helping other refugees, I’m still happy to talk to you and can share a few links.