Ukraine and Fanon: Racism is “Atmospheric” in Western Discourse

by Prof. Hatem Bazian


Blog 58

19 June 2022

Ukraine Flag

In Wretched of the Earth, Fanon’s seminal work on colonialism and decolonial discourse, the notion of the colonizer violence being “atmospheric” and inescapable by the colonized population. Critically, Fanon’s writings emphasized the psychological dimensions of colonialism and its ideological rootedness in White Supremacist racism. I am borrowing Fanon’s “atmospheric” concept of violence to assert that racism in Western society permeates and contaminates everything, like soot and smoke clinging to healthy lungs in the aftermath of a fire. The idea that the current Russian invasion of Ukraine is a type of violence that is alien to Europe is absurd. Europe’s history is a long book filled with violence and very bloody. Europe had Two World Wars (not local but had the whole world soaking in blood) in the last century alone. Yes, the second one had Germany using ovens in Europe to burn people in the Holocaust, and two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan for a never experienced moment of civilian mass killing. Yet, I must remind everyone that Europe did not have enough in Two World Wars to stop the madness, and another genocide was committed in Bosnia in 1992–95.

Western reporters covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were “carefully” swimming in racism’s atmospheric ecosystem and reproducing the normative and well-rehearsed racist tropes. All are clueless to the soot and toxic smoke deeply lodged in their social imaginaries, which they were happily and sensitively spewing out of their mouths like a toxic spell covering the shore. I doubt they can help it as one is not accustomed to refusing oxygen if it is the source of life itself. Fanon’s atmospheric violence translates to today’s racism; it is atmospheric! The media, the politicians, sports executives, and all the elites lined up to carry and amplify atmospheric racism, which is not new. “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands,” a poem by Rudyard Kipling, spoke to the “mission” to “civilize” the non-European (sub-human) societies and bring them into the modern, colonial and Western world (as inferior beings) and it being a duty.

“The colonized’s sector, or at least the “native” quarters, the shanty town, the Medina, the reservation, is inhabited by disreputable people. You are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything. It’s a world with no space; people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together. The colonized’s sector is a famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light. The colonized’s sector is a sector that crouches and cowers, a sector on its knees, a sector that is prostrate. It’s a sector of N…..s, a sector of towel heads.” The quote from Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth should be the lens by which to analyze CBS Charlie D’Agata’s on-air report from Kyiv: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades, You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — the city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” What D’Agata is saying is that these are not the people that are expected to die or suffer since they inhabit the “civilized” sector of the world. “Die anywhere, from anything” belongs in the “darker” sector of the earth and not to those that look like us.

Racism as an analytical lens operates on a binary, civilized-savage also applies to Lucy Watson’s report on ITV: “The unthinkable has happened…this is not a developing, third-world nation; this is Europe!” This represents epistemic violence on most of the world population, which happens to live and experience life outside of the Western world and exists in the atmospheric racism and the realities it produces daily. The disconnect between colonial and postcolonial histories and the causes of ongoing violence in the Global South is not a topic of concern of momentary contemplation since it requires confronting the reality of violence that is a source of economic growth. Death machines, mass killing, and violence was perfected in the West and made into a vocation like no other.

“This compartmentalized world, this world divided in two, is inhabited by different species. The singularity of the colonial context lies in the fact that economic reality, inequality, and enormous disparities in lifestyles never manage to mask the human reality. Looking at the immediacies of the colonial context, it is clear that what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to…. In the colonies, the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” — Wretched of the Earth.

White supremacy and the atmospheric nature of racism make Peter Dobbie, a Western anchorman working for Al Jazeera English Channel, speak from the binary, the civilized versus the savage, while working among the latter: “What’s compelling is, just 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 looking to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.” Recently, the media and right-wing elites’ propensity to pontificate and dismiss racism and White Supremacy as an overreaction by the left or the use of Critical Race Theory, which is blamed for creating the victimization mindset of people. Black on Black violence, drugs in the streets, educational failure, crime, and a host of other ills are placed in the footsteps of minorities, absolving White Supremacy, structural racism, and everyone else. Your condition is reflective of your lack of personal responsibility and screaming racism is a way to get a free ride and money. Hard work and lifting yourself from your bootstraps, like the “White people” or respectable minorities have done, is the only way forward. Stop complaining and get to work.

These assumptions are peddled by sophisticated and well-paid PR machines that have been at it for a long time and have mastered shifting the blame strategy. Here, the complaint about the Black community and minorities asserting their victimhood masks the primary goal, which is an assertion that Whites are the real and currently the only true victims since they are losing their country, America, or Europe in this context. The Ukraine war demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt is the persistent entrenchment of racism and White Supremacy. In the British Daily Telegraph, Daniel Hanan identified with the white victims, who were like us, while asserting that war belonged to them, the remote people: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.” It is important to remember that European countries that now are opening the doors to Ukrainian refugees, which they should, have thousands of Syrians, Iraqi, Sudanese, Afghan, Ethiopians, Malians, Senegalese, Somalis, Palestinians, Yemeni، Vietnamese and many others held in detentions centers. The Ukrainians represent “high-quality immigration,” meaning their Whiteness stands in stark contrast to the wrong and “low-quality” darker complexion ones being held in detention camps or left to die in the Mediterranean, the English Chanel and the Euro Tunnel. The Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was more racist and Islamophobic, stating: “These are not the refugees we are used to… these people are Europeans…These people are intelligent; they are educated people. … This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists…”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a multi-faceted crisis with the destruction visited upon cities, the killing of civilians, and the disruption of everyday life, but it also exposed racism’s atmospheric hold across Europe and the West. Europe’s and World’s response to the Ukrainian human catastrophe is both applaudable, when it comes to White refugees-victims and deeply nauseating in the language and treatment of Arabs, Asians, Blacks and Muslims in past wars and presently on train stations and border entry points. Racism and White Supremacy are the social imaginary that shape the global atmosphere and regulate the views of the “valued” human species that are worthy of empathy, recognition, and support while erasing, tormenting, and negating the “darker, savage and uncivilized” global south variety.

Prof. Hatem Bazian is Executive Director, Islamophobia Studies Center. Professor, Zaytuna College, Lecturer in Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures & Asian Ameri. Studies, UC Berkeley


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