Over the past few weeks, the explosive issue of racism has once again become front and center in our consciousness. The precipitating act was the murder of an unfortunate African American by the name of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a brutish and presumably racist policeman. That event set of a chain of protests and riots, not only in the U.S. but around the world. As we know, racism, particularly of the kind aimed at black people, is not restricted to the U.S., but is a global problem.
But racism has many flavours and extends far beyond the prejudicial persecution of just those of African origin. Most colonial powers instituted systemic forms of racism against the indigenous peoples of whatever lands they conquered. The aboriginal nations of North and South America, as well as Australia, continue to suffer from institutionalized racism to this very day. The British looked down upon and exploited the natives within their empire, be they African, Asian, Polynesian or Caribbean. And, racism was not just a trait of the so-called “Aryan” nations of Europe that created such vast empires at the expense of the peoples and territories they conquered. At the height of their civilizations, China and Japan considered most of the nations beyond their borders to be populated by inferior, uncivilized barbarians.
If you look up the definition of the word racism, you will discover that it is a word of relatively recent origin, with the earliest citation in print or usage being in 1902. The concept it refers to however, has been around for a lot longer. Since the advent of recorded history, there has been no shortage of references to people judging other tribes, ethnic groups or nations to be inherently inferior to themselves. For most of mankind’s existence on this earth, most people believed that it was essentially a self-evident fact that all men were not in fact created equal. Whether by divine intent or the process of natural selection, it was accepted that some people were naturally smarter, stronger and more capable, and hence destined to lord it over their less developed and presumably barbaric kin.
It is only over the past couple of centuries or so, and particularly with the acquisition of vast amounts of knowledge gained in the fields of biology, evolution and genetics, that we have come to appreciate that physical traits such as skin colour, facial features and body types, have absolutely no bearing on an individual’s intelligence, capabilities or evolutionary level of development. We are all the same and equal when it comes to the essentials of being a human being.
The continuing presence of racism is merely testimony to the fact that our cultural, social and historical conditioning has not caught up to scientific fact. We continue to harbour biases and prejudices because it is in the interests of certain political and economic forces to continue to have us do so. Divide and conquer is probably the oldest and most reliable tactic used by groups of people to gain and maintain power. Sowing seeds of suspicion and hatred against others enables those with ruthless ambitions to manipulate mass opinion for their own benefit.
As Ukrainians we should be more sensitive and aware than most other people to the insidious and damaging effects of racism. We have been victims of racism for many, many, centuries. The Poles, the Russians and the Tatars who ruled our lands for many centuries, looked upon Ukrainians as an inferior race, suitable only for servitude and slavery. This culminated during World War II with the conquering Germans enslaving millions of Ukrainians whom they considered as “Untermenschen” (Subhumans) to work in Germany for the war effort. I am particularly conscious of this since my mother and uncle were amongst those impressed as slave labour by the Third Reich.
We should also remember that when the first Ukrainian immigrants came to Canada, they were seen as uncultured and ignorant peasants, incapable of ever coming up to Canadian civilizational standards. As succeeding generations of those immigrants, we have been very successful in proving to the world that Ukrainians are as smart, capable and talented as any other people in all aspects of life. Let us not forget however, that we are only a couple of generations removed from being considered uncivilized peasants in sheepskin coats, who would never amount to much in Canadian society.
As Ukrainians, we should consider it an historical imperative to be at the forefront of any effort aimed at eliminating racism from any and all aspects of Canadian life. No one in our society should be judged by the way they look, the colour of their skin, the language that they speak, the religion that they espouse, or the culture they originate from. We all have the same rights and should all have the same opportunities to make a decent life for ourselves in this world without fear and discrimination. It is not just an issue for the blacks in our society, it is a defining issue for all of us.