How the Ukraine crisis reveals our racial empathy gap

Whether we know it or not, and without meaning to, we feel more deeply when members of our own race, religion or other social group are suffering, writes Ainsley Hawthorn.

Racial sympathy is the reason we feel more deeply for some refugees than others

A woman carries her child.
A woman carries her child as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on Monday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

This column is an opinion by Ainsley Hawthorn, a writer in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

"Canada is ready to welcome Ukrainians fleeing Vladimir Putin's war, and there is no limit to the number of applications that we are going to be willing to accept."

Last week's announcement by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser came as welcome news not only to Ukrainians feeling the Russian invasion, but to Canadians with family in the besieged country, refugee advocates and those of us following the conflict in horror from the comparative safety of our own homes.

As heartening as it is, though, Canada's generosity has a dark underbelly. It's evidence of a racial empathy gap that has seen white people and white-majority nations respond more quickly and compassionately to the crisis in Ukraine than to conflicts elsewhere in the world.

In the past two months, more than 6,100 Ukrainians have been accepted into Canada. By comparison, since August, when Kabul was captured by the Taliban, only 8,580 Afghan refugees have been admitted.

Thousands of contractors and local partners who collaborated with the Canadian military, and to whom we owe a special debt of protection, are still trapped in Afghanistan while they wait for their immigration applications to be processed.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands as he visits with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw on Thursday. While Canada's response to the crisis is generous, comparing it to the response to other humanitarian crises reveals evidence of a racial empathy gap, writes Ainsley Hawthorn. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's special fast-tracking program will allow an unlimited number of Ukrainians to come to the country on two-year temporary visas without many of the usual restrictions, including fees, language assessments, and even passport verification.

Normally the Department of Immigration doesn't allow foreign nationals to enter Canada temporarily if they might not leave when their visa expires. The rationale for taking this approach to Ukrainians is that they can be expected to return to their home country when the Russian onslaught ends.

But this desire to return home is hardly unique among refugees. If you asked displaced Syrians whether they'd rather return home in safety or start their lives over in foreign country — where they don't speak the language, their credentials often aren't recognized, and they have no belongings, personal history or community — I think most would tell you they'd prefer to go home.

Unfortunately, in conflict situations, there's often a gulf between hope and reality. Many refugees who want to return to their home country ultimately find that it's no longer an option. If Russia annexes Ukraine, or fighting in the country drags on for years, some of those who arrive under Canada's temporary visa program will no doubt apply for asylum here.

So why not offer a similar temporary visa program to all refugees seeking immediate safety in Canada? The public discourse around the conflict in Ukraine offers an unpalatable answer.

A firefighter holds the baby of a refugee fleeing the conflict from neighbouring Ukraine at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania, on Monday. Commentators who express more sympathy for European victims of war are only giving voice to a bias that most other people share, whether we mean to or not — or even whether we know it or not, writes Hawthorn. (Andreea Alexandru/The Associated Press)

In the Telegraph, British journalist and former politician Daniel Hannan wrote that Ukrainians "seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country."

On Al Jazeera English, of all stations, anchor Peter Dobbie said of Ukrainian refugees, "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." The network later apologized for Dobbie's comment.

These remarks stop just shy of saying that what makes the conflict so moving is that it's affecting white people. Instead, they substitute the code word "European."

There's no need to state outright, as Ukraine's deputy chief prosecutor did in an interview with the BBC, "It's very emotional for me because I see European people with blond hair and blue eyes being killed."

These commentators are only giving voice to a bias that most other people share, whether we know it or not. It's called the racial empathy gap.

A woman wraps herself in a blanket to keep warm as she waits in a crowd of refugees after fleeing from the Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland on Monday. We empathize more with people we perceive to be of the same race as us than with people of other races, writes Hawthorn. (​​​​​​​Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press)

Race is, in essence, imaginary: the particular way we divide people into groups based on some physical traits and not others is a reflection of our history and culture more so than our biological reality.

Still, race is one of several social categories each of us uses to organize the world around us, and we empathize more with people we perceive to be of the same race as us than with people of other races.

A study of college students in China, for instance, showed that Chinese students had a stronger neurological response to seeing Asian models pricked by a pin than white models, while white students responded more powerfully to white models.

Later research showed the same in-group favouritism not only among individuals of different races, but among members of different religious groups and even supporters of different soccer teams.

In other words, without meaning to, we feel more deeply when members of our own race, religion or other social group are suffering.

Refugess rest in the train station in Przemysl, Poland, on Monday from where Ukrainian refugees are relocated by train across Poland. While we might not be able to control our unconscious response, writes Hawthorn, we can control our conscious actions. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)

If there was any question that the racial empathy gap is informing the international response to war in Ukraine, the reports of African, South Asian, and Middle Eastern individuals being turned away at border crossings as they try to flee the embattled country to neighbouring European nations should provide a clear answer.

We're not morally liable for our unconscious responses. We become liable when we allow them to influence our actions or our governments' policies.

Given that white-majority countries control much of the world's wealth due to centuries of European colonialism, it's all the more essential that we root out our racial biases and give equal support to all refugees to avoid perpetuating historic inequalities.

At the personal level, we can reduce the effects of the racial empathy gap by focusing on the individual rather than their group affiliation and by socializing with people of various races. At the public level, we can call on our government to respond as decisively to other refugee crises as they have to the war on Ukraine.

In announcing the new visa program for Ukrainians, Fraser spoke emotionally of "the young fathers with tears in their eyes delivering their children to safety before they return to the front lines" and "the unarmed grandmothers confronting Russian soldiers."

As we offer shelter to Ukrainians, let's remember that similar words could be said of the parents, children, and grandparents in any conflict zone and that they are all equally deserving of our empathy, regardless of the colour of their skin.

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Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.