Black Parents Explaining the Russia-Ukraine Conflict Have to Discuss War, Racism, and Empathy

Sensitively talking about the war in Ukraine and the racism African immigrants have faced in the country can show Black children that compassion and advocacy are complicated.

African man holding baby among Refugees at Medyka pedestrian border crossing fleeing the conflict in Ukraine

The trauma of war is indescribable in any context.

Since the news broke that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the news cycle has been filled with heartbreaking images of families torn apart and taking cover as violence threatens their home. We are all holding our breath as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leads Ukrainians in an effort to preserve the sovereignty of their country by any means necessary.

For parents with young children, explaining the complexity and devastation of the war in Ukraine can feel like a difficult task. How can we begin to explain why leaders choose war? But for Black parents, who've witnessed both the harrowing scenes of white Ukrainians fighting for their lives, and those of African immigrants who have been abandoned due to bias and structural racism, explaining what's happening can feel impossible.

African students have reported incidents, like being ordered off public transit at checkpoints and being forced to walk, facing violence along with other non-Ukrainians at checkpoints, and an overall nationalist sentiment. And that sentiment seems to be shared on a global scale. Ukrainians have generally received more aid and more offers of asylum than refugees from other countries, especially those in places that have been called the "third world."

Racial equity organizations, like the NAACP, are releasing statements condemning the treatment citing a responsibility to do "everything in its power to fight racist, cruel acts such as these—no matter where they are happening." They believe the violence and mistreatment that Black families are facing reflect an egregious and unacceptable choice to prioritize citizenship over humanity.

"Right now, in Ukraine, Black families, immigrants from the African diaspora and other people of color—mothers, children, and students are not only facing challenges to evacuate a deadly warzone but are being pushed from trains and beaten by police officers," the organization wrote. "These callous acts are atrocious and reprehensible. As the world comes to the aid of the Ukraine and nations support the resettlement of people fleeing the nation, every individual must be treated with dignity and humanity."

The organization called on the Biden Administration and the United Nations to ensure they're taking the steps to protect the rights and that all have the ability to flee. And the United Nations said that African refugees fleeing Ukraine have faced racism at its borders.

Dr. Raquel Martin, Ph.D., a psychologist, researcher, and writer who explores mental health, race-based stress, and racial socialization, says that the concurrent tragedies of the invasion of Ukraine and the mistreatment of African immigrants is an essential opportunity for parents to introduce their children to the duality of the world.

"Teach your children that nothing is black or white in this world, we are humans, not robots, so we live in a state of gray. An event can be damaging on different levels for different people involved," says Dr. Martin. She notes there will always be additional aspects to consider in conflict.

The next best step forward is being transparent about the compassion we have for all who are harmed by what's taking place. "Let the children know that you can have compassion for the harm that is being done because no one will walk away from these critical events in history unscathed," she says. The tragedy and injustice of war are layered. Ukrainians' status as victims doesn't negate the harm experienced by Black and other non-Ukrainian immigrants who are attempting to flee. Nor do these injustices invalidate Ukrainians'struggle. Teaching children this can be complicated but it is essential.

As Black families in America witness what's happening to our diasporic kin, Dr. Martin says it's also important to be mindful of the trauma we ingest daily and take the steps to protect our mental health and avoid compounded trauma.

"I think it is fantastic to support in any way that you can via donations, volunteering, or spreading accurate information so that others can help," she says. "However, I also understand if Black people do not have the bandwidth to engage in this conversation right now."

For Black parents, explaining the role of bias in the treatment of Black people across the globe is important but can also be incredibly stressful. Dr. Martin emphasizes the importance of Black families monitoring how the news makes them feel physically, mentally, and even how it shows up socially.

The most important task for all parents is to speak openly and honestly about how bias, prejudice, discrimination, and racism have led to additional harm for Black people both impacted by this invasion, and globally. She reminds parents that it is normal if children are confused about the complexity of what's taking place but that the ultimate goal is that they have the opportunity to share openly and become comfortable processing what's happening in the world.

"Allow your children to assert their own opinions and use their critical thinking skills during the discussion," says Dr. Martin. "The ultimate goal is to provide them with the ability to share and address a difficult topic in a safe environment."

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