‘Visible subalternism’ and Ukraine

Bruno de Oliveira writes.

How do we make sense of the racial inequality towards Non-European People of Colour – the systemic, cumulative, everyday forms of racism experienced by non-white people (non-European-heritage) during some media coverage of the war in Ukraine? Examples of what I call ‘Visible Subalternism’ – using race, ethnicity, language, immigration status, or surname to perpetuate ideologies of race superiority – demonstrate systemic and institutional racism. A normalisation of hierarchy has been used to (re)produce racist narratives and practices, and to reinforce dominant power structures.

We can understand the subaltern as a person or a group that lives and experiences exclusion, fewer civil rights and more structural suffering than other people in a political context, such as during war (see Gayatri Spivak’s ‘critique of postcolonial reason’). The subaltern experiences a decrease in institutional rights. Visible Subalternism was experienced by People of Colour: stripping groups of people of their rights, enacting their subjugation and suffering based on racism. Racism itself is, in the words of Ramon Grosfoguel, ‘a global hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the line of the human that have been politically, culturally and economically produced and reproduced for centuries by the institutions of the capitalist/patriarchal western-centric/Christian-centric modern/colonial world-system’.

Let’s have a look at Visible Subalternism at play in the media coverage so far. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) interviewed a former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, who told the network ‘It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair… being killed every day’. A CBS News senior foreign correspondent stated that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.’ An ITV journalist said: ‘Now the unthinkable has happened to them. And this is not a developing, third-world nation. This is Europe!’. Prince William reportedly said ‘it’s alien to us to see this in Europe’ (despite ample historical evidence to the contrary).

These media reports reveal a mentality – conscious or unconscious – that People of Colour are considered subhuman, subaltern and uncivilised. Their humanity is questioned and, as such, stripped. In the landscape of race subjugation, the extension of rights, material resources and the recognition of their subjectivities are denied. Black people living in the region say they have been left to languish, with some taking to Twitter in recent days to share accounts of abandonment with accounts of ‘No Blacks’. Lighthouse Reports have reported disturbing levels of discrimination experienced by People of Colour refugees, and Relief Web report that United Nations experts are concerned about reports of discrimination against people of African descent at the border.

Are people in a culturally dominant position, such as news reporters, aware of their perpetuation of racial inequality? What is the impact on people experiencing suffering of not having that suffering recognised? We already know there is mounting evidence of the connection between racial discrimination and a variety of negative physical and mental health outcomes (e.g. Schmitt et al., 2014; Paradies et al., 2015; Britt-Spells et al., 2018). 

When even those fleeing war find their humanity constructed through racial markers, walking the line of ‘being’ and ‘non-being’, it is again time to talk of cultural dominance and systemic violence. I’m reminded of the words of W.E. Burghardt Du Bois: ‘It dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. … It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.’ This ‘veil’ serves as a powerful construct to examine how people of colour experience and are affected by racism, and to consider how we are talking about Ukraine. 

Dr Bruno de Oliveira

Lecturer in Social and Community Psychology

Solent University

Find more on Ukraine here.


Britt-Spells, A. M., M. Slebodnik, L. P. Sands, and D. Rollock. (2018). Effects of Perceived Discrimination on Depressive Symptoms among Black Men Residing in the United States: a Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Men’s Health 12 (1): 52–63. 

Paradies, Y., J. Ben, N. Denson, A. Elias, N. Priest, A. Pieterse, A. Gupta, M. Kelaher, and G. Gee. (2015). Racism as a Determinant of Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PloS one 10 (9): e0138511. 

Schmitt, M. T., N. R. Branscombe, T. Postmes, and A. Garcia. (2014). The Consequences of Perceived Discrimination for Psychological Well-Being: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin 140 (4): 921–948. 

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A brilliant and well written article on a very pertinent topic.

A brilliant and well written article on a very pertinent topic.