You don’t know what you don’t know. I’m 42 years old and I’ve been with my wife since I was 15. I’ve grown up with her. I’ve seen her through every stage and challenge of life that a girl and woman can face. I have four daughters in elementary school, middle school, and college. I’ve been a girl-dad since I was almost a kid myself.
But still, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I just don’t.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace. Or walking the streets of New York. Or in a classroom. Or at the doctor.
Similarly, if you’ve never faced the exhausting gauntlet of racism, bigotry and white supremacy in the world, it’s hard for a book or a Black friend to close that knowledge gap. And while I don’t think my next 500 words are going to do the trick, I’m hoping they can at least open your minds and hearts.
The war and refugee crisis in Ukraine is absolutely terrible. Millions of women, children, and elderly adults have been forced to flee the country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. It’s the fastest, largest forced migration of Europeans since World War II—and the crisis is truly only getting started. The sheer scale of this human rights catastrophe makes me shudder. Millions of people have lost everything. Many have lost their homes and their most prized possessions. Many more have lost children, parents, spouses, friends and lovers.
For most of my audience of millions of followers, listeners and readers—predominantly Black—the horrors of this despicable war of choice from Russia were first met with sympathy and compassion. I saw it in real time across my timelines. I saw people say that it reminded them of the pain and loss of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 where hundreds of African-Americans were slaughtered and tens of thousands more had their homes and businesses destroyed, all at the hands of violent whites.
See, that’s the thing: Black people will always have an abundance of painful reference points to help them connect and relate to any trauma being experienced around the world. And at first, that’s all I saw being relayed across an eclectic spectrum of Black America. Then, we simultaneously learned something together that virtually none of us knew before. Ukraine had a small but thriving population of at least 20,000 Black academics, medical students, professionals and refugees—and they, too, were trying to flee the Russian invasion.
Except instead of being met with open arms and inviting borders, they were manhandled, mistreated, deprioritized, forced off buses and routinely told to get to the back of the line. And suddenly, African-Americans found an injustice that was eerily and painfully familiar. And in an instant, I saw something happen that truly broke my heart. While I am not sure anybody in the world has a deeper reservoir of compassion than African-Americans, it was almost like a switch had been flipped off. We will show up for everybody, but if we learn that you’re a flagrant and overt racist, we do not have the time and emotional capacity to fight through our own oppression and care about people that seemingly hate us.
And as almost the entire world moved heaven and earth to support Ukraine with warmth, urgency, missiles and money, a much deeper rift was revealed that goes far beyond Black America.
Palestinians who’ve struggled for decades under what Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, two of the most respected human rights organizations in the world, call a brutal system of modern apartheid from Israel, could not believe their eyes as the mainstream news giddily showed celebratory videos of mothers and grandmothers making Molotov cocktails.
Syrians, too, had seen their homes and businesses destroyed under the brutal bombardment by Russia, forcing millions of people to flee for safety, but they didn’t get even a tiny fraction of the money and missiles that Ukraine is seeing, while their refugees were regularly treated like a nuisance, it not a plague.
The painful hypocrisy makes it hard for many good people to have the compassion that this crisis truly deserves.
And I get it. I truly do. But somehow, we must find a way to call out the blatant double standard without completely hardening our hearts to the effects of this war. That’s easier said than done. But three pressing thoughts have motivated me to stay deeply engaged in spite of the disturbing images and videos I saw of the overt racism and bigotry African refugees faced while trying to escape.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is not God, but for me and millions of others, he continues to be a sacred embodiment of courage and tenacity in the face of overt evil. And the words of Dr. King that are as close to a religious credo as anything I have in my life are, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Having fought his heart out against injustice and racism in the Deep South, Dr. King developed a passion for injustice in New York. Then Chicago. Then Los Angeles. And soon he found himself caring deeply and passionately about colonialism and freedom fighting in Africa. And in the final months of his life, as his popularity tanked, he refused to support the brutal and senseless war in Vietnam—knowing that all of our destinies are tied together in ways that we don’t fully understand. Had Dr. King not been stolen from us, he would’ve continued to fight against the pain and oppression of people all over the globe.
Secondly, it is my faith that has always compelled me to fight for the peace, safety and security of refugees, widows and orphans. If “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is my life quote, my life verse comes from the Bible in James, Chapter 1, verse 27: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress.” I have fought against police violence for years because I know it creates widows and orphans, but nothing creates more of them than war.
That’s why I have decided to push through my earnest frustrations to continue to help here.
And lastly, while the world gives the necessary support that Ukrainian nationals need, I’ve found my place helping those marginalized Africans who were so badly mistreated. I am a part of a beautiful coalition that has now helped house nearly 250 African students and refugees in the surrounding border countries and helped countless more with flights around the world. And had I not leaned into that cause, I would not have learned what I have from so many of them: how much they’ve loved the years they’ve spent in Ukraine and how kind they’ve always found the people to be. That’s part of why being mistreated at the border hurt so much.
Many students and refugees wanted me to know that it was never everyday people who were mistreating them, but only the police—which made their experience resonate even more with me. It has been through my advocacy for Africans in Ukraine that I have come to hope that those students one day have colleges and universities to return to. They’ve told me that’s their wish.
Just as we would not want the brutality of American police to cause the world to no longer care about our nation as a whole, we must also find it in our hearts to continue caring about this country and its people as they face violence they simply do not deserve.