Terrell Jermaine Starr (LAS ’09, MEDIA ’09), dressed in a shirt and tie, sits at the front of the auditorium in the new Campus Instructional Facility (CIF). A traditional Ukrainian jacket robe hangs off the back of his chair. His shoes, covered in silver glitter, sparkle. Their presence brings a welcome measure of levity to an otherwise serious discussion.
Starr, who graduated with two master’s degrees in 2009—one in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and the other in journalism—emerged as one of the most engaging journalists covering the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Harnessing the power of Twitter, his cellphone and selfie stick, Starr, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center and host of the podcast, Black Diplomats, has reported stories from the conflict zones with an in-depth knowledge of the region and the savvy of a storytelling pro with a perspective all his own.
He is the first to tell you his journey to Ukraine was unimaginable to him when he was a young Black kid growing up in Detroit. However he has drawn on his understanding of systems of oppression in his own life to discovering its parallels in this war.
Below is a partial transcript from the Q&A session at CIF moderated by John Randolph, Director of the Russian, East European, Eurasian Center and Leon Dash, Swanlund Chair Professor of Journalism. It has been edited for length and clarity.
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You shared recently that growing up in Detroit prepared you for what you’re doing now. Can you tell us about that?
How did my upbringing growing up in the largest Black city in America help me understand Ukraine? One of the things you have to understand is I grew up in a city that has dealt with its own kind of redlining, state-level White supremacy, and national White supremacy–just because Detroit wanted to be a liberated town with great Black people. It’s a city of defiance, in many respects.
And as I traveled to Ukraine and Georgia, I felt a similar connection with folks who are seeking their own liberation in their own context.
In dealing with racism and White supremacy in America and as a journalist covering communities that are oppressed, I feel like there is a version of criminal redlining taking place in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in Ukraine, in particular.
When I first traveled to this part of the world, the first impression I got, particularly in Ukraine, was why are these “White” people fighting each other? I thought White people got along with each other. That’s really the frame that I took, and in reality, that’s what the majority of people in the states think.
You come to Ukraine and you see Russians, it seems like they have a similar history, similar language, and they look alike.
I saw a lot of parallels both through my lived experiences and as a result of listening to people. It was the easiest way for me to make sense of what’s happening there.
Also growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in definitely helped me navigate Ukrainian wartime. Unfortunately, as a kid growing up in “the trap”—a house where people sell drugs—it’s not the first time I’ve had a gun stuck in my face. I already had those lessons growing up. You get really acclimated to things. That’s just a little introduction into how Detroit shaped me.
Here in Old Town Warsaw, Belarusians and Ukrainians unite against Russian Aggression. pic.twitter.com/P5DUzOMFm5
— Terrell Jermaine Starr 🇺🇦 (@terrelljstarr) April 3, 2022
Can you talk to us about how Vladimir Putin, in his public talks, refers to Ukrainians and also how that’s part of the motor that’s generating the horrific instances of execution of civilians in Ukraine?
What Putin is doing against the Ukrainians is genocide. He does not want this country to exist as it is. He does not want the Ukrainian state or the Ukrainian people to live.
He has a very racialized outlook of how he describes the Ukrainian people. There are a lot of ethnic slurs that are used towards Ukrainians that are very specific to being Ukrainian. In journalism, we’re used to talking about ethnicity. We’re not used to describing how race traffics in this part of the world. And it does. It’s just that a lot of reporters are not used to those frameworks being used. It’s a framework that I use, because it is what I see before my eyes. It helps me to explain why this is happening.
The violence and atrocities are happening because of the way Putin talks about Ukrainians. He has essentially given them [Russian soldiers] permission to treat them this way, because they [Ukrainians] are discardable.
This is a complete breakdown of humanity of an entire race of people. That’s what people really need to understand here. I’ve coined what Putin is doing as a “Russian supremacist state,” one that he’s trying to create in his own framework. It’s because of my experience in the U.S. that I’m able to explain it in that way. But what’s clearly happening here is a racialization of Ukrainians. There is the brutality that we see as a direct result of that.
You’ve talked eloquently about race and racism and the conflict itself. How do you think it structures or affects how the story is reported out from Ukraine?
Putin is looking to maintain his power and credibility with the people he has been brainwashing for two decades. That’s what he cares about. That’s part of his power structure. I wish news coverage would deal more with how oppressive his language is. Because for an American audience, unless you’ve been studying this stuff or are intellectually curious, you’re not going to get what’s going on.
The problem is that a lot of the Westerners who are traveling to this part of the world don’t have a healthy critique of White supremacy in their own countries, and so it’s hard for them to see inequities and inequalities in other places.
It goes back to my original statement about the genocidal mindset Putin has—it’s not just the “White Ukranian” Putin is targeting. There are other ethnic groups, like the Crimean Tartars, that Putin describes with his very racist language.
If you don’t have people of color, especially, or of diverse ethnic backgrounds, I think the news media is missing a lot because there are parallels to all of this.
You style of journalism involves on-the-ground, in-person contact with people involved in conflict. In your view, what is the place of such nuanced, courageous, and direct reporting, in an age when many journalists just drop in and out of a news zone, and are not familiar with the full context of an issue?
I can tell you that there are very few places in the world where I could actually do this type of work. I have a master’s degree in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. I only like to report from places where I have context. So, I’ve spent much of my career here.
One of my major successes is that I’ve been able to use my intellectual knowledge and framework. I’m not just helicoptering in. It’s also a very personal thing for me because these are my friends that are worried about getting bombed.
What I’m also proud of is that there are a lot of Black people and other people of color who are drawn to my coverage and are curious in ways they never would have been had I not shared these stories in my way.
The first couple days of the war, you drew attention to something that was happening to refugees leaving Ukraine, particularly to refugees of color, and you took a little bit of criticism for drawing attention to the fact that there was a differentiated treatment for Ukrainian refugees versus refugees of color. And I think a question asked was whether it was appropriate to draw attention to that, especially in the context of the larger conflict, which you, yourself frame in terms of racialization.
The racism that we saw during the first seven days was really endemic of what was already there. It’s just that wars exacerbate what we already know. None of this is new, and none of it was surprising.
The racism is another layer, which really wasn’t state policy. You had a whole bunch of people who, in addition to being overworked, were truly racist at the border, and it created this image that racism was pervasive across Ukraine.
Ukraine has a lot of people who use it as a transit country. Undocumented people and refugees were safe, generally speaking, in the country before the war. But when the war began, and they were trying to escape, it became a bit more complicated.
In fact, these issues did happen. And when I brought them up, people thought that I was being a distraction.
And my thinking is, “When is it ever a good time to talk about these subjects?” That never is now. What makes this complex is that this is a country that’s dealing with what I consider mass genocide.
I’ve had lawmakers reach out to me to talk about this. Most of the people that I was helping get across the border, were considered White Ukrainian people. I found it ironic that people were criticizing me when I’m helping people’s grandmas and their mamas and everyone else get across the border. It’s just ironic people completely dismiss everything else you’re doing and say that you’re being a distraction, which gets to a larger question.
One month ago Russia began it’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then millions have left the country & thousands of lives have been lost. We speak to @terrelljstarr who is on the ground in Kyiv about the past 30 days & the challenges people of colour face as they try to seek safety. pic.twitter.com/n1CaGstkc4
— Aarti Pole आरती (@aartipole) March 24, 2022
But I’ll also tell you that as a American, I have a unique position because I don’t run into the same issues of racism simply because I have more resources. One of the reasons why my social network is so big is that people use me to find resources for themselves and their families. My DMs (direct messages) are full of people asking me for help. Now mind you, I’m not some NGO person. I’m just a journalist, and I want to help somebody.
I was on CNN bringing people (across the border) and everyone thought that I was like this version of Harriet Tubman taking people to freedom. I was just helping people out. I wasn’t expecting all this. When I think back to growing up as a Black kid in Detroit, and now I’m taking babushka to the promised land in Poland—I never thought that would happen.
The Ukrainians are also dealing with this, this thing of, “We’re on the world stage, and we don’t want people to think that we’re racist.” And as a storyteller, I try to navigate all these nuances as best I can. But I have to tell the story of Ukraine without betraying my own community that’s dealing with these oppressive things, too. It’s because it’s such a personal thing for me. I tell the truth, but I’m mindful of the minefields and navigate them as best I can.
What sparked your interest in getting a master’s in European and Eurasian Studies and to go as far as the Peace Corps in Georgia?
I went to an HBCU, like Professor Dash, who went to Howard. I didn’t want to be around anybody who wasn’t Black, I’m just being honest. I just liked the Black experience. Also, it was a fear thing. I grew up in the city of Detroit, Michigan, where there’s a lot of segregation. I just had a fear of not being in the Black space.
The summer before my senior year, I applied for international volunteer program. On the application, it asks where you want to go. I chose all the Black places. When I was accepted, it said Russia. I said no, these people made a mistake. It took a lot of nerve for me to call these people who are giving me a paid opportunity to go to Russia, which I didn’t have to pay a penny for, and tell them they made a mistake, and I need you to change this country. It took a lot of nerve for me to do that. But I did it.
The administrator said, “Well, no, this is where we want to send you.” And that was the end of it. Going to Russia turned out to be a game changer. Honestly, I was really scared. I was afraid to go into these new places. And that turned out to be the best experience of my life. Once I went to Russia, I applied for the Peace Corps, but Russia said that the Peace Corps was sending spies, and the program was canceled, so I went to Georgia.
I met the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, and he if I had heard of REEEC at the University of Illinois. He recommended I apply. I picked Illinois because they had the faculty that that I thought would gel well with, and it ended up being a great experience.
I took an immersion journalism course with Professor Dash. He said he saw something in me and suggested applying for the journalism school. In both my degrees, I focused on Eastern Europe and on Romania’s integration into the EU.
I have always been really fascinated by this part of the world. But most importantly, I enjoy translating it because, again, as a Black person, I connected with a people I didn’t think I had anything in common with, particularly Eastern Europeans.
When I speak about my work, I think people know it comes from the heart and they know that I love this place, and that I really am curious.
But I’ve always explained it this way and write about this all the time. It’s an opportunity for people to understand something about each other and find commonalities in ways that no one would have imagined.
Your ability to help a lot of individual people is admirable. You brought a lot of people across the border out of Ukraine and helped connect people with health care, like the woman who suffered from cancer and got her treatment resumed. What is the thing that allows you to enter a complex situation like that, and try to improvise ways and find ways to help individuals?
I feel like this is a question that summarizes everything. As you know, I went from being a scared kid growing up in Detroit to doing what I’m doing right now, and that comes from my faith. And I don’t talk a lot about my faith, but it is the primary reason why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I’m in Ukraine. My faith helps me see the humanity in people even when they don’t see it in me.
I feel like it is God’s purpose for me to be in this part of the world, because it’s the only and the best way for me to function. If you think about it, growing up where I grew up, and for me to be as comfortable as I am in this place, someone decided for me to be here. I feel like it is a mission for me to be where I’m at and to tell the type of stories that I’m telling.
Maybe a scared kid, growing up in Detroit, is the best person to tell these stories. I think that’s what it is. Because I really take joy in helping people connect, and I like being the person to do it.