What Racism Taught an American Journalist About Covering the War

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Terrell on the Streets of Lviv

Terrell Jermaine Starr gets out of a cab.

Attaching his phone to a short selfie-stick as we talk on a WhatsApp video call, he travels the streets of Lviv, passing the Corinthian columns of the city’s opera house. Less than two weeks earlier, he helped relocate a woman named Iryna from Kyiv to this city, so she could leave her country. Iryna has cancer. Seeking a safe place to get treatment, she found Starr.

He rode shotgun as they traveled a day and a half by car, a trip made longer by checkpoints and the rush of people fleeing war. On the road with Iryna, her husband, their 5-year-old son Ivan, and Starr’s friend Andriy, he beamed live into MSNBC for a hit with Ali Velshi. Starr spoke first, then handed the camera to Iryna as they drove. At the end of the segment, Velshi thanked Starr for his “remarkable” brand of reporting: “You have blurred all lines between diplomacy and analysis and journalism, and I mean that in the best way.

“You are just doing what you believe to be right.”

What Starr believes to be right has put him on a singular path in journalism. He is more of an Oprah than a Walter Cronkite, he says. “Oprah was a trained journalist and covered local news. She was relegated to a talk show because she was considered too passionate, too biased.

“Having a heart and being compassionate — I model myself after her.”

In his early 20s, Starr decided to make Eastern Europe his part-time home and subject of expertise. Now 41, he has found himself at the center of a war he thinks is senseless and tragic and rooted in racism that reminds him of home. He is Black, from Detroit, and identifies as queer. He was a member of the Peace Corps and a Fulbright grantee, speaks conversational Russian and Georgian, and serves on the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He says he pursued this work because of his faith. His pastor in Brooklyn sends him scripture every morning. He has written about his therapy, his experience as a Black man in Ukraine, and says he funnels some of his income to various causes, including the Kyiv Independent, an English-language Ukrainian news outlet; Lifeline Ukraine, a suicide prevention hotline; and the Ukrainian armed forces, giving directly to a crowdfunding campaign to support the country’s military. By his own description, he is highly opinionated, and more than just a journalist: He’s working to launch a Ukrainian fashion resale business and a fur accessories business, sourcing hats and scarves from a family in Uzbekistan. He hopes the sales — supplemented by donations from followers and supporters — will sustain his freelance work and the podcast he releases every few weeks.

When he entered journalism school in 2006 at the University of Illinois, social media was new and reshaping classroom discussions about “what should be or what should not be journalism.” Starr was 26, older than his mostly white classmates, and he wasn’t “sucked into traditional newsroom notions,” he says. “With my style of journalism, people feel threatened by it, which I find incredibly bizarre.” He started out covering local politics for Illinois Public Radio and went on to write about two presidential campaigns, first for Fusion in 2016, then the Root in 2020.

“I understand white supremacy. I understand cis-heteronormative frameworks and how oppressive those are, and so I have a very complex way at looking of systems of oppression,” he says. “And that helps me to look at Ukraine with the sympathy that I have.”

In Lviv, everyone around him is white.

People stop to take pictures as we talk. “I get that all the time,” he says. “Because I’m reporting, because I’m Black — there’s a whole bunch of reasons.”

An older man approaches and, in broken English, asks if he’s a journalist.

“I’m a journalist, and I’m speaking with another journalist,” Starr replies.

The man says, “Putin to hell. Russian idiot. Russian president idiot.”

The two shake hands and part ways.

“That’s kinda normal for me.”

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