As Finland awakens to the reality that it is a culturally diverse society, one of the biggest threats and challenges we face doesn’t come from abroad but from our backyard. When the Civil Rights Movement ended in the United States in 1968, the first matter that we learned we should stop doing is generalizing about blacks and other groups.
It’s sad to admit that some prejudices in Finland are so old that people believe them to be scientific fact. Prejudice is a powerful political force that was capitalized by the anti-immigration Perussuomalaiset party in the April 2011 election.
Finns are even prejudiced against themselves. Some believe that Hämäläinens in southern Finland are “slow” and that people from Savo in eastern Finland are “crooked.”
Racism has powerful roots in Finland. One could even see it on a Suomen Kuvalehti article published in 1940 that attempted to show how superior the Finnish white soldier was to blacks.
Blacks are no longer found on racist ads but other ethnic groups like Latinos. This picture was taken at the Pieksämäki train station in July 2007. The owners of the café no longer use this sign outside their premises.
Giving up one’s prejudices isn’t easy but not impossible.
We fortunately have great laws that are based on social equality (tasa-arvo) and respect. Our successful society would be nothing today without these laws. Instead of building bridges of acceptance, respect and tolerance, we’d be destroying those bridges with intolerance.
How, then, is it possible that such an exemplary society like ours could breed people with so much hatred and prejudice against other groups?
While there are many people who understand the importance of cultural diversity in this country, there are still too many who are reactive to it.
Despite the spirit of our present laws, they mean little and are robbed of their power if they are caged by prejudice, racism and above all by our silence.
Blaming our history on some of our intolerance is a too simple but it is one answer that sheds light on the present problem.
Few young people in Finland know that we used to be a very closed country only thirty years ago and our laws reflected this situation as well.
Foreigners were not only barred from investing in the country but the Aliens’ Office made everything possible to ensure you didn’t move here.
If is shameful that a country that saw over 1.2 million emigrate between 1860 and 1999, treated immigrants in Finland like stateless persons who didn’t even have the right to habeas corpus. Immigrants were seen at the time as a threat to national security.
Prior to our first Aliens’ Act of 1983, which came into force sixty-five years after independence, foreigners could be arrested at will by the police, held indefinitely in jail and deported without the right to appeal.
During the Great Depression, Finland enacted the Restricting Act of 1939 that kept foreigners and outside investment to a minimum. The act prohibited foreigners from owning real estate and acquiring a majority stake in Finnish companies – limiting this to 20% normally and 40% under special permission.
The act stipulated that foreigners could not own shares in sectors such as forestry, securities trading, transportation, mining, real estate and shipping.
To maintain this climate of suspicion against foreigners, the school played an important role in teaching young Finns myths in order to be prejudiced against other groups.
At schools, Finnish children were taught at an early age that “n” stands for the n-word.
Fortunately times are changing!