By Enrique Tessieri
Any student of society can see that Finland is at an important juncture concerning its future national identity. At this turning point the country appears to be looking in two directions: To our past and to the future.
Those who are looking to the past are not ready (at least yet) to expand their definition of Finnish national identity to include Finns of other ethnic backgrounds.
Their views of Finnish identity is deeply entrenched in the late-nineteenth century, when we forged a national identity that was modelled for the birth of a new independent nation called Finland. While its limitations were never tested before because there were so few immigrants living in Finland, it is on the defensive today.
An indication that it is embattled was the rise of the Perussuomalaiset (PS) party in the April election as well as the ever-growing menace of ultra-nationalistic associations like Suomen Sisu and Suomalaisuuden liitto.
Thus the big question we should be asking today is if our former way of looking at our identity applies today? Is it too exclusive? How can we make it more inclusive?
Much of our perceptions of ourselves as a group have been possible through nationalism, which has helped us overlook some important points of our history to accommodate the myth of our ethnic and cultural homogeneity.
Ethnic homogeneity was reinforced in the past century through eugenics and racial hygiene “theories” that were shamefully put in cold storage after the horrors of World War 2.
Even in the 1960s, Finnish social policy experts like Heikki Waris fed the myth. He wrote in a booklet on Finland: “Racial homogeneity particularly characterizes the Finnish people who have practically no racial minorities…Conseuqnetly, racial prejudice and discrimination are nonexistent (sic!).”
The affirmation by Waris is odd taking into account the over million people emigrated From Finland in the last two centuries. Are these Finns and their descendants a separate or integral part of Finnish culture? Not according to Waris.
These types of myths about ourselves were reinforced in our citizenship laws as well. Up to 1984, children born to Finnish mothers did not have the right to citizenship only if the father was a Finn.
The view that Finnishness is ethnic is still evident in our laws. A child born in Finland becomes the citizen of her parents’ countries.
Challenging myths that have been built during most of our independence and reinforced by wars is not an easy task but essential if we want to create a more inclusive society in this century. This will become more critical as Finland becomes more culturally diverse through immigration.
Presently, the number of immigrants in Finland is small at 2.9% of the total population, but it is expected to rise to 7%-8%, according to some experts.