I got to know Susheela Daniel through many of her insightful Facebook postings. She was one of the brave women who protested in front of parliament against the election of Perussuomalaiset (PS)* party MP Maria Lohela as speaker of parliament. One of her latest Facebook posts was on “integrated migrants” raised some good questions about Uncle Toms in the migrant and minority community.
An Uncle Tom, or Tuomo-setä or setä Tuomo in Finnish, is a term used in the United States for people who betray their race in order to get privileges. Urban Dictionary defines it in the following way: “A black man who will do anything to stay in good standing with ‘the white man’ including betray his own people.”
Susheela Daniel. Photo by Fateme Azizi.
In a multiethnic country like the United States, the Uncle Tom label plays an important role. One of the roles it plays is a bit similar to a deserter in times of war.
Taking a look at the violence and hostility that some minorities are facing in the United States, it’s clear that the Uncle Tom label aims to protect a community that is already embattled by racism, social exclusion and scarce opportunities.
How would one define an Uncle Tom in Finland?
Daniel admits that she’s never heard of the term Tuomo-setä in Finnish never mind in English but agrees that the phenomenon exists in Finland.
According to her, a Tuomo-setä is someone with so-called immigrant background (non-white Finn) that’s more interested in being associated as a Finn rather than with his or her ethnic and cultural background.
“These types of people are ashamed of their background,” said Daniel. “One example could be a woman with an immigrant background who is openly ashamed of how poorly her parents speak Finnish.”
Studying the Uncle Tom phenomenon can shed light on what type of a society we live in and how we see cultural and ethnic diversity.
“Some of these people [who are Uncle Toms] may have been bullied at school and constantly reminded that they are different and from somewhere else,” she continued. “In my opinion the mere fact that we are encouraged to forget our roots shows that there is something wrong in our society.”
“If I had to define Uncle Tom [in a Finnish context] it would mean ‘selling out’ [your culture],” she added.
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Daniel, who studies international business in Helsinki and describes herself as “a Swedish-speaking Finnish citizen mixed with Indian background and culture,” stated that one does not have to give up one’s cultural roots in order to be a Finn.
“I’m proud of who I am,” she continued. “A person can have many identities. There are many examples of people like me that can embrace two or more cultural backgrounds at the same time.”
One interesting question asked today by more people is who and what defines a Finn in an ever-multicultural country. Why do white Finns have a big say on who is a Finn and why are others called so-called “people with foreign background” even if they were born and raised in this country?
“Take a look at the Romany minority,” she continued. “They’ve been in Finland for about 500 years and they still aren’t seen as Finns by the majority.
Daniel said that on top of her two identies she considers herself first and foremost to be a world citizen.
A young woman whom I spoke to recently who was born and grew up in Finland and whose parents are from Somalia told me why she didn’t consider herself to be a Finn or half Finn.
“I don’t consider myself a Finn because I don’t identify with the values of this society,” she said. “I like to consider myself instead a world citizen.”
Like the world citizen who grew up in Finland and has Somali parents, her affirmation speaks volume about the hostility and racism that some Somalis face in Finland. Why would you want to identify with a society that is boasts being “white” and near-constantly reminds you that you don’t belong here or are an outsider?
For some black people and visible minorities living in Finland can be a constant reminder of their Otherness. One solution may be becoming an Uncle Tom. It may offer a path towards some type of acceptance.
“I believe that the situation of migrants and minorities is getting worse in Finland,” Daniel said. “People can express their racism openly. The fact that the Perussuomalaiset [PS]* party is in government is an indication that matters aren’t getting better for us.”
Social media is another place where racism is alive and kicking, according to her.
Daniel said that there are good examples of how some Finns with multicultural backgrounds haven’t given up their roots. Some she mentioned are Ozan Yanar, Abdirahim “Husu” Hussein, Koko Hubara, Maryan Abdulkarim, Musta Barbaari, Prinssi Yusuf , and others.
The young anti-racism activist warns against Islamophobes like PS MP Juho Eerola, who pat migrants in an “Uncle Tom” manner on the back as happened on a recent YLE A2-Pakolais ilta debate about asylum seekers.
“I’ve gotten the impression that the entrepreneur [Abdi Osman] is a sell out,” she concluded. “I would be worried if a politician like Eerola pat me on the back and claimed that I’m some kind of an exception [to the group].”
* The Finnish name of the Finns Party is the Perussuomalaiset (PS). The English-language names adopted by the PS, like True Finns or Finns Party, promote in our opinion nativist nationalism and xenophobia. We therefore prefer to use the Finnish name of the party on our postings.