What Finnish school children from a small town think about racism?

by , under Enrique Tessieri

During the European Action Week Against Racism (March 15-23), I had the opportunity to visit an elementary and middle school in rural Eastern Finland. The event, which was organized by the Red Cross, asked elementary and middle school students to do a posters pointing out the good and bad things about Finland. Some did short plays demonstrating intolerance.*

Since the educational system in Finland is one of the best in the world according the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results, we’re speaking of well-informed students.

Gathering from some of the posters that the students made, I’d be surprised if some of the students didn’t list prejudice as a negative factor about Finland. What do these posters reveal to us about some of the challenges we face in strengthening our Nordic values, which rest firmly on social equality and against all forms of intolerance?

Here’s some food for thought:

  • The posters don’t mention anywhere multiculturalism, or about our ever-growing culturally diverse society;
  • Insight: Cultural diversity is here and now. It’s not tomorrow or after tomorrow. What positive steps must we take in order that everyone, irrespective of his or her ethnic and cultural background, is treated with respect?
  • Since there are very few migrants in this town, its’s clear students see foreigners as refugees, which are a minority of Finland’s migrant population;
  • Insight: How do we change this image to show that migrants bring progress, hard work and new blood? Aren’t these new inhabitants going to pay taxes and some take care of our elderly?
  • The most revealing matter of the day happened at the cafeteria during lunchtime. The schools only foreign student was eating alone at the table.
  • Insight: What steps can be taken at schools to bring students together, even if they have different backgrounds?

Certainly the reason why the refugee student eats alone may be her fault as well. Even so, one of the complaints of some refugee students who attended the same school was their difficulty in making friends with Finnish classmates.

Some of the short 3-5-minute plays that the students performed showed how prejudice works. According to them, underestimating a migrant’s intelligence or language skills by speaking slowly like to a child were seen as clear cases of prejudice.

IMG_3530This poster lists unemployment benefits, free schools, associations like the Red Cross and refugee centers as “positive” factors about Finland, while cold winters, people with prejudices, cold winters, expensive country, unclear ingredients listings and language as negative factors.

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This poster by middle school student listed free school meals, peace, free elementary school, nature, high educational level and other factors as reasons why migrants should move to Finland. Bad things were junk food and litter in the yard.

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Some posters didn’t mention any negative things like this one above. According to this poster, landscape, school, health, lakes, security and food are factors why you should move to Finland.

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This picture was added Monday. It is the only poster that claims racism as something negative about Finland. Other negative factors that it lists include prejudice, taxes, alcoholism. Some positive factors include brave people, beautiful nature, warm summers, health care, friendly people, free comprehensive school.

So what do Finnish school children from a small town think about racism?

Answer: It’s wrong.

Even if these children show that there is hope that we will be successful in building a society that based on respect for others, a lot of work still remains to be done.

* Even if it was the Action Week Against Racism,  term racism was only mentioned once in a poster. They preferred instead to use  prejudice as a synonym for the former. 

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