A call to inclusion but there is no room for such words today

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Migrant Tales insight: I am a board member of Finland Society, an association that looks after Finnish expat rights abroad, and had spoken to the editor of Finland Bridge and the association’s executive director about writing a column about Finland in the twenty-first century. Due to the restructuring of the magazine and the tight economic situation, they will not publish the article below. I never got a reply when I wrote back and offered that they could publish the column for free. 

If we want to bring Finnish society up to speed with the twenty-first century, which is nothing more than acknowledging that our nation has always been, is, and will be culturally diverse, is one of the biggest struggles that minorities and migrants will face this century in Finland. That struggle involves as well second, third and fourth generation people of Finnish origin. 

The whole issue boils down to sharing public space, which some groups in Finland are fighting tooth and nail to deny others of having a place under the Finnish sun. Such groups and people falsely believe that as our society becomes ever-culturally and ethnically diverse, things in Finland will continue as they are. They lazily sit on couches and demand that others adapt to them.  

 Assimilation, or one-way adaption, is an expectation that society won’t change no matter how many people from different cultures and religions move to your country. The process is a bit like sitting on a sofa and telling newcomers that they must adapt to me. There are many types of sofas like in the above picture that could represent regions or countries. All have the sofas, however, have the same expectation in assimilation: I have privileges, you don’t. I therefore call the shots in this country. Source: Sairafurniture.

Do you think that the column below should appear in Finland Society’s magazine, Finland Bridge?

After being a regular columnist for the magazine for over 20 years, my relationship ended in 2016. I never received a humble thank you for the many years I contributed to Finland Bridge.

A call to inclusion but there is no room for such words today

Finland’s has a long and rich migrant history, and this should help guide us to build an inclusive and just country as our society becomes ever-culturally and ethnically diverse during this century.

While this should be the case, I fear that we have lost precious time and been distracted by populism and simplistic answers on how to move forward on diversity.

If we’re to learn from countries that have taken millions of migrants and study the experiences of our Finnish communities in countries like Canada, United States, Sweden, Australia, and Argentina, there are two fundamental concepts to keep in mind: opportunity and social equality.

We can look at the opportunity from many angles: opportunity to build a better life, the opportunity to succeed, and the opportunity to become an equal member of society irrespective of one’s background. None of the latter would be possible to achieve if we don’t cherish social equality as an essential value.

A missing debate

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014) wrote in the 1990s, “The capacity to live with difference is…the coming question of the twenty-first century.”

It is as well the coming question of Finland today.

Instead of labeling newcomers and their children “people of foreign origin,” we need to find words that promote inclusiveness, equal opportunity and social equality.  “Person with foreign background” doesn’t fit the bill.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Finland’s growing diversity today is the over 1.2 million Finnish migrants that left this country between 1860 and 1999. What lessons did they leave behind about their histories as migrants and how did they succeed in their new homelands?

There are some things that continue to baffle me about Finland. One of these is how a country like ours, which saw so many of tits people emigrate to foreign lands, sees diversity as a threat. I believe this fear is based on ignorance of our rich history as a country of emigrants.

Zacharias Topelius (1818-98), a writer, journalist, historian and university president, wrote about our cultural diversity over 140 years ago in Maame kirja (1875).

He said: “No group can claim to be so pure that none of its forefathers had foreign blood; or speak a language that has not shared words from other languages. All nations are builders of a great humankind society that branches off into many directions.”

Rosa Emilia Clay (1875-1959), a teacher who was the first native African to become a naturalized Finn in 1899, is another example that our cultural diversity has a history. Clay, who is a source of inspiration for many migrants and minorities in this country, should be as well standard reading at schools.

Who is a Finn?

I believe that one the most significant debates that will take place in Finland during this century will be in our transformation to a culturally and ethnically diverse society. In that discussion, we’ll hopefully understand how we developed from an underdeveloped country that was near-constantly at war with itself and the Soviet Union in the first have of the last century to one of the richest in the world.

An essential factor of our success story as a nation has been inclusiveness and the ability to forgive. That same formula of success is today our best bet if we want to nip from the bud bigotry, racism, and social exclusion.

If we succeed at putting such social ills on the defensive, and I am confident that we will, a lot of good things will emerge from it. Instead of putting our energy into hiding our background or being excluded because of it, we’ll invest our energy into making this country a better place for everyone to live in.

Inclusion by the majority should not mean whitewashing or erase our background but quite the opposite: We should celebrate our difference with the bridge of mutual respect.

We have all the tools to build a socially just country if we want. We can start from Chapter 2 Section 6 of our Constitution: “No one shall, without an acceptable reason, be treated differently from other persons on the ground of sex, age, origin, language, religion, conviction, opinion, health, disability or other reason that concerns his or her person.”

Pardon my naïvity

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, our country drafted and passed some of its most far-reaching social laws. Some worth mentioning is the new Constitution, Integration Act, Non-Discrimination Act, and Nationality Act, which permitted for the first time dual citizenship.

All of us must be active citizens and learn to defend these laws or risk losing them. In order to be an active citizen, society must offer equal opportunities and respect diversity.

One most significant asset that will help guide our country as we race towards the future will be our diversity that will make us stronger, not weaker.