A Migrant Tales style guide to writing about migration: avoid words that hide our racism and denial

by , under Enrique Tessieri

After over twenty years in journalism and writing for some of the world’s most prestigious publications and having worked as a foreign correspondent in countries like Finland, Italy, Colombia, and others, I have learned a thing or two about journalistic style and correctness.

On top of my journalistic experience, I am a sociologist who has researched immigration topics like Finnish immigration to Argentina.

I have written about immigration and minority topics for almost 14 years in Migrant Tales. In those years, Migrant Tales has published 4,990 posts, which is an average of one posting per day.

Below is a list of terms and observations together with recommendations for journalists and others that write about this topic, which I plan to update in the future:

  • Maahanmuuttajat is the term in Finnish for migrants. By using the term, we perpetuate stereotypes about this vastly diverse group. We generalize and, with it, fall into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes.
  • When a reporter interviews an Islamophobic politician and uses the term maahanmuuttajat liberally, he gives such a politician a free pass. If we dig deeper and try to decipher what the term means, it is a code word for non-EU nationals who are Muslims and come from Africa.
  • If you disagree, ask yourself if Swedes and other EU nationals are called maahanmuuttajat.
  • Using such a term to speak about “foreigners” is the same as grouping all Europeans into one category, which would be absurd. This is misleading and wrong.
  • The use of terms such as maahanmuuttajat is not only enabling an anti-immigration party to continue labeling and victimizing non-EU citizens, it also helps us to cover up and deny the racism in our society.
  • Maahanmuuttajataustainen, a person of foreign origin, is a sinister word used by anti-immigration politicians and public officials to intentionally or non-intentionally exclude first-generation Finns.
  • Here is a question: What would happen if we would drop the concept label “person of foreign origin” from our vocabulary? In my opinion, it would fast-forward inclusion.
  • One of the biggest question marks that first-generation Finns and minorities have is their exclusion and how their background does not make them “a real” Finn.
  • Using such terms encourages exclusion and a sense of outsiderness of such people who are equal members of this society on their own terms.
  • By using “person of foreign origin” on children born here and who speak Finnish as their main language, we strengthen white Finnish privilege. We tell such brown and black Finns that they are outsiders and that white people are the only cultural standard.
Henna Kajava is a Perussuomalaiset* candidate for the Espoo city council. Her greatest worry? Whites will soon be a minority in that city (sic!). She enjoys using terms such as maahanmuuttajat, maahanmuuttajataustaisia, and maahanmuuttokriittinen in her hostile attack against brown and black Finns.


  • Hold an Islamophobic politician to account. When they paint non-White people with a broad brush as maahanmuuttajat, ask the person to specify. Are we speaking of Muslims, Africans, EU citizens, or what?
  • Even if it is an incomplete term, call first-generation people born here F i n n s, or brown, black, or Other Finns. Identity is a personal matter. Ask instead of automatically labeling a person into a certain group.
  • Strive to use language that is inclusive and does not polarize society into us and them. Anti-immigration parties use such language constantly and the media, unfortunately, follows suit.
  • Don’t ever use the term maahanmuuttokriittiinen, which is a rude synonym used by anti-immigration parties and politicians.
  • Have you noticed how only white Finns are using these terms?