Dissecting Finnish racism and bigotry

by , under Enrique

“Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.”

 Malcolm X (1925-65)

The quote by one of the most powerful voices to emerge from the U.S. Civil Rights Movements, reveals how racism survived in the 1960s to see another day. Even though the quote by Malcolm X was made about a half a century ago, it still sheds light on how racism survives another day to oppress, exploit and disenfranchise.

When speaking of racism in a country like Finland, the first question we should address is where did it come from. The over 1.2 million Finns that emigrated from this land between 1860 and 1999 offer one answer as does Germany, our former historical big brother.

Like many European countries, Germany had colonies in Africa and elsewhere. Like any world colonial power, it too had to establish a racist system that gave it the moral right to pillage, exploit and commit genocide.

European racism was so rampant in the nineteenth century that it had lost touch with reality and created a pseudoscience called eugenics,  whose sole purpose was to justify the extermination of so-called undesirable non-white ethnic groups. Any group that was deemed undesirable was one that threatened white or colonial privilege.

What kind of colonial masters were the Germans?  They were just as ruthless as the British, French, Spaniards, Italians, Dutch, Belgians, white U.S. Americans, Japanese and others.

Between 1904 and 1908, Germans systematically massacred ancestors of the Herero and Nama people for daring to rebel against their colonial ruler. The first concentration camps were not built by the Nazis in World War 2 but in Namibia by the Germans.

European colonialism was directly responsible for the mass extermination of non-white groups in Tasmania, Latin America and other regions like the former Belgian Congo, where an estimated half of the 20 million inhabitants died to satisfy King Leopold II’s greed. Not only did colonialism bring hardships like mass slavery, it turned against its master in World War I and II by causing the death of some 100 million people.

While there are many examples of how racism found its way to far-flung Finland, it survives amongst us today for the same reasons as it did  in the past.

Any sensible person agrees that racism is horrible and none of us would endorse it openly. We do support such a social ill, however, through our silence, denials and prejudice.

Migrant Tales is living proof of how little we have done in this country to challenge intolerance. It’s sad but true: intolerance will become a bigger problem in Finland as our society become more culturally diverse. The rise of the anti-immigration Perussuomalaiset (PS) party is one example that reinforces the latter.

Since racism is a pernicious force, we need leadership to challenge it. We don’t need to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, only a few are enough to leave a lasting impression.

Leadership can be shown on a public tram by Helsinki Deputy Mayor Pekka Sauri, and by others like Rebecka Holm, an adolescent who decided to do something about racist harassment, and Ricky Ghansha, who forced a “super racist” to apologize publicly for his behavior.

Our struggle against intolerance doesn’t even have to be so public. We can do a lot at the workplace just by reacting to a racist, homophobic or sexist comment. The message must be clear: We won’t tolerate intolerance.

Tim Soutphommasane, who wrote an interesting opinion piece on Australian racism, says the following: “It’s [political correctness] nonsense because the worst form of censorship comes from the opposite direction. Nothing shuts down debate more than the idea that any allegation of racism must involve a moral charge against each and every Australian [or Finn in our case]. That it must mean we are saying there’s something fundamentally rotten about the Australian character.”

Soutphommasane explains why it’s difficult to debate a social ill like racism in Australia and even in Finland since we’re at a loss on how to confront the issue. A strange logic takes place when we play down racism and allow self-censorship to muffle our arguments.

He asks: “Do we go to the trouble of making such fine distinctions between hooligan behavior  and hooligans? Or between criminal behavior and criminals? Why must we take such extraordinary care to avoid offending those who engage in racist behaviour? This is a grotesque form of self-censorship, if ever there was one.”

Not only must we understanding where and how a phenomenon like racism has lodged itself in our society, we must rally leadership and resolve to confront it with its real name.

If we succeed at this,  we’d have made significant progress in stopping new Cadillac models from entering the market every year.


  1. Barachiel

    As I have told you in person, Enrique, I don’t think the sentiment in Finland is racism *per se*. Non-whites did not exist in Finland around thirty years ago; you have talked about the first black person in Mikelli, and how racism in that community has evolved since then. Because of Finland’s relative isolation, and because immigration is a relatively new phenomenon in this country, I would personally chalk a lot of the accounts on “MT” as examples of ignorance, not racism. Compare the American South, the region where I come from, in which whites lived alongside blacks for centuries, and even today many whites consider blacks to be lower than dirt (though they would never admit it); the Republican Parties in many Southern states are looking at every trick in the book to bring back Jim Crow on paper and discourage minority voting. Now THAT’s a society that is racist. Finland is a relatively new country that, in some ways, is naive and inexperienced with different groups. At worst, I think that Finland can be ignorant and in ways incompetent, but not racist.

    • Mark


      Speak as you find, of course, but I don’t think you can generalise from a single person’s experience either. I have heard exactly that kind of redneck racism in Finland.

  2. Barachiel


    Speak as you find, of course, but I don’t think you can generalise from a single person’s experience either. I have heard exactly that kind of redneck racism in Finland.

    I guess it may sound like I’m excusing Finnish bigotry as “less severe” than American bigotry; I’m sorry that that is the implication.

    • Enrique Tessieri

      Barachiel, certainly you cannot compare racism in the US with what we’re seeing in Finland. Certainly ignorance is a part of racism irrespective of the place it appears. Professor Jeremy Gould gave a talk at Otava Folk High School in spring in he said that maybe it’s difficult to say racism is an issue in Finland because there are still so few immigrants. However, he did state diplomatically that Finns may have an issue with accepting people who are different from them. We have mentioned this on MT a lot of times that while racism appears in Finland, the real issue is accepting cultural diversity. Is the problem of accepting it due to ignorance, prejudice or just plain racism?

      If we have issues with cultural diversity then matters can turn ugly in Finland too as our immigrant population grows. We may not have Jim Crow laws in force but will have the Finnish version of it.

      Moreover, the rise of the PS reinforces, in my opinion, the problems Finland has with accepting Otherness.

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