“Only Finnish spoken here” versus cultural diversity

by , under Enrique

What would you do if you saw on an elementary school classroom door the following message: Only Finnish spoken here? Would you ask if speaking Swedish is ok? Would it raise disturbing memories of how minorities like the Saami were persecuted and discouraged at school especially after World War 2 for speaking their own language?

Kuvankaappaus 2013-6-8 kello 8.19.15
The Saami minority were one of many groups that were victims of white Finnish assimilation.

Here’s the double-standard and conflict: It would be disturbing to see such a sign at a school in Lapland today but we wouldn’t think anything of it if the message was intended for third-culture children, or those who have one or two immigrant parents.

One of the issues that we see over and over in the ongoing debate on immigration and immigrants is our acceptance of cultural diversity. In the last century, Finland dealt with cultural diversity in the following way:

  • discouraging “Otherness” and assimilation of minorities like the Saami, which began in the nineteenth century*
  • systematically prohibit immigration and foreign investment to the country 

If we consider that it took Finland 65 years after independence to have its first Aliens Act in force in 1983, and that the Restricting Act of 1939, which severely undermined foreign investment to the country and was shelved in 1992, our assimilation policy included immigrants and foreign investment.

Finland is a very different country today than it was in the last century. We live in a globalized world and our society is becoming ever-culturally diverse. Since our assimilation policy was systematic in the last century after independence, it’s easy to understand why some Finns oppose and are hostile to cultural diversity.

A good example of the latter are anti-immigration parties like the Perussuomalaiset (PS), which would never suggest to their voters the things  they do for immigrants. It explains as well why we don’t think twice about “only Finnish spoken here” signs at schools.

“While I believe that our school system in Finland strives to promote cultural diversity, the truth is that we have a long way to go. Killing and discouraging diversity has distorted our view of ourselves and how we accept others in our society.

One example of the latter is how some schools continue to label third-culture children as “students with immigrant backgrounds,” even if they were born and grew up in this country. Such labels serve in too many cases to promote social inequality.

If you want a culprit that is holding us back today and which promotes intolerance, you’ll find it in our assimilation policies and the way we were brought up and taught to see ourselves as an exclusive national group. With more immigrants moving to this country, we need to promote inclusion and acceptance.

One association that played an important role in our assimilation policy in the last century was Suomalaisuuden liitto. Should it surprise us that the association, which has been taken over by the PS, has spearheaded a campaign to demote the Swedish language to elective status at schools.

* Vesa Puuronen: Rasistinen Suomi. Gaudeamus, Helsinki 2011. pp. 111-163.

  1. Jssk

    The forced assimilation attempts on saami are a disgusting stain in our history. Its not a question of diversity for me, its a more like a question of kinship beetween finnic peoples.

    Suomalaisuuden liitto didnt take a part in the assimilation attempts of saami though.

    • Enrique Tessieri

      –Suomalaisuuden liitto didnt take a part in the assimilation attempts of saami though.

      Here again you see how one thing influences the other. If there was a trend to mold Finland into one culture, this didn’t help the Saamis at all or any other minority. I guess you just had to grin and bear it the best way possible. In some cases, when you “made Finns” (changing surname etc) you laid down seeds which later budded into fascism. Crudely and very generally speaking, you exchanged who you were (say a Jew) and became a member of the White Guard (Suojeluskunta) and replaced his former self for nationalism. I think this is one of many typical stories of the 1920s and 1930s.