Part I: Racism causes trauma and mental suffering

by , under Sonia Maria Koo

Maailman Kuvalehti, a periodical which often takes up issues of xenophobia and racism in Finland more bravely than the mainstream media, cited the article Häpeää, itsesyytöksiä, masennusta – toistuvan rasismin vaikutukset mielenterveyteen voivat olla vakavat (Shame, self-blame, and depression – continuous racism encounter impact on mental wellbeing can be severe). Dated April 24th to a study by Robert T. Carter (University of Columbia), it stated that day-to-day exclusion encounters cause mental depression and symptoms similar to war trauma. Read the article here.

The article refers mainly to exclusion experiences of non-white Finns. It is obvious that ethnic (or naturalized!) non-white Finns or non-white immigrants/refugees are far more exposed to day-to-day racial assaults in public than a white immigrant. Xenophobic encounters are sadly on the rise (for example) when speaking another language in public or “looking different.”


Read the full report, Respond to Racism Guide, published by ENAR Ireland here.

Michaela Moua, as cited, specializes in mental problems of minorities and considers mutual trust as the most crucial part of therapy work with a patient. The reality, however, is this: “You report your experiences to a psychotherapist, but s/he responds “Was it so? Things like that don’t happen in Finland!”, the article says. How can trust be built when patients’ feelings, experiences, and inner struggles are belittled or denied?

Moua calls small encounters enforcing stereotypes microaggressions. It is not only hateful comments that create a feeling of exclusion – acting surprised by a native non-white Finn’s command of Finnish may be an example.

Low availability of therapists who can relate to patients’ experiences of racism and marginalization with empathy is only one issue. Therapists’ unconditional ability to acknowledge them as true and real is another deficit. Rejection pushes the one needing help into self-blame, doubt, and the feeling of failure.

What makes it unbearable?

Personally, first and foremost, it’s the denial. Denial of our perceptions by Finnish society. While this certainly does not mean the entire society, it is still dreadfully common and unfounded.

I should have counted all these “If you don’t like it in Finland, go back/elsewhere!” in two decades – from strangers or from so-called “friends” who prioritize an illusion of a flawless home country over you. How often should I have smiled and looked beyond a hostile natsikortti (Nazi card) remark or a Lapinpolttaja (burner of Lapland) joke? How many heads turned away on public transport when a (physical or verbal) assault happened to myself or others? This cannot be a healthy, modern society. You risk being stared at, hit on, or spat upon when speaking a foreign – even Western – language in the capital region.

Denial happens over “Not all Finns are racist!” or “That happened to you? You must have misunderstood something / This must be an exception!”. Let’s all agree. Positive encounters do happen. Then other immigrants discredit your “anecdotal experiences” if the same thing hasn’t happened to them and they also seem infected by the virus of denial. I am aware that populists probably do not specifically mean “me” in their hatred (I am a working, tax-paying, white foreigner fluent in local language), but does it bring me relief? No, because I genuinely care. Should every immigrant (skilled, willing to work but less fortunate with employment) be shamed and made guilty for their status? Only a handful of employers are willing to give up staff homogeneity. Does it entitle Finnish society (therapist or not) to take away our right to subjective perceptions and belittle our experiences or observations? Also no. Denial won’t bring improvement, awareness or any sorely needed civil courage to step in when injustice happens. No winter day can be as dark and freezing as being assaulted when everyone looks away.

Moreover, “Elsewhere it is not any better!” – this claim is rejecting immigrants’ suffering and fear. It is an obstacle to facing the problem and promoting inclusion. We are living in this country as immigrants, and it is not of much help to hear it could be even worse – elsewhere. It could also be better. And we are not elsewhere – we are here!

Last but not least is the impact of all the above on our psyche. How long can you bear that even someone whom you consider a friend (or at least an acquaintance), someone with whom you may have to work with, even a boss, someone you encounter in social settings or – referring to the article – medical personnel you seek support from – makes you and your experiences look ridiculous, untrue, doubtful, or even insane?

Communicating with other immigrants in a similar situation is the best, and probably with only peer support, we can face the issues when so few locals are willing to acknowledge the core of the problem – the exclusion.

Stay tuned for part two: interviews with those who perceive the clash between wanting to be heard, but not finding understanding and how it affects their mental wellbeing.

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