Finland might be the least welcoming place for people of color
Before writing this piece, I want to acknowledge my personal privileges that allow me to write such a critical essay. I am an Iranian-born artist holding a United States passport who is residing in Finland based on an international student residency. By no means, I declare myself as the spokesperson of Iranians in Finland or international students of color. The opinions and views on this post are solely mine and based on my experiences living, studying and working in Helsinki. I have been studying at The University of the Arts, Helsinki up until last year and simultaneously working and researching social exclusion in the context of Finland.
Intensive Tokenism Simultaneous With Systematic Exclusion
One day, -a few months before I graduate- I sat in the dean’s office for a private meeting that he scheduled for me following an enthusiastic email. I didn’t know what the meeting was really about. He asked me about my future plans and career goals. In the middle of the conversation, he suggested; “how about if I give you a job? We need talented people like you”. I was very surprised by the offer. I accepted. He described to me; the beginning stage I would not talk to anyone about the opportunity because he was trying to ‘create’ a position specifically for me. He asked me to attend a few meetings with other staff and admins which was dragged on for a few months and there was no job and no payment. At the same time, I realized that I was promised something that really didn’t exist. I was used and falsely promised a non-existence job in order to not criticize the school until my studies are done.
The Academy of Fine Arts is one of the whitenest and least diverse art academies in the world. There are 0% POC in the staff and faculty of the academy. There are no data on race and ethnicity of students. The school has a history of mistreating students of color and having problematic art projects about race such as “Oriental Spa”. (1) There have been many student-collective-complaints against the institutional nepotism and favoritism. Yet, as students come and go, the overall structure of the school has relatively stayed the same. I have been talking to previous lecturers, teachers, and students, it seems like the overall strategy of the institution has been similar throughout the years in dealing with issues regarding lack of diversity and the general whiteness of the academy.
False Advertisement and Media Circus on Internationalism
We know that a lot of money and energy is spent by Finnish institutions on branding and selling a positive image of Finland to the world as an international and welcoming country. A few weeks ago, I came across a blog by a token POC name Mahmudul Islam, about his experience in Finland and how Finland has treated him. The interesting encounter about this charades was that it was viewed and commented ’only’ by white people (mostly Finnish) on how nice and pleasant the article was. It had all the ’myths’ that white Finnish people want you to hear. It had the same essentialist and binary language that you hear in everyday conversations with white people who are benefiting from this system. So, in this piece, I want to write my version of ”Things I Learned After Living 3 Years in Finland”.
White Finns think they have not colonized anyone [inccorectly of course], and in some cases, they think they are not even white, and see themselves as indigenous!!?? Meanwhile, the Finnish institutions, for the most part, don’t acknowledge the sovereignty of Sámi indigenous people and their land. It’s also very surprising how little white Finns know about the history and struggle of Sámi people. During my study at the University of Arts, I can’t recall meeting any Sámi artist. I never saw an event in which they were invited to give a talk about their art or culture.
Finno-Ugric countries have the potential to be the most white-nationalist states in Europe. As Hungry and Finland are already showing by data, these societies view themselves as exceptional from other colonial and imperialist European states. (2) Therefore they think, they can bypass all the traditional racist problematics, from race-science and Eugenics to modern cultural appropriation and white privilege. Historical social trauma is often mentioned as an excuse for structural or individual racism. Elements such as the history of Swedish and Russian rule over the piece of land that is today known as Finland or other topics such as economic migration of white Finns to Sweden during the ’60s and ’70s often comes up as an excuse. There are also other classic binary stories of Finnish ‘Incivility’ that are often stereotyped by other nordic white people which has left a cultural social trauma on white Finns. Although all these elements can be legitimate for a white person to feel hurt, by no means it should be weaponized as an excuse to further perpetuate the racism that is inherited in this ethnically-homogenous society.
POC as Scapegoat (Racism in Finland)
When 30,000 people migrated to Finland in 2015, the state-supported media presented them as a ‘huge number of migrants’. Compared to the 5.5 million population of Finland, this number -which is not even one football stadium- is less than 1% of the Finnish population. And Permanent Secretary Päivi Nerg estimated that 60-65 percent of recent asylum applications will be rejected. (3) Thus the deportation regime of Finland began the task of deporting 2/3 of people against the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Currently, the racist party of PS (True/Pure Finns) is the biggest party in opposition after the close triumph of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) this year. PS has only 1 seat less (39/200) in the Parliament of Finland and the same number of seats in the EU Parliament (2) as the SDP. According to a 2011 poll, 51% of Finns Party voters agreed with the statement, ”People of certain races are unsuited for life in a modern society”. Simultaneous with this, I have also encountered a lot of people of color who against their community’s interest fall into uncletomism and support the white rhetoric of the True Finns party.
While the skinhead racism of PS exists among almost half of the everyday people in Finland, another type of race-blindness and indifference exist among the educated white people. The type of people who work/teach at universities or conducting research and doing art projects. There are unacknowledged issues that seem to be normalized in the everyday life of people; issues such as comprehension of the fact that not every person represents a state identity. The other unacknowledged problem has to do with a basic understanding of color in relation to nationality. For example, not all Iranians look the same, similar to not all Finns are white. The white people I encountered in the University of the art (teachers and students) were not able to see beyond ‘national identity’ and binary views of gender and culture. This could be as simple as a lack of interest in what language Iranian people speak or lack of understanding of indigeneity, cultural appropriation, and white privilege. The sort of issues that had to be talked about in primary education but due to structural and national problems have been neglected.
While all these elements exist in society, the POC artists and art-workers preoccupy themselves with an invisible competition to win grants and state money in order to survive. As the recent data shows the people with non-Finnish names are less likely to be hired for jobs that they are qualified for. At the top of the hiring list, as always, exist the privileged white Finnish woman and on the bottom is the brown/black man. (4) (5)
In the everyday life when talking to Finnish artists it’s common that they would call you or your community “foreigners” or “ex-change students” even though you have been living here for 3 years and planning to stay longer terms. They would still ask you unwelcoming questions such as “where are you from?”, or “how long will you be here?” This way of using language is so normalized that even POC are very used to it. It’s another way for society to systematically put you outside of itself. I was talking to a poc taxi-driver last year, and he was mentioning that he gets this question at least a dozen times each day. Can you imagine living in a country where ‘every day’ you have to talk about where your parents are from?
For the academic staff and faculty of universities and art academies, it is also incomprehensible to imagine a black/brown Finn. No matter how much you are providing proof of locality you are still seen as an “Iranian”, or “Middle-Eastern” or whatever else. Finnish education has been proven to be made by and made for white European people rather than any other international communities. The fact that there is no measure of race in this country shows that your passport and nationality is the only measure for your identity. Academic research on brown/black people by white people is so normalized that you can walk to any event ‘about’ minority issues or developing countries and see a Finnish person as the spokesperson. While Finland is benefiting from an open Westernized economy which is based upon colonialism and industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries, it sees itself as neutral, non-European, non-imperial in cultural and historical topics. (6) This myth enables the white Finns to allow themselves to represent anyone from anywhere. From unrepresented 1st generation migrants to black and brown people in developing countries to the study of indigenous peoples around the world with classical anthropological methods.
National Art as a Project of Nation-Building
If you read the Strategy for Cultural Policy 2025 by the Ministry of Education and Culture, you will come across a lot of empty talk about diversity. (7) These policies seem to attempt to sell the local white Finnish artists the idea of internationalism. Yet, in reality (or in practice) they are doing the same old national project of ‘Nation-building’ which was the aim of the Finnish culture sector up to the early 2000s.
As a POC artist, if you become a non-white face of Finland to further push the nationalist agenda of nation-building you are welcome… but if you decide to tell your stories about the grim local conditions of art-making and survival inside Finland, all the sudden you are ignored and demonized by the institutions as well as white Finns who want to present themselves as ‘allies’ yet, in reality, need the approval and financial support of the state.
There are many poc artists/activists who are raising their voices to this injustice and systematic way of excluding POC voices. Yet, the institutional ‘strategy’ toward these POC artists is to grant them tiny opportunities so they would work inside the system. In other words, the art system tries to buy you out. No room for political dissent. The beginning story of the Academy of Fine Arts’s dean was an example of this situation. However, they were so naive that they couldn’t even carry out a normal buyout. He presented to me a non-existent job to keep me quiet for a short time expecting that I will leave the country and things will go back to business as usual.
After the POC activist is boughtout by the system, what happens to the criticism? What type of criticism do you produce, who do you hang out with, and how far does your radicality extends?
I can list the names of a handful of predominate 1st generation POC artists who are getting the most exposures by the institutions and galleries. They have become the voices of the non-white minority. They are receiving money from the state and institutions through a variety of projects and programs. In other words, they are now part of the family. It would be an easy task to list the names of these model-minorities, yet I see no benefit in such acts aside from further dividing the already shattered community. The works of these groups of POC are often centered around the critic of internationalism and globalization which is often supported by the white art bureaucrats. Their work will ultimately result in further discrimination of 1st generation people. The model-minorities help to pave the way for the gradual weakening of the POC community in Finland resulting in orthodox solutions and rejection of racial differences and privilege, in order to reduce all problems to the simplistic black and white economical issues.
In the 3 years that I have been part of the art scene in Helsinki, I have seen many instances of racism within the art-community towards the POC, but haven’t seen any collective complaint, or constructive effort to demand an institutional response/action to these types of racial and cultural violence. On the contrary, I have seen many signs of forceful integration and assimilation even in the art. The orthodox bureaucratic system creates another low-budget project to ‘help foreigners’ (as a flock of seagulls) integrate into ‘our’ system (white Finnish system). The presumption that ‘our system’ is great. And the problem is ‘you foreigners’ with your backward cultures who need to learn how to use it. There are many examples of these low-budget band-aid solutions such as the www.foreigner.fi, where a group of European people trying to help the static category of the non-Finns, learn the Finnish system. That is a binary mentality perpetuated by other white Europeans.
In short, the right-wing ‘white’ mentality of this region states that Finland is great because of its ethnic homogeneity. While the ‘white’ radical left simply negates whatever comes out of the right. Other ‘white’ countries (including the USA, Australia, Canada, and other European (colonial) satellites), view Finland great due to its social programs. The people of color’s faith is now stuck between the two simplistic binary as Fanon once said.
In the midst of news about best in education and happiest in the world, I need to add (as most POC already know) that these data only apply to white citizens. Social democracy in Finland is selective and made by and for European subjects. While we are currently part of the rapid Westernization of the economy, not only we see an indifference towards the problems of minorities, but we see the systematic exclusion of POC from all areas of daily life.
(The original article was posted on the inside-an-airport blog on 26.10.2019)
1. Bahadori, Hami. Is Finnish Art Scene Inhumane? . insideanairport. [Online] August 7, 2019. https://insideanairport.com/post/186835452059/is-finnish-art-scene-inhumane.
2. Dougall, David Mac. Finland sharply criticised over racism, trans rights and immigrant issues. newsnowfinland. [Online] sep 19, 2019. https://newsnowfinland.fi/finland-international/finland-sharply-criticised-over-racism-trans-rights-and-immigrant-issues.
3. Unknown. Interior Ministry: Finland set to reject two thirds of asylum seekers. yle. [Online] 11 11, 2015. https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/interior_ministry_finland_set_to_reject_two_thirds_of_asylum_seekers/8446795.
4. Ahmad, Akhlaq. Researcher: “If there’s a worker with a Finnish name, they’ll probably be hired”. yle.fi. [Online] 10 21, 2019. https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/researcher_if_theres_a_worker_with_a_finnish_name_theyll_probably_be_hired/11026589?fbclid=IwAR2zdrRAyQFBas825HKQs7AjBbKOI26YVyC_46sQNiVOO589BG1N0ec0OFQ.
5. Staff, News Now. DomesticEconomy & Business Racism at work: only 10% of Somali job applicants get interview. newsnowfinland. [Online] July 22, 2019. https://newsnowfinland.fi/domestic/racism-at-work-only-10-of-somali-job-applicants-get-interview.
6. Macallister, Miles. The Scandinavians ‘hitchhiked’ their way to the boons of empire. Aeon. [Online] 1 18, 2018. https://aeon.co/ideas/the-hitchhiking-scandinavian-way-to-the-imperial-riches.
7. Culture, Ministry of Education and. Strategy for Cultural Policy 2025 – Ministry of Education and Culture. s.l. : Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland, 2017.
8. Looking for examples of disgusting cultural appropriation? albma duohta sápmelaš . [Online] June 12, 2012. https://albmaduohtasapmelas.tumblr.com/post/24963894492/looking-for-examples-of-disgusting-cultural.