A stabbing that took place on Monday in Helsinki, causing the death of a 24-year-old victim, revealed the police’s power in labeling whole ethnic groups (usually in a negative light) and its gatekeeping role. Even if the stabbing suspect was arrested, the police statement mentioned that “about ten [suspects] mainly people of foreign background” took part in the incident at the Helsinki Railway Station.
Any sensible person should ask how the police frames minorities in Finland. What was the purpose of the police to call the suspect “people of foreign background” if he was in police custody?
Officially, a person with a foreign background is anyone whose both parents aren’t white Finns. Unofficially, the term is code for non-white or non-EU citizens. People of color are often referred to by the police with such ethnic labels.
The story by Yle below confronted the police and the media by asking what their motives were for using such a term. Yle News went even further and did the right thing by not mentioning the demeaning label.
Certainly, if you are white and have had little cultural sensitivity training to challenge your prejudices and racism, it is easy to understand why you don’t have a problem with labeling whole non-white ethnic groups with demeaning terms like “people of foreign background.”
Researcher Erna Bodström tweeted that by mentioning the suspect with such a problematic term in a statement, the police were generalizing and stigmatizing people. Even if the police claim what happened is “a phenomenon,” it is not explained in their statement.
This is not the first time that the police have labeled non-white people. We saw this happen in its ugliest form in Oulu in 2018-2019, when the police and the media went out of their way to label former asylum seekers, or people of foreign backgrounds, as sexual predators.
The use of the term, a person of foreign background, is the brainchild and inspiration of white Finnish nationalism with a clear message to such people: you don’t belong here, you are a potential criminal.
In the same light, we don’t hear the Finnish police labeling some white people as supremacists, even if far-right white extremism is today one of the biggest terrorist threats in Finland.
Why? Because white people like the police give their own ethnic group the benefit of the doubt.
Right before our eyes in Finland, we are witnessing how far-right groups, white nationalists, and others suffering from varying types of social ills have repackaged themselves by using more polite and innocuous language.
One of these is for sure “person of foreign background.”