Here’s a simple question: By law, a person is a Finn if he or she is a Finnish citizen. Why, then, are some of these Finnish citizens spoken of and near-constantly reminded by society that they are so-called “people with foreign backgrounds?”
What does it really mean to be labelled “a person with foreign background” in a country like Finland, where migrants and minorities are targets of fearmongering, xenophobia, and bigotry?
The only person who determines your identity is yourself. Picture by Enrique Tessieri.
In Sweden, a country that has many more migrants than Finland uses as well the label “person with foreign background.”
Philosopher Michael McEachran of Stockholm said that a person who is labelled “with foreign background” in Sweden is code used by officials to mean non-Europeans or non-white people.
The Finnish police service denies that the description is used in the same context as in Sweden. The Police College of Finland gave the following definition of what having foreign background means:
“A person ‘with migrant [or foreign] background’ means in our books a person who has moved to Finland from any country and is a naturalized Finn. It doesn’t imply anything about the person’s ethnic or family background. For example, if a person, who is a Swedish citizen, moves to Finland with their children, who are Finnish citizens, their children aren’t classified as persons with migrant [or foreign] background.”
A good example of the usage of the term by the police service was a rape case that took place in the Helsinki neighbourhood of Tapanila in March 2015 committed by 15-18-year olds. The police released a statement after the suspects were in police custody and identified them as “five people with foreign backgrounds.”
When I called the police officer in charge of the case and asked if those held in custody were born in Finland and had Finnish citizens, I got the following answer: “I don’t know exactly if all of them are citizens or not because this isn’t an essential piece of information in the case. But some are [Finnish citizens].”
Even if the police officer didn’t consider national background to be an important piece of information, the label reinforced in one stroke the perception that people with “foreign backgrounds” are a threat to society because they commit rape.
Another important question that the police statement raises is why it had to state the suspects’ ethnic background even if they were in police custody?
In the same way that the police service reinforces that it registers people with foreign background even if they are officially Finns, the police unintentionally or intentionally racializes and classifies people into “real” and “not real” Finns.
Why is it important for the police service to register people with non-white ethnic and national backgrounds even if they are legally Finns? What extra information does the police service get by registering people in this way? Does it expose ethnic profiling, which the police deny, their prejudices or white Finnish privilege and power?
A recent example of how the police racializes different national group was in the beginning of April when the police service and the Border Guard started spot checks on foreigners in Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa. Even if the police service denies that it stops people because of their ethnic background, they do state that they stop people who look different from “white ethnic Finns” and those that “look like Finns.”
It is quite remarkable that in the year 2016, the Finnish police service continues to classify people as Finnish and non-Finnish looking. But by doing so it reinforces what we’ve suspected for a long time: the police service defines whom it considers “real” Finns.
While the police service isn’t the only body that does this, we could ask what is a Finnish-looking person considering that over 1.2 million Finns emigrated from this country between 1860 and 1999? What does a so-called “real” Finn look like today if our foreign population has grown manifold in the last two and a half decades?
Classifying people into “us” and “them” isn’t a good matter because it means that some groups will be discriminated and excluded because they are “them.” Instead of classifying who is “us” and “them” we should acknowledge that we are a diverse society that respects Section 6 of the Constitution, which guarantees that we are all equal before the law.
It’s clear that we have a lot of work and challenges ahead of us to empower minorities to be active members of our society. We need, among other measures, more minorities in the police service and in other public services. One of the most important matters is to speak of these people as Finns on their own terms and not as outsiders. When you call somebody “person with foreign background” doesn’t promote social equality because there is no such country or place called “foreign background.”
Is it fair that a child, who was born and brought up in Finland, is still labelled at school a person with foreign background? The whole question can be put in the following context: What are we telling these children when we label them in this way? Do we further or hinder their place as equal and active members of our society by reminding them near-constantly that they are not from here?
I was involved last year in a shadow report on Afrophobia in Finland for the NGO European Network Against Racism (ENAR). In the report, which also studied the situation of Black Europeans and people of African descent in other EU countries, it became clear that Finland wasn’t the only country that used the term, people with foreign backgrounds.
In Germany it takes at least three generations before a person is seen statistically as an “ethnic German.” In Holland, they even go as far as to have an official label for people with foreign backgrounds. An autochtonen is a person whose both parents were born in Holland, and allochtonen, when one of the person’s parents was born abroad. It’s pretty interesting to note that when the Dutch national football team is introduced they never mention which of the players are an autochtonen or allochtonen.
Europe has always been culturally and ethnically diverse. This fact has strengthened thanks to migration and to the high number of asylum seekers that came to Europe last year.
To deny our diversity, or to hinder it with the help of restrictive laws, populism, and ethnic labels that are discriminatory, is harmful and not sustainable in the long run.
It’s high time that institutions like the police service of Finland update their information about our changing society and take into account an import factor: Diversity will grow, not retreat, in all European countries during this century.