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Researchers: Yle documentary results “not surprising”

It’s not surprising that colour and perceived nationality make a difference in how people are treated in Finland, say Helsinki University researchers commenting on an Yle documentary. However one academic cautions against labeling Finns as racists on the basis of the results.

Kännykkä lainaksi tuntemattomalta
A researcher with a Russian background succeeds in borrowing a mobile phone from a passerby in the Yle documentary. Image: Yle/ Silminnäkijä

Yle’s Silminnäkijä (Eyewitness) television documentary programme went undercover recently to test how Finns treated different groups looking for work, housing or just trying to get into a club. The programme found that the subject perceived as a native Finn had the easiest time, while the opposite was true for a subject with a Somali background. Another subject with a Russian name and accent also had a hard time in some cases.

According to Helsinki University’s Professor Fred Dervin, the results are hardly surprising. He pointed out that similar tests had been conducted in other parts of Europe with similar outcomes. Dervin, whose work centres on multiculturalism, cautioned against drawing the conclusion that Finns are racist.

“As far as we know in Finland as in other countries, there’s a hierarchy in terms of different types of immigrants. I am an immigrant myself but no one refers to me as an immigrant per se because I look more or less like the others and also because I have a good position in society,” he noted however.

Discrimination a global phenomenon

The practice of singling out separate groups is a global phenomenon, and not merely a Finnish exception, Dervin stressed.

Professor Inga Jasinskaja-Lahti, from the University’s Social Research Department said that studies show that the more positive intercultural contact people have, the less they tend to have prejudicial attitudes towards other groups. She pointed out however that high levels of intercultural contact could also exacerbate tensions between groups.

“It is also well-known that in area with a high proportion of some minority groups members, the attitudes of people are more negative due to the fact that a) their contacts are not only positive and include also some negative interaction, b) ethnic diversity in these areas also coincides with higher socio-economic disadvantage, and c) public opinion and media also support these negative attitudes,” she stated.

More multicultural education needed

Professor Dervin noted that the documentary shows that there is a dire need for more multicultural education in Finland.

“We need to invest time and money to fight against these kinds of attitudes and to help people to move beyond colour,” Dervin added.

The multiculturalism researcher said that although the Nordics are praised for equity and fairness, the reality is different, adding that in education and in other contexts people are not treated equally because of their origin, even though there is the belief that they are treated equitably.

He said that turning the tide of silent discrimination should begin with ongoing multicultural education for teachers to help them past the current limited understanding of “otherness”. He noted this would help create a group of leaders who could then avoid the kinds of attitudes exposed in the Yle documentary.

He also stressed that the current practice of labeling children born in Finland as immigrants should cease, “because the term has so many negative connotations that it’s become dangerous,” he added.

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