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“What a bubble I've been living in": Discovering multicultural Finland

Investigative journalist Sam Kingsley shares his take on the outcome of an undercover documentary which tested how Finns really react to different groups in society. Kingsley and his native Finnish researcher quickly realised that life in Finland can take on a different tone, depending on colour and perceived ethnicity.

Image: Juha-Pekka Inkinen / YLE

“At first I wasn't sure whether discrimination was even a problem in this country, but now I realise why we're making this programme”, said Teemu, our researcher, after his job interview.  The second employer out of six had just confided that they'd rather hire him - a native Finn - for the vacancy than an immigrant.

We were filming undercover while a group of researchers - one Finnish, one Russian and one Somali – attempted a series of tests to see whether Finnish people treat them differently because of their ethnic background. All researchers had the same cover story, with similar education, job experience and financial status, but with one vital difference – a name that made each researcher's ethnic origin very clear. The programme can be seen at Yle Silminnäkijä (Eyewitness): Undercover Immigrant.

It soon became obvious that the basic things we all do at some point in our lives – looking for a job or a house, asking for help in the street, even getting into a nightclub - can become considerably more difficult or even impossible if you are noticeably Russian, have a Muslim-sounding name, or have dark skin.

We lost count of how many people said to our native Finnish researcher, “You seem like someone I can trust”, sometimes after only seconds of speaking with him. They'd then cheerfully invite him to a job interview or a flat showing, or gladly hand over their mobile phone for him to borrow.

By contrast, when people heard our Somali researcher's name or saw his black skin, a great many of them decided that they didn't trust him at all. Some were happy to tell him so directly – “Sorry, I wouldn't dare”, said one passer-by when asked if she would lend her phone. “Don't even dream of it”, said another.

Interestingly, our Russian researcher's name didn't seem to put people off over the phone. But when he deliberately ramped up his Russian accent to talk to people in the street, or doormen outside the bars, the reception he got was much frostier.

Positive experiences in Lieska

There were some positive discoveries, though. When we repeated some of our tests in Lieksa, a small town in North Karelia which has gained a reputation for its unwelcoming attitude towards Somalis, we found that people were open, trusting, and far more colour-blind than in the capital city. In fact, local Somalis and Finns alike told us that Lieksa's bad name is no longer applicable.

As background research for this programme I spent six intensive weeks listening to the experiences of people of foreign backgrounds, some brought to Finland as children, others who'd made the choice to come here as adults. White-skinned westerners like me – almost without exception -- told me they feel welcomed and well-treated here.

For others, though, the reality is different. Nearly every single non-white person I spoke to told me they'd been approached by a stranger in public and told to 'Go back to your country' or otherwise verbally abused. One young Middle-Eastern man told me he gets comments like that about once a week while he's travelling to or from work.

Equality for all?

So what has the experience of making this programme revealed about Finnish society?  In a country which prides itself on its equal and fair society, I was struck that so many people feel it's acceptable to deny someone access to a flat or a job – or treat them with mistrust or hostility – simply because of their ethnicity.

Our Finnish researcher says it's shown him he's been living in a bubble, that things he takes for granted are not so easy for people who don't look or sound like him. And our Russian researcher was surprised at just how much it affected people's behaviour when he made it plain to them he was Russian.

“It's because we're still not used to having foreigners in Finland,” is the justification I've heard many times. But it's now decades since the first asylum seekers arrived here, and in every part of Finland you will find youngsters of foreign background who were born and brought up in this country, and who think of themselves as Finnish. In Helsinki, where most of our tests were conducted, you'd be hard pressed to go for a day without coming into contact with at least one person of a foreign background.

Like it or not, modern Finland is an international place, and is becoming more so. Our investigation shows that attitudes still have a long way to go to catch up.

The writer is a British journalist and visiting lecturer in investigative journalism at Helsinki University. He moved to Finland one year ago and has formerly worked for the BBC and Channel 4.  This blog post also appeared in Finnish.

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