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Yle poll: Many Finns admit not stepping in to stop racist abuse

Respondents to an Yle survey admitted they felt intimidated or too shocked to intervene when they witnessed verbal abuse happening in the street – but said they later regretted not acting.

Many respondents to the Yle discrimination survey described witnessing verbal abuse on public transport.

Yle asked the public to send in accounts of incidents they have experienced or witnessed that they feel amount to discrimination. The survey was not scientific, but the anecdotal responses raise troubling questions about how discriminatory incidents should be dealt with.

Replying to the survey, many native Finns reported having been bystanders in situations where racial discrimination was taking place. Many said they regretted not having been able to – or not having dared to – intervene.

“It still grates with me that I wasn’t brave enough to jump in,” said one respondent, adding that: “I was just too tired and apprehensive.”

Bystanders often admitted to feeling personally afraid of the person shouting, who may have been intoxicated. Others said they were so shocked by what they saw that they just froze. One respondent claimed this is why they’d managed to avoid ever being on the receiving end of a punch – despite a few near misses.

Almost all those who said they had stepped in when witnessing an incident reported that they themselves were also verbally abused, but said that they managed to defuse the situation.

“A fifty-something man was shouting obscenities at a woman who could have been from Africa, and saying she should go back to where she came from. I went up to him and told him he had no right to shout at someone like that – ‘Shout at me, if you have to,’ I said. He rambled at me for a few minutes then walked off.”

Children verbally abused

Many respondents described watching disturbing scenes where children of foreign backgrounds were the victims of discrimination in public.

One said: "A middle-aged man on the bus was shouting at two dark-skinned children to shut up, ranting that Somalis were always too loud, just like Swedish-speaking Finns. I didn’t dare get involved, because he seemed aggressive – but I felt very bad about the whole thing afterwards.”

To step in or not to step in?

Another woman who said she did intervene when she saw racist behaviour on a train said that she believes stepping in is an important act not only for the person on the receiving end of the discrimination, but also for the good of society as a whole.

She described getting involved in an incident where a Finnish man was hurling abuse at a Russian mother and her young son, calling them “Ryssä” – an offensive anti-Russian term – and complaining that they were taking up a seat on the train.

“I was heavily pregnant, but I managed to haul myself in front of the man. I told him firmly to stop taunting the mother and her boy, and to stop going on about Finland, Finnishness and the Winter War. Not a single other passenger – not one – stepped in to help calm things down.”

Public transport abuse hotspot

The majority of incidents that respondents described witnessing in were said to have taken place on public transport or at stops and stations.

Some of the respondents complained about the behaviour of bus drivers, including times when they allegedly refused to get involved in an incident of discrimination.

“A middle aged, drunk, native Finnish man was stopping a boy of foreign background from getting on the bus. The man was using the n-word and telling him to ride on a camel instead. The driver was clearly reluctant to react, and the young man was forced to wait for the next bus.”

The respondent said they wanted to report the abuse to the police, but the young man said he didn’t want to “make a fuss”.

“He told me that similar things happen in Kuopio every week, and he was worried that reporting it would just harden people’s attitudes even further,” the respondent said.

Another person who claimed to be a bystander described an incident where a bus driver demanded that a passenger speak Finnish, because the driver couldn’t or didn’t want to speak English. “I told the driver I would make a complaint about his inappropriate behaviour. The driver threatened to throw me off the bus, and shouted abuse at me for the rest of the journey.”

Anti-white abuse

A number of native Finns also sent in reports of incidents where they claimed they were victims of verbal abuse because of their white skin. One abusive term for white people that frequently cropped up was ‘sperm-face’.

One person describes being in a fast-food outlet with their child, and telling a group of youngsters of foreign backgrounds to stop making noise and throwing rubbish.

“I asked them to calm down and I heard them start calling me ’sperm-face’ and making threats,” the respondent said.

Racist interpretation

Some people also reported incidents where a native Finn’s behaviour was seen as racist, even though this wasn’t necessarily the case. One respondent describes seeing a native Finnish older woman sit down next to a dark-skinned girl on public transport.

“The girl glared at her angrily and hissed at her in English: ‘What are you barging into me for, you racist?’ I was so stunned that I didn’t say anything, even though I know people advise that we should.”

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