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Researcher: Racism debate in Finland focusing on white people’s feelings

As Finnish society struggles with some racist customs, one researcher says the problem with the current debate is that it focuses on the feelings of the country's white majority.

Finland is still debating the whether or not blackface is appropriate. These Alppila youngsters blacked up in 1977 to represent the three wise men during a Christmas play. Image: Helsingin kaupunginmuseo

Recent blackface portrayals in Finland – as well as the wider issue of racism – have seen highly polarising debates with either side vigorously defending their arguments.

Last December, a furore arose when retail chain Stockmann decided to remove a seasonal Christmas advertisement that depicted a character in blackface apparently representing one of the three wise men believed to have visited the infant Jesus. At the time, the chain came under heavy criticism for what some perceived as bowing to pressure and rejecting a beloved Finnish Christmas tradition.

Most recently, students at the University of Jyväskylä caroused to the centre of the racism debate, following reports that apart from condoning a blackface depiction at a rowdy student ‘do’, the sing along included ditties with racist overtones.

According to researcher Minja Koskela of Helsinki’s University of the Arts, there is a seldom-noted thread running through the often strident debates on racism in some Finnish traditions.

“The main problem is that white people’s feelings are always at the centre of these discussions and we need to change that. We are constantly talking about how white people feel if we change a tradition or do things differently. We are not considering that this is not actually about us,” she told Yle News.

Ignorance of blackface’s racist origins

Activist and writer Maryan Abdulkarim noted that many in Finland seem to be unaware of the racist origins of blackface.

“Blackface has been used to oppress black people and strip them of their humanity. It’s been used in minstrel shows, commercials, movies and so on. And it’s about white people painting their faces and mimicking how they think black people act – as childish, dumb, ignorant people. The only reason it’s used is to amuse other white people,” Abdulkarim pointed out.

In spite of their dubious antecedents, many Finns still feel strongly attached to traditions that feature racist characters or emblems. Back in 2016, Yle came under fire for broadcasting a film in the slapstick Pekka and Pätkä series, in which the main characters appeared in blackface.

However the organisation defended the screening as part of its commitment to preserving Finnish cultural film history and said that when the 1960s film was made, blacking up and the use of the n-word were not considered racist. Yle has since said that it has no plans to re-broadcast the controversial film.

Doublespeak defences

Abdulkarim said it is not unusual for people who do not consider themselves racist to defend customs that others see as overtly bigoted.

“I think people get confused to some extent that defending this… means defending their history. It's cognitive dissonance, [meaning] if I like this and I myself have been part of it I cannot accept this message saying that it’s racist in any way, because then I’m racist and I’m not racist,” she explained.

In spite of strong sentiment on either side of the debate, Abdulkarim applauded the fact that conversations about racism and racist traditions are taking place in Finland. She noted that the exchanges are encouraging but at the same time frustrating.

“The conversations taking place and the anti-racist feminist movements seem to be growing day by day. I’m actually quite happy with the conversations we’re having. But [I’m] also quite worried that we’re still having them,” she said.

“It's frustrating that in this day and age we still have to educate well-meaning white people that a white person painting their face black is not OK, it's not innocent and as an act carries historic meanings that still impact the everyday lives of black people and how they are perceived,” the activist added.

While Koskela acknowledged that there is no lack of discussion, she said that Finland lacks an enabling environment for a coherent discussion on the complexities of racism and how it is expressed.

“The problem here is that we don’t have the discourse to address these issues, mainly because of the right-wing populist movement and politics. We are now discussing on terms they have created, which simplify and narrow the issue. It’s not possible to address the complexity within that framework. To change the rules, we’d have to create a new kind of discourse,” Koskela declared.