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Blackface, racist song at student party spark controversy at Jyväskylä University

Last week three student groups at Jyväskylä University gathered for a traditional "sitsfest" party which ended up sparking controversy and debate about racism.

Kaksi ihmistä skoolaa laseilla.
Image: Sakari Partanen / Yle

Across the Nordics, university parties known as "sitsfests" have been a part of student life for generations. While traditions vary, most of them involve dressed-up students dining at long tables, a toastmaster, methodical alcohol consumption and most importantly, singing traditional songs.

In Jyväskylä last week however, one sitsfest event raised eyebrows after organisers were accused of promoting racism.

Several of the partygoers had donned costumes, with one student arriving at the gathering in blackface makeup as "Black Pete."

Following established convention, the students also sang traditional melodies - but, some were modified with new lyrics (also de rigueur). The words to at least one of the songs — which included references to Nazis and another n-word — were called out as racist.

Solitary student protests, but is ignored

One student reportedly stood up during the song and spoke out to protest the lyrics. But most of the crowd continued singing and ignored the outcry, according to a blog post by university student, Laura Kangas.

A couple of days after the party, the chair of the student union's representative council Bella Forsgrén wrote on the student union's blog that racism doesn't belong at these traditional parties, or at the university.

Bella Forsgrén
Bella Forsgrén file photo. Image: Arvo Vuorela / Yle

Her post spelled out reasons why the use of racist language and blackface is inappropriate, noting that the party in question took place during the nationwide Red Cross-sponsored "anti-racism week" which the union supports.

"The world has changed more rapidly than the sitsfests have. Maybe they were OK twenty years ago, but not anymore," Forsgrén said, saying that a line has to be drawn.

Outcry prompts promises of change

Forsgrén's post received significant attention and debate on social media.

In the days following the party, all three of the student groups at the party Stimulus (psychology students), Abakus (special education students) and Pedago (primary school teacher students) — have issued statements of apology, vowing not to repeat their actions in the future.

In its own statement of apology, the board of the Jyväskylä University Student Union (JYY) said it is currently preparing guidelines for party organisers, and in a statement on Monday denounced racism at such events.

The statement said the organisation has "zero tolerance for racist or discriminatory behaviour during its activities."

"JYY’s own sitsfest has also seen its own share of racist language and for this we apologise. JYY’s sits fest conventions have sparked discussion and thus JYY is compiling guidelines for an equal sitsfest. Organizations working with JYY will be advised to abide by these guidelines," the union said.

In her post (in Finnish), Kangas said she applauded the Jyväskyä University student union's formal rejection of racism at events but said she would like to ensure that concrete action is taken. She said student culture at the institution needs to be fundamentally changed.

Other student unions in the country, like the one at Helsinki University, have also started addressing the issue of questionable content at the parties.

In its updated guidelines, the union directly acknowledged and pointed out songs which were blatantly racist, discriminatory or openly violent, calling for students to avoid them.

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