Turku Newspaper Brownface Stunt Branded ‘A Racist Ego Trip’

Journalism experiment was meant to highlight problems of racism that Finnish Romani are subject to.

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Photographs showing before and after transformation of journalist Ville Mäkilä / Credit: Turkulainen newspaper

A Turku newspaper has been criticised for giving a ‘makeover’ to a white journalist to make him look like an ethnic Romani, then sending him on assignment to get reaction from people in the city.

The purpose of the stunt was to show some of the prejudice and racism that Finland’s Romani community can be subjected to on a daily basis.

Turkulainen journalist Ville Mäkilä had a fake tan to make his skin darker. He dyed his hair black, and wore a lightweight jacket, white shirt, a tie and black trousers to appear more typically Romani.

The story, published on Wednesday morning, says newsroom colleagues “praised” Mäkilä for his authentic appearance. Mäkilä didn’t reply to email and telephone interview requests.

Turkulainen’s Editor-in-Chief Janne Koivisto says the idea for the piece came after an incident earlier this month in Vantaa, where a Romani family was refused service at a Neste petrol station. The encounter was caught on camera, as the employee specifically says he won’t serve the family because of their ethnicity.

“We made an interview three or four months ago and in that interview there was one Roma person, and she told about her experiences. And we thought that we don’t just want to do another interview, so we started to think what would be a new way to investigate this or tell a story, and this was the idea that we decided to make” Koivisto tells News Now Finland.

He says the newspaper only received a few direct complaints about the article, but that most of the criticism came on social media.

“We wanted to write on this matter because we think it is important to fight against racism, not because we wanted to try some funny thing, or that we would like to provoke racism” says Koivisto.

Romani Reaction

There’s been a Romani population in Finland since the 1600s, and they’ve had full rights as citizens since Finnish independence a hundred years ago. Today there’s an estimated 10,000 Romani people in Finland.

Romani writer and filmmaker Carmen Baltzar says she’s not surprised by the Turkulainen story, considering the enduring practice of ‘brownface’ in Finland.

“To be honest I wasn’t that shocked. Brownface has a really long history in Finland. An actress Krista Kosonen did brownface in 2015. There was one TV programme Undercover Boss they did an episode where the boss did the exact same thing in 2016, put on a complete Romani brownface to find out about how his staff would treat him as supposedly Romani. And there will also be a play at our National Theatre in September where a fully white cast plays a whole Romani community” explains Baltzar.

“Romani brownface is very common here, but that doesn’t excuse it” she adds.

Journalism Ethics Questioned

According to several experts, part of the problem of a story like this making it to publication is a lack of diversity in Finnish newsrooms, and a genuine gap in knowledge of how to report on minority issues.

“This is a very unfortunate way of reporting on a serious and well documented problem, the daily discrimination of Roma” says Maria Swanljung from the Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman

“The idea of doing a story based on situation testing is fine but you should of course do the story with the help of the minority itself, not by an unacceptable brownface project […] the Finnish media has a problem of under-representation of minorities and we also seem to have a knowledge issue on how to respect minority rights” she says.

Juha Rekola from the Union of Journalists in Finland is more direct, calling the stunt a  “racist ego trip with no other purpose”.

“It would not happen if there were more Roma staff. It shows how biased the media are, ‘us against them'” he says.

Professor Mikko Villi teaches journalism to students at Jyväskylä University, and says staff in newsrooms should know it’s not acceptable to do something like this as part of the news gathering process.

“They might not have broken any journalistic code, but they have broken sensibility. It’s difficult to understand what was on their minds. It had to have gone through some journalistic process, some discussion in the editorial office, and it’s not as if the reporter went rogue, also others in the newsroom must have taken part in the discussion, should we do it or not” says Villi.

“It’s quite telling that Finnish editorial offices tend to be mono-ethnic, they tend to be very white, and everyone should know this is not okay any more. But they still do it, and for me it’s very difficult to understand” Professor Villi adds.

Getting It Right In Future 

At Turkulainen newspaper, Editor-in-Chief Janne Koivisto says that after the feedback on social media, he wouldn’t likely approve a similar stunt in the future.

“I would say that we won’t make this kind of story again, and I think this discussion has shown that times have changed, and we have to be more aware of these things” he tells News Now Finland.

“I think if we want to find something good in this story it was our reporter’s comment that it opened his eyes and he realised how big a problem racism is, and he said this indicates only a tiny part of this problem that Roma people have to live with every day in Finland still” says Koivisto, who wrote an explanatory editorial on the Turkulainen website today to address concerns over the story.

“They should have been interviewing actual Romani people, but I would say larger media outlets should definitely be hiring more minorities” says Romani filmmaker and writer Carmen Baltzar.

“I think it’s obvious they are not doing their jobs properly right now. They’re normalising racism. If we had more Romani journalists at major media outlets they would know that brownface is not acceptable. There’s a white bias at Finnish media organisations and that’s an issue. They focus on certain things, and it’s quite polarized the discussions they have around race”.