Report: Lifetime of racial discrimination in Finland begins at an early age

Even African-background children in pre-school experience discrimination and racial harassment, which continues through their education and working careers.

File picture of Michaela Moua, Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman / Credit: Ministry of Justice

A lifetime of racial discrimination in Finland begins at an early age, with even pre-school children experiencing systemic racism in the education system.

A new report out today from the Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman takes a closer look at the lives of people of African descent living in Finland, and found that beyond the daily racist discrimination taking place in public spaces, schools and workplaces, it is also happening in education, employment and public services like healthcare.

“I think one of Finland’s main exports is this illusion of Finnish or Nordic exceptionalism, and even though many things are really really well here as far as equality between men and women, it was the first country where women can vote, I think there’s an illusion that advancing equality is done, and it’s ready” says Michaela Moua, Senior Officer at the Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman.

The study finds that 61% of people do not report their experiences of discrimination to authorities, the most common reason being because they don’t bevelive it will lead to change.

The most common experiences of harassment range from seemingly harmless comments and acts – known as micro-aggressions – to violence at the extreme.

In schools the harassment might take the form of non-verbal exclusion, degrading or disrespectful language, belittling and bullying. More than a quarter of children have experienced physical violence at school.

Pupils from African backgrounds can also find themselves streamed into a class for non-native Finnish speakers even though their language skills could be perfectly adequate. This prevents them from developing optimally simply because teachers presume their skin colour means their mother tongue is not Finnish.

“Another illusion is that Finland is somehow this homogenous society even though it’s known Finland has been quite a diverse society in many ways for hundreds of years. We think about Sámi people, Roma people, Muslim tatars, the Jewish community, etc and also the newer immigration to Finland” says Moua.

“We tend to think there is no racism in Finland, that we’ve actually achieved equality” she adds.

Discrimination in working life 

Discrimination for people of African background continues into their working lives the new study finds.

Sixty percent of people who have worked or applied for a job have experienced discrimination by employers, colleagues and customers in both the private and public sectors.

“In Finnish society when racism is discussed it’s discussed as something intentional and something that happens between individuals and groups, instead of talking about the structural racism and discrimination that exists in society and insitutions” explains Michaela Moua.

“If you’re experiencing structural racism at key points in your life starting from education, to having difficulties getting a summer job which affects your CV, facing discrimination in job-seeking because you have a foreign-sounding name and actually experiencing discrimination in the labour market horizontally – you end up in certain types of jobs, and also vertically meaning advancing in the labour market is difficult for you” she outlines.

All of these factors can lead to someone ending up in a low paid job which doesn’t necessarily match their education level – meaning they don’t make enough money to buy or rent a home, highlighting how it’s not just racial slurs and violence which impact people with African backgrounds, but also the structural racism which holds them back.

File picture of young man holding Finnish flag / Credit: iStock

Let’s talk about racism 

The current debate around racism and the Black Lives Matter campaign has evolved the language of discussion in English with terms like white fragility and white privilege.

Moua says the Finnish language isn’t well equipped to cope with the nuances of discussions about racism.

“It’s a bit problematic discussing racism in the Finnish language, we don’t have words to have an exact conversation about the phenomenon, so we’re talking about proximity to the phenomenon.”

“We don’t use words that actually talk about race and whiteness and white privilege or privilege in general. We don’t talk about racialization, we talk about immigrants. “We don’t talk about racialized people we talk about immigrants even though we’re talking about racialization when it comes to people of colour and how they don’t fit into white normative society and how they are treated” she Michaela Moua explains.

“This whole conversation is very new in Finnish society.”