Becoming White – Finland, Equality and overcoming Bad History Lessons

I grew up in a world where race was not discussed. Living in an isolated village in rural Finland in the ‘80s, I eagerly waited for my next weekly dose of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Fame or whatever cool new thing was smuggled our way with a six-month delay. I don’t think the eleven-year-old me understood that Michael Jackson was black, or that Madonna was white, or whether such things made any difference. The only thing they represented to me was the big world – something to which I was deprived access.

The Finland I grew up in was a strange place. Geographically isolated and sparsely populated, the country had only one newspaper, one State-run news station and one official cultural mindset, all enveloped in a culture of silence and fear of difference. Because there was hardly any ethnic diversity, there was no political correctness either. Explicit racial stereotypes were freely exploited in marketing and the media. In the absence of actual conflicts between people, such stereotyping was considered harmless by the establishment. References to other cultures were peppered with colonialist attitudes or outright racist imagery (blackfaces, feather headdresses, exoticism and orientalism), which people justified with the argument that everybody knew that we weren’t really racist, and therefore could joke about it “in private” (i.e. within Finnish national borders). There was no need for cultural sensitivity or minority perspectives, because, officially, there were none. This was of course an illusion. The Roma and the Sámi were so small in numbers that they had almost no political representation, but both these Finnish minorities were highly visible as objects of cultural appropriation and ridicule in the mainstream media. This, also, was considered harmless.

Today’s Finland is, of course, a different place in many respects. The number of foreigners living in our country has climbed from 0.5% in 1990 to nearly 4% – still a ridiculously small number. First- and second-generation Finns of immigrant origin are rightfully owning the culture and generating sorely needed discussion on plurality, while also being vocal on the problem of structural discrimination that the majority culture has been reluctant to address. Media platforms are now deemed accountable and discriminative content is not accepted by public policies. Yet, simultaneously, with the rise of the right wing and the outright fascist politics that are sweeping Europe, and with the dislocation of masses of people in the face of war, the country has witnessed a rapid explosion of xenophobia and racism on a whole new level: a crisis of morals and attitudes that by any standards is far more dangerous and far more destructive than the refugee crises. While US Republican politicians are liberally using dehumanizing language similar to that of the European right wing, there is a specific tone to the Finnish discourse that I want to address here, namely the illusion that we have never been a racist society, and that Finland as a nation has nothing to do with the colonial past of the western world.

***

When I first came to the US a few years ago, my American companion would tease me by asking if there really were any black people in Finland. “Of course there are,” I would reply, but deep down I had hesitations. What he was really asking me was whether he would be likely to encounter racism were he ever to visit the country. To that question I had no answer at the time. I knew that everybody I interacted with was anti-racist in the same unquestioned way that everyone around me was anti-sexist. But as a woman I had learned that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the world isn’t sexist. The thing was that we white Finns were rarely forced to confront or register our whiteness, and thus also racism had remained, in large part, invisible to us.

Whiteness is a construct that has been developed in order to justify existing power relations in global and local politics. It is un-scientific, ungrounded and arbitrary, and therefore can include or reject groups of people as befits the prevailing dynamics of power. The Irish were once nonwhite, as were the Jewish. Now it seems Muslims of any color are becoming “nonwhite” in the western world. Whiteness is an arbitrary symbol of power without any inherent essence. Nothing unites all white people of different classes, customs, religions and ages – except the fact that we don’t have to encounter racism.

In Finland we tend to think that our unawareness of race is innocent and produced by the conditions of our geographically peripheral location and our homogenous, isolated demography. But our unawareness of race is not so different from the unawareness of race of any white people living anywhere in the world. One of the most poisonous and effective ways in which privilege operates is that it is transparent, invisible to those who enjoy it. The “neutrality” of whiteness is merely the absence of discriminative incidents that make race visible. When we encounter the struggles of other people, also our whiteness starts to become visible to ourselves. In that process, we become “of color”, and the world isn’t simple anymore.

***

I myself really became white only after settling in the US, where for the first time I was handed tools, words and contexts that made me become aware of my being of color. In a gradual process, through conversations and reflection, I started to see the way the world responded to my presence, and that that response was not neutral. This is why colorblindness is dangerous: it dismisses the only real difference there is, which is that the world speaks to us in different ways.

A year ago a huge media storm erupted around Rachel Dolezal, a Caucasian American woman who had adopted a black identity to such an extreme extent that she represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), until she was eventually “outed” by her parents. Whether what she did was just an elaborate form of a blackface, cultural appropriation or a sign of deep personal confusion has been fiercely debated. Yet I do understand the psychological temptation to shed off one’s whiteness: to want to discard it like the Confederate flag and start over anew, without all that baggage. But of course you can’t just shed off your whiteness and swap it for a black identity, because the very assumption that this might even be possible reveals your privilege.

In order to dismantle the false order of white supremacy, we must first become white, just as people of color everywhere in the world have had to stand up against the lie of racial hierarchy in order to fight for change. Becoming white is not just about taking part in a pro-migration protest or showing support for anti-racist activism – which are important, no doubt. But there is a danger of false identification in thinking that because we’re anti-racist, it also makes us not-white. Once you are anti-racist, it becomes all too easy to cease identifying with anything that comes with white privilege. But just what allows white privilege to continue is that no one wants to identify with it.

Becoming white is something far more private and far more difficult to tackle in the collective psychological mindset. There has been talk about white guilt, but guilt is active, manageable. Guilt is about one’s actions, not about one’s self. There is a kind of shame in becoming white. That shame is not the mark of the blood of your ancestor’s colonial crimes, of being a descendant of a disgraceful past. Becoming white involves a gradual expansion of awareness in one’s mind of the accomplishments, bravery and talent in one’s life being not a result of one’s exceptionality but that of privilege. That the success or talent one might have is just a sign of doing a good job at using the resources one has been handed; that “I am not worth what I thought I am.”

Reparations – of any kind – mean paying compensation for stolen goods. For that, one needs to accept the fact of theft. Without this – without becoming white and identifying with it, on both a personal and political level, white privilege will never end, but will merely morph into new versions of itself.

Nothing in our world today reinforces the re-evaluation of one’s self-worth this way. Quite the contrary: we are encouraged to believe in individuality and exceptionality as foundational to our worth. There is nothing that can replace the value one should let go of, no price for fairness than fairness itself, and that is not highly regarded in today’s reality. It’s much easier to educate oneself about black history and feel like a good person than to actually question the legitimacy of a grant, a business deal, a political nomination or a film role you’ve been given. It’s much easier to speak up against racism in all-white anti-racist groups than to question whether you should enjoy the funding to run that group or publish that outlet in the first place. And, of course, it’s much easier to dismiss the reality of racism altogether, and to fix your identity on your own struggles and your own efforts and your feeling of being threatened by any re-arrangement in the racialized world order. The struggle and economic despair of the white lower classes is a reality, too: a reality that leaves little capacity for solidarity. So for those who benefit from whiteness, even if just a little, the whole notion of “race” is indeed threatening.

The often used word “diversity” seems to propose a kind of sharing of space between the majority and the margins. Writer Zoé Samudzi points out, however, how the notion of diversity can work rather as a hindrance than a spring board to equality by proposing an order where marginalized groups are included in the dominant narrative, instead of decentering the dominant narrative altogether. Being an ally in a process of decolonization (of knowledge, of societal structures, of representations) means accepting that whiteness is not a dominant, neither a central perspective. White people, Samudzi writes, need to learn to occupy marginal positions and accept the validity of narratives in which white experience is not central. A famous Toni Morrison quote goes: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” This is a notion of power that is active and dynamic: a force of changing society, that does not belong to anyone by default. A notion of power that is, and should be, a tool for change.

Of course, this is not what our society tells us. Our society tells us that power is a grab-bag candy game, and that it can and should be owned, protected, and stolen. Capitalist ideology is working against any attempts to establish equality. That is why identity politics without class struggle will never be enough. There is no liberation without communality. A major ideological shift needs to take place in order for decolonization to happen in the true sense of the word.

Just as the only thing “white people” have in common is that they don’t encounter racism, the only thing that binds peoples of color across classes, genders, customs and values together is their experience of it. As we are constantly reminded, speaking over a person is one example of that racism. I know a lot about what sexual harassment feels like, or what dismissal of my achievements or my intelligence because I’m a woman feels like. But I don’t know what it feels like to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin or my ethnicity. This particular experience I, as a white person, have not experienced. I don’t know how it feels when you see a chain of generations being affected by that discrimination. I cannot access how it affects one’s identity and personality and choices. I can listen and take for real what I am told. I know about being white. But the whiteness I was born into was transparent, invisible. The transparency of whiteness strips me, too, of agency in re-defining these relations. It has to thicken and become visible in order for me to articulate what it is and how it feels, and to change how it functions in society, from within. The discourse on diversity in Finland is not enough – we need to start talking about whiteness, and find articulations for the experiences of privilege that for decades have been rendered invisible.

***

All this might read as extremely peculiar to someone living in the US, or France, or in any other country with a history of plurality and thus also a common, public awareness of these issues. But the Finnish cultural mindset is still that of a colonized country. A permanent battleground of power play between Sweden and Russia, poor insignificant Finland has spent centuries in subjugation to one or the other. After that followed a period of cold war during which the country did its best not to make trouble. Finland’s national identity was formed around pleasing the superior and being careful not to take sides. We like to cling to the myth of ourselves as the stubborn little David defeating the Goliath of Russia in the Second World War, but what might be a more defining feature of the nation’s identity is the way it has navigated its way through history and through wars by feigning loyalty to whoever has held its back. Perhaps this was necessary, but there comes a point where one needs to claim full adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it. One could just as well see our historic national identity as that of a coward that has so internalized its inferiority that it thinks it cannot be held responsible for anything but securing its own survival. A hundred years of independence seems a long time, but the half-time of collective identities is slow.

What is more, Finland does have a colonial past of its own. The Finnish State’s relationship with the indigenous Sámi people, whose culture was suffocated by forced assimilation policies and whose lands and waters were taken without any negotiation or consent and who still face State-condoned appropriation of their heritage, is still unresolved, with no apologies given. There has never been a time during our country’s existence that we haven’t benefited from the rule of colonial powers and the crimes that have built the wealth of current day Europe. Those crimes continue today in the many forms of global capitalism, fueled and made possible by the widespread practices of labor that are rooted in geographical and racial discrimination. Finland needs to step out of the false recognition of itself as the underdog and take responsibility for deconstructing the structures of white privilege that come with the order that it has inherited from the colonial past of Europe, and from its own history.

The people who hoist swastika flags up flag poles at refugee centres or throw fireworks at buses in KKK robes deserve no apologies, explanations or understanding. These are acts of racist hatred and fascism and should be tried and condemned far more severely than is mandatory under current policy. The failure to condemn these outrageous acts by mainstream politicians and officials, these all-white middle age men who grew up in safe, seemingly homogenous Finland where racial stereotypes were considered harmless and having nothing to do with “us”, is a symptom of the lack of postcolonial discourse and the absence of white identity in Finnish society. I emphasize: lack of white identity as the underlying source of the prevailing problem of white supremacy and colonial west-centrism in global politics. These people do not recognize racism for what it is because they still have not, and still refuse to, become white.

It would be idealistic to think that even a god-forbidden little country such as Finland could go from homogenous and oblivious a-racism to multicultural cosmopolitical co-existence, skipping racism altogether. Of course it cannot, because Finland was never not racist, just as it was never not part of a global order that has benefited from racially and ethnically discriminative and abusive practices. And it cannot not be a racist country before acknowledging this, and before going through the same process that other colonial powers have, with different degrees of success and failure, gone through. Addressing hate speech on all fronts of society is a necessary act, but if it is not backed up by a deeper understanding of why certain groups are targeted and the historical path leading to where we are now, it does not have the power to truly transform society. We – and now I speak of the current all-white establishment, and the native, white lower- and middle class that feels threatened by plurality and the whole notion of racism, but also of the liberal left that stands in solidarity with minorities and anti-racist movements – must first become white in order to shed off that whiteness and enter a world where equality and global justice become something we can actually discuss.

Equality has always been the core ideal of the Finnish welfare state. But at the time the welfare state was taking shape, equality was falsely identified with sameness, in line with the myth of a homogenous, tightly knit nation. We have seen where this line of reasoning takes us. Luckily, the future of our country will be in the hands of the generations that have grown up in a more open and more heterogeneous society. It is time to dismiss that old myth and realize the ideal of equality in its full, true potential.

Recommended reading:

Sonya Lindfors (ed): Toiseus 101 – Näkökulmia toiseuteen (in Finnish)
http://urbanapa.fi/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/TOISEUS-101-näkökulmia-toiseuteen.pdf

Guidelines for white allies:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/08/06/this-is-what-white-people-can-do-to-support-blacklivesmatter/

Reference

Zoé Samudzi: We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse” Education

http://harlot.media/articles/1058/we-need-a-decolonized-not-a-diverse-education

This essay was written in 2016 before the US presidential elections. Following the election and the global rise of white nationalist extremism all over the world, the question of “becoming white” has become more charged and more problematic, as white extremism has explicitly reclaimed whiteness as an identity.