Is there such a thing… A study of antiracism education in Finland (A summary)

Aminkeng A Alemanji

“Hello I am Amin, a researcher at the University of Helsinki working on the issue of antiracism education in Finland.” This is how I often introduce myself to people only to observe a quiet exclamation and a smug smile. I often wonder if this is because of who I am or what I am doing or if it is just my accent. In March 2015, a journalist working for YLE news helped me understand the reason for my interlocutors’ reactions when she followed her smile with the question “Oh is there such a thing (as antiracism education) in Finland?”This made me realise that in the PhD thesis I recently defended my primary task would be to unearth what antiracism education in Finland is, and how it is realised: Where, by whom and for whom? And above all how can this area of scholarship be improved.

To do this, it is important to start by understanding what race and racism are to better grasp what antiracism and antiracism education are or could be. Biologically, race is unreal but socio-politically, race is very real because race is a social construction based on a specific political project[i]. In this political project all humanity is placed in a hierarchical order at a specific time based on certain socio-political qualities determined by those who occupy the top of the socio-political system. The idea of specific time and place is important here because as a social construction different racial categories can occupy different hierarchical positions at different times and in different places.

The repeated economic crises in Europe since 2008 have intensified discomfort in Finland wherein a new kind of adversary is required to bear the cross of all the misfortunes that have fallen upon Finland in recent years. In an attempt to protect the nobility of Finnishness (identities and cultures), difference (those who particularly look different) has being shunned into a new racial category (immigrants).

This reality often goes unchallenged or unquestioned as many Finns think it’s someone else’s responsibility to question issues of racial injustice.

Racism, in my PhD study, refers to discrimination or prejudice based on difference, starting from skin colour and reaching out to other variables like gender, sexuality, religion etc. The construction of difference is exercised through the use of power. Racism is a form of rhetoric used to devaluate, and justify as dispensable, lives that are portrayed by hegemonic discourses as less valuable. Once again, the bottom line of racism is devaluation and not skin colour. Skin colour, religion, gender, class and disability are markers used to devaluate.

Grounded on an understanding of racism based on postcoloniality and neo-racism, I have investigated racism in Finland using four interrelated lenses: Finnish exceptionalism, coloniality of power, whiteness theory and denial of racism. This theoretical framework unearths the hidden structural hierarchies (re)produced, sustained and recycled by power structures.

Ta-Nehisi Coates[ii] in his best seller Between the World and Me observes that “a society almost necessarily begins every success story with a chapter that most advantages itself”. Finland is a nation that prides itself on being the best of the best at many things, from education (although not anymore according to recent PISA results), to gender equality, and human rights. This idea of being the best frames implicitly Finland as exceptional or superior to other nations, which are necessarily inferior, although many would argue that this is not the case. Otherwise comparison always leads willy-nilly to someone being better than someone else. Exceptionalism therefore involves ideas of moral superiority. Through the notion of exceptionalism, the racialised is condemned to second-class and, mainstream, as the norm. A norm that cannot be improved upon, especially not by that inferior to it.

Maldonado-Torres[iii] observes that

Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. It is maintained in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common-sense, in the self-image of people, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality all the time and every day.

Coloniality of power is centred on and nurtured by the concept of white supremacy whereby white supremacy justifies coloniality of knowledge and space.

Coloniality of power justifies why our universities are white except in their kitchens, why the others dominate the odd job industry although most of them have university degrees. Their Finnish language is never good enough, they are not trustworthy, they cannot be punctual, they just don’t understand how we (representatives of their colonial past) do things here. As a result, that which they possess or think they possess belongs to us for we are their alpha.

Whiteness is not all about skin colour, it is a social construction which can be reinvented; it is a privileged power position that can be attained by some people and denied of others.In Finland, whiteness is manifested in different ways. Two of which are colour-blindness and hypervisibility of difference.

As Derman-Sparks and Philips phrase it: “Colour-blindness justifies withdrawal from social action by assuming that racism will cease to exist when people stop noticing racial and cultural differences.”[iv]  This often takes the form of iterations like  “We are all a human race”.                          

On the other hand, under hypervisibility, the other in Finland, as a result of their difference, is viewed as a disrupter of the Finnish norm. In the words of Stuart Hall, as “matter out of place” – where the apples found in the basket of oranges must be returned to the basket of apples so as to preserve the norm. In this light the other must be watched carefully, else they break our law or steal. They must be watched keenly else they “oppress our women, take our jobs or bombs our country”. They must prove themselves continuously because these “foreign elements can never be trusted”. They must become white and since they cannot become white, they must always be put on a leach.

Denial of racism again challenges the very legitimacy of anti-racist analysis, and thus is part of the politics of ethnic management: as long as a problem is being denied in the first place, the critics are ridiculed and marginalised. In Finland individuals employ denial in two distinct ways: “lack of intent” and “just for fun”.

Under lack of intent perpetrators of racism would claim that they intended no harm upon the racialised. “I am not a racist I have an Iranian doctoral student”, a professor once told me.

Under just for fun, these same perpetrators fault the victims for getting offended by their experience of racism. “Don’t take it too seriously! Where is your sense of humour?”

In the media and other institutions, this often manifests differently. “If the people do complain enough (say just a handful do) then it is not racism.In Finland the people who often complain are one or two or just a handful in most cases, as the majority of people are not trained to identify intricate racism tactfully hidden in humour or claims to safeguard historical legacies as in the case of the attempts to protect the racist symbols of the Laku-Pekka, the long-standing caricature of a black person, which was printed on Fazer’s candy packaging until recently.

These different manifestations of racism in Finland are indicative of a need. A need for a system both in policy and practice to adequately address these issues in Finland. Currently, programs of intervention and preventions of racism in Finland are limitedly embedded in multiculturalism. It must be noted that there are various forms of multiculturalism. On this, Charles Mills[v] states that

There is multiculturalism as state policy (itself varying from nation to nation) and multiculturalism as minority activist demand, multiculturalism as applied generally to the political theorisation of society as a whole and multiculturalism as applied specifically to tertiary education and curriculum reform, multiculturalism as including the politics of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability (critical multiculturalism) and multiculturalism excluding at least some of these.

In Finland multicultural education and politics are specifically aimed at immigrants in order to support their integration into Finnish society[vi]. Teaching them how we do things here as if there is only one kind of “Finnish way”. Antiracism education and politics on the other hand are primarily aimed at identifying and eliminating racism by challenging systems, policies, organizational structures and attitudes into change through examining and redistributing power between racialised and racialising[vii].

To conclude, if Finland is serious about human rights, equality/equity and fairness as it claims, it must take antiracism education more seriously than it does at the moment.

Employing multicultural methodologies in antiracism education does not always yield positive results. Antiracism education in Finland needs new methodologies suitable to challenge issues of racisms. These methodologies cannot be limited to either formal education, non-formal education or informal education; they must encompass all these sectors. This would require a change in the conceptual understanding and classification of race because, as long as we are all a human race, we are equal and this is a problem.

The Ministry of Education and Culture must stop splashing money on or talking about antiracism education in schools if it cannot or does not wish to follow through by creating feasible structures to see it materialise as a more established principle in the nearest possible future. The time is now for Finland to embrace antiracism education. However, this should be done with an understanding that antiracism education is a struggle. Antiracism is a struggle because with antiracism the work is continuous. One celebrates little victories when one’s message gets across but often the resistance (structural, institutional and personal) one encounters is grave and requires courage and persistence to keep up the fight. With antiracism education, the targeted outcome is hope for a better tomorrow resulting from necessary antiracist pedagogies in and out of schools.

Aminkeng A Alemanji recently received his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Helsinki. The text is based on lectio praecursoria ie presentation of the research findings at the doctoral defense. Alemanji is currently working in The Stopped – Spaces, Meanings and Practices of Ethnic Profiling project at the University of Turku.

The full thesis Is there such a thing…? : A study of antiracism education in Finland can be found at here. The following five papers are included in the thesis.

  1. Alemanji, A A and Dervin, F. (2016). “If an apple is a foreign apple you have to wash it very carefully”: Youth discourses on racism. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice
  2. Alemanji, A A. (in press). Mothers’ of immigrant background children struggle in educating their children to survive acts racial violence World Series in Education.
  3. Alemanji A A. and Dervin, F. (2015). Antiracism apps as actants of education for diversities. World Studies in Education. 16(2) 57-67
  4. Layne, H. & Alemanji, A A. (2015). ‘‘Zebra world’’: The promotion of imperial stereotypes in a children’s book. Power and Education.7 (2) 181-195
  5. Alemanji, A A., Johnson Longfor, R. W. & Óskarsdóttir, E. (2015) Holocaust education: An alternative approach to antiracism education? A study of a Holocaust textbook used in 8th grade in an international school in Finland. Diversities and Interculturality in Textbooks. ed Hahl, Niemi, Johnson Longfor and Dervin. (125-148). Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


[i] Mills, C. (1997). The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
[ii] Coates, T (2015). Between the World and me. New York. Spiegel & Grau
[iii] Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007) ‘On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept,’ in Cultural Studies, 21 (2/3): 240-270. P. 243
[iv] Derman-Sparks, L., & C.B. Philips. (1997). Teaching/learning anti-racism: A developmental approach. New York: Teachers College Press. p. 52
[v] Mills, C. (2007). ”Multiculturalism as/and/or Anti-Racism?” In Multiculturalism and Political Theory. Anthony S. L & Owen, D. (Ed) (89-114). New York: Cambridge University Press. P. 89.
[vi] Dervin F and H. Layne. 2013. A guide to interculturality for international and exchange students: an example of Hostipitality? Journal of Multicultural Discourses. 8 (1): 1-19
[vii] Alemanji, A. A. & Mafi, B. (2016). Antiracism education? A study of an antiracism workshop in Finland. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research.