Universities need to take racism seriously and develop anti-racist practices

Several students and researchers who are racialised as non-white have raised critical questions about racism in the Finnish academia and pointed out the lack of existing practices to tackle such problems in recent years. In a RASTER blog post, published in December 2017, Njoki Githieya identified the domination of one identity – whiteness – in ascribing value to persons treated as ‘others’ and urged for a discussion of the various forms of systemic de-legitimization of Blacks and Africans in the Finnish academia. A few months earlier in another blog text, researcher Leonardo Custódio had analysed the silencing force of whiteness in the Nordic academia.

More recently, Brigita Krasniqi, a student in political science at the University of Tampere, has discussed the everyday forms of racism that she constantly meets in academic environments. These have for example manifested in assumptions that she does not speak Finnish and expectations that her views would represent those of all Muslims. Black researchers at the Åbo Akademi University have made public their experiences of racism and criticized the university for a lack of existing practices to deal with such situations, including an official complaint to the university by Dr. Faith Mkwesha.

In addition to these, several instances of racist and exclusionary activities connected to the academia have drawn public attention. Among other things, racist practices as a part of student culture have been critiqued. The student union of the University of Helsinki, HYY, has started an investigation of whether one of its member organisations has violated the anti-discrimination principles of the student union . This investigation follows a statement by the student association of the Finns party, HAPSU, which argued for the right of white Europeans to dominate in the academia and portrayed universities as the gatekeepers of Finnish culture and nation. There are also several examples of student associations at different universities having organized and provided space for racist festivities, which have included performing in blackface –images and singing pejorative songs or telling racist jokes. Also Sámi students have raised criticism towards the racist harassment they have confronted at student events.

The coordination group of RASTER urges the Finnish universities and student organisations to take seriously the witness statements of racism and to develop institutional practices that effectively tackle racism in the academia. These are not coincidental or random events; instead, they are examples of a structural problem that covers all universities and the educational sector more broadly. Racism has deep historical roots in the Finnish society and the universities, with their crucial role in the production of national(ist) sentiments, are no exceptions to the rule. While acknowledging that racism is deeply embedded in the Finnish society – of which for example the results of the recent FRA study  evidence – we think that the universities have a particular role in investigating how their institutional practices and ways of creating knowledge reproduce racism and colonial discourses. The universities also have a chance to start developing anti-racist practices and creating structures that instead of denying and minimizing experiences of racism take them seriously and look for solutions.

The investigation by researcher Anaïs Duong-Pedica on the equality plans of Finnish universities showed that very few of them included guidelines or clear practices of anti-discrimination work when it comes to questions of racism or ethnic discrimination. While at least some kind of guidelines of how university institutions should deal with sexual harassment and sexist speech exist in most or all universities, the official documents and university policies often do not have much to say about tackling experiences of racism and racial harassment.

The RASTER coordination group suggests that proper guidelines of dealing with experiences of racism be developed and contact persons to whose tasks anti-discrimination questions belong be chosen in all universities and at the faculty or departmental level. It should always be clear whose responsibility it is to deal with such questions and how the process will proceed. There is also a need for training on questions of racism and anti-racist practices in all universities. When organising such training, the perspectives and knowledge of the groups who experience racism should be given a prominent role. Pro-active measures are more productive than trying to solve complex conflicts afterwards.

Today, on the international day for anti-racism, we encourage individual universities and departments to take an active role in creating anti-racist practices. RASTER will continue to discuss these important questions in future events and blog posts