Racism and colonial legacies in multicultural Nordic societies

Suvi Keskinen

In 2017, several activities were organised in both Denmark and the US Virgin Islands to commemorate the centenary of the end of Danish colonialism in the Caribbean. 100 years had passed since Denmark sold the three islands (St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas) to the US, which marked the end of over 200 years of Danish colonial rule on the islands.

We do not usually think of Denmark as a colonial power, neither are we used to thinking of Swedish or Finnish history through engagement in colonial and racial histories. Instead, there is a widespread perception that the Nordic countries were outsiders to colonialism and histories of scientific racism. In research, this is discussed as ideas of Nordic exceptionalism – assumptions that we were very different from the rest of Europe, where the colonial powers were located, and having been outsiders we do not have a need to engage in critical evaluation of the past, or, in the interrogation of current Nordic societies in regards to racism and Eurocentrism.

There is, however, an increasing bulk of scholarship investigating the involvement of the Nordic countries in European colonialism. It is becoming evident that instead of outsiders, the Nordic countries were at the least accomplices and in several cases active colonisers both overseas and in the Arctic. Likewise, several artists and social movements have been raising critical questions about the Nordic past and present in terms of racism and colonialism. In connection with the mentioned centenary of the selling of the Virgin Islands to the US, two artists – Jeannette Ehlers from Denmark and La Vaughn Belle from the Virgin Islands – created a statue – or a monumental sculpture, as the artists themselves call it – that was placed in central Copenhagen. The sculpture, named ‘I am Queen Mary’, portrays Mary Thomas, one of the leaders of the Fireburn labour revolt on St. Croix in 1878. The Fireburn revolt arouse from the fact that despite the abolition of slavery in the former Danish West Indies in 1848 not much had changed in the living conditions of the workers on the plantations.

Mary Thomas and the four other black women who led the revolt are well known and remembered in the Virgin Islands, but totally forgotten in Denmark – despite the fact that they served their sentences in Danish prison.

Through the creation of the sculpture ‘I am Queen Mary’ and the events around it, the two Black artists (Ehlers and Belle) wanted to draw attention to Danish colonial/racial history and participate in the re-narration of the national identity.

Another example of how colonial/racial histories are evoked and critical questions of current social hierarchies posed, took place during the fieldwork I conducted in Stockholm in 2016 as part of my Academy Research Fellow project. I participated in a guided tour in Gamla Stan, organised by the National Association of Afro-Swedes (Afrosvenskarnas riksförbund), during which we visited places where Swedish enterprises and families of traders, who engaged in slave trade and merchandise of colonial goods, had their bases from the 17th to the19th centuries. When listening to the stories of the colonial trade and life in the Swedish colony St. Barthelemy in the Caribbean it struck me that these histories were also part of Finnish history, albeit very seldom addressed here.

Racism and colonialism have affected the histories of the countries in the Nordic region in profound ways – and continue to do so. It may seem like at least Finland, having only gained its independence in 1917 (the same year that Denmark sold its colonies in the Caribbean to the US), would be a bystander in relation to colonial and racial histories. However, also Finnish history is tightly interwoven with European colonialism and racism.

Colonial/racial histories

Together with three colleagues, we published a book in 2009 that argued for an understanding of the position of Finland in terms of ‘colonial complicity’. This concept draws attention to the fact that Finns and the place we call Finland may not have been among the large scale actors of European colonialism but certainly were participants and accomplices in that project. There is also a strong identification with European and (what later became known as) Western culture and so-called civilisation. Scholars have shown for example that the representations of Black Africans in the 19th and early 20th century were very similar in Finland as in other European countries, i.e. characterised by colonial and racist images. Even today, a quick glance at how people of African descent or Muslims from the Middle-East are discussed on social media makes it evident that many colonial/racial representations are well alive and used for political purposes. When considering the colonisation of the Sápmi, colonial complicity is in effect a too mild way of conceptualising the Finnish involvement in the colonial project and should be replaced by the more encompassing perspective of ‘colonial/racial nexus’. With ‘colonial/racial nexus’ I mean the multiple ways that colonial and racial relations entangle in the past and present, building a historical continuum that is crucial for the understanding of today’s Finnish society. ‘Colonial/racial nexus’ includes both European relations to overseas colonies and intra-European processes.

The colonial/racial histories of Finns and what we today call Finland can be analysed from three interrelated angles (constituting the ‘colonial/racial nexus’).

First, we can analyse the participation of Finnish people, enterprises and other actors (such as missionaries) in overseas colonialism and settler colonialism in many parts of the world. Just to give a few examples: people with Finnish origin took part in establishing the Swedish colony New Sweden in the 17th century on the Delaware river on the Atlantic coast of North America. They also sought to establish colonies and gain wealth from slave trade in West-Africa, and participated in the colonising of St. Barthelemy, that was the Swedish colony in the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slave trade and use of enslaved workers was part of the life in St. Barthelemy, and it functioned as the port through which sugar, coffee and other colonial goods were shipped to Swedish cities, including Turku/Åbo. Later, Finns migrated in large numbers to the settler colonial states in North America and to a smaller extent to Latin America, Australia and South Africa. In these endeavours Finns participated in multicultural European colonist groups and the enterprises followed in the footsteps of other European companies.

Second, the colonial/racial histories of Finns and Finland involves the history of scientific racism and racial thinking. While the Finns were categorised on the lower levels of racial hierarchies in the scientific racism of the 19th and the early 20th century, as it developed notably in Germany and the Nordic countries, this did not hinder the Finnish scientists from involving in skull measuring and other forms of physical anthropology in relation to the Sámi population after the independence. For example, the large scale studies of the 1920s and 1930s led to over one third of the Sámi population having their skulls measured, and for such studies skeletons of buried Sámi people were dug up and archived at the University of Helsinki, according to the Sámi scholar Veli-Pekka Lehtola.

Third, we should look at the development of the modern state and its treatment of the indigenous Sámi people and ethnic minorities, such as the Roma. The state was a central actor in the colonisation of indigenous lands already during the Swedish and Russian rule. After the independence, the state continued with assimilatory and repressive policies towards the Sámi and the Roma populations. Vagrancy legislation was a central way of controlling the Roma people and the placing of Roma children in children’s homes left long lasting scars in the Finnish Roma community.

Today’s Finnish society seeks to deal with questions arising from everyday multicultural lives against this historical background. The multicultural questions arise not only from the postcolonial migration from former European colonies but also from the multiculturalism that was always here – notably the Sámi and the Roma. Multicultural questions also arise from linguistic heterogeneity in terms of the Swedish or Russian speaking minorities, from religious and ethnic minorities such as the Jewish community and Orthodox believers, and so forth.

Many scholars in the field of migration and ethnic relations have convincingly argued that Finland was much more multicultural throughout its history than the nationalist narratives and common political understandings acknowledge.

However, it is clear that some multicultural lives are more targeted by political controversies than others and some minorities suffer more from structural inequalities than others. In order to understand such social processes, it is useful to look at the legacies of colonialism and racism that continue to shape Nordic societies.

Many problems related to racism and the persistent inequalities in the labour market and access to housing are shared by the more recent migrants from African and Middle-Eastern countries and the Roma minority, with a history in the country for 500 years. While new issues arise and racism changes its shape to some extent, many continuities can be detected in the way those perceived as ‘others’ are treated.

In the study The Stopped – Spaces, Meanings and Practices of Ethnic Profiling, my colleagues and I could see that the relations between the police and the Roma minority largely reflect the histories of social control and repression by the Finnish state, and the police as the implementer of such policies. The interviewed Roma people had many stories to tell about how their family members, friends and acquaintances had been mistreated by the police. Their own experiences were not detached from such histories, but lined up with the knowledge developed in the Roma community.


Disobedient knowledge

Young people today, racialised as non-white or ‘others’ in the Nordic countries, are posing questions and addressing critically the existing knowledge and interpretations about themselves produced by the majority society. I will discuss this as ‘disobedient knowledge’ that departs from the lived experiences of migrants and racialised minorities, who are living their lives at the border – often denied belonging to the country in which they live and perhaps are born in. They also have knowledge of ways of living and thinking outside Europe and the Eurocentric ‘truth regimes’ through their own or family histories, as well as through transnational communication means. It is a kind of knowledge that engages in critical discussion with prevailing knowledges and ‘truths’.

The example discussed earlier about the guided tours in central Stockholm, organised by the National Association of Afro-Swedes is one example of such disobedient knowledge. It makes connections between the histories of enslavement and racial hierarchies in order to pose questions about the position of the Afro-Swedish community in today’s Swedish society.

Other examples of disobedient knowledge that I got to know during my recent research include civil society organising in the stigmatised suburbs of large Swedish cities, such as Stockholm and Malmö. There is a widespread view of these neighbourhoods as highly problematic ‘parallel societies’ and mainstream media portrays them as dangerous places where the police does not dare to go without extra resources. While there certainly are many problems in these areas, they are also sites for active self-organising and lively cultural life. These local organisations argue for the need to tackle the problems of marginalised and poor suburbs with socio-political solutions instead of the overwhelming focus on law & order politics that has been offered by most politicians.

The suburbs that are presented as ‘no-go areas’ also host large scale cultural activities, such as spoken word contests and musical performances. For example, the association United Suburbs (Förenade Förorter) arranged between 2015 and 2018 yearly spoken word contests in up to 12 suburbs in 10 cities mostly based on voluntary work and activities by local youth.

Such massive efforts by young people in the stigmatised and racialised suburbs do not receive very much public attention and are clearly underfunded by public institutions.

Spoken word and other forms of arts provide means for young people to articulate their experiences and interpretations with a starting point in their everyday lives and the neighbourhoods they feel they belong to.

Disobedient knowledge was also created by young Muslim activists in Denmark, who defined themselves as ‘unscannable’. With this parole they made reference to and commented on the surveillance and securitisation processes that characterise the actions of many Danish institutions. Simultaneously, by making this claim the young Muslim activists showed that they refuse to be stereotyped and reduced to the images that are circulating in the public sphere, and instead want to define themselves on their own terms.

In Finland, the media site Brown Girls Media (Ruskeat Tytöt media) gives the opportunity for those racialised as non-white to articulate their experiences, interpretations and views of change. This platform is an expression of the lively sphere of antiracist feminism taking place especially in the Capital area. In Finnish activism, connections are made between young Sámi and Roma activists and those with heritage in the former European overseas colonies, creating understandings of different kinds of colonial/racial histories and current power relations.

Research and tackling racist practices

Racism and social inequalities are not only a question of relevance for migrants and racialised minorities, but for the whole society. Social justice perspectives need to include an analysis of inequalities based on ethnicity and race, in addition to class and gender. Inequalities create discontent, conflict and suffering – and societies characterised by large inequalities and racism are less peaceful than ones where efforts to achieve social justice are prevalent. For research, this poses new challenges and areas of investigation: we need to analyse the processes and practices that uphold racism and racialising ways of thinking, as well as create knowledge that can participate in eroding such processes and practices.


Suvi Keskinen is Professor of Ethnic Relations at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki. She leads The Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN). This text is based on her Inaugural lecture that took place 4.12.2019 at the University of Helsinki.



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