Promoting anti-racist conversations in/from Geography and Geology (Interview)

A team of early-career researchers at the Department of Geography and Geology of the University of Turku organized the seminar “Racism: What is it and why does it matter to us all” (May 2021). In a retrospective conversation with RASTER.FI’s Leonardo Custódio, the organizers – (in alphabetical order) Thomas Behrndt, Salla Eilola, Hanna Heino, Tikli Loivaranta, Camilla Marucco and Miriam Tedeschi – reflect about the experience of discussing racism as geographers. 

RASTER.FI: What motivated you to organize the seminar “Racism: What is it and why does it matter to us all”?

We have noticed a lack of discussion and self-reflection on racism at the department and university level despite the fact that much research in our department relates to the Global South, to people seeking asylum or undocumented, to the marginalized in cities and so on.

So, one of our key objectives was to discuss racism both as a topic and as part of the dynamics of research and teaching at the university. We wanted people to see that, as a community, we should talk more about racism and call it by its name in order to do something about it. We wanted to offer a possibility to reflect on racism with others in a constructive, though quite formal, environment. 

For us, organizing the seminar was a chance to learn more ourselves. There are so many different understandings of what racism means, that we may not recognize some prejudices as based on it. It is then important to have these discussions, to be better equipped to prevent and deal with reported cases of racism together.  In addition, we can retrospectively say one purpose of the seminar was also to network by spreading information and connecting with the seminar participants. Without networks, social change can be very hard or impossible to pursue or even imagine.

RASTER.FI: All organizers of the event are white. How much has the awareness of whiteness affected the making of the seminar? 

The whiteness of us organizers was one of the first things we started discussing when we met to plan the content of the seminar. We have been reflecting on our whiteness and other positionalities more or less actively throughout the whole process (planning the seminar, holding it, reflecting on it afterwards, and writing blogs about it). Another point that we feel is relevant is that none of us concentrates mostly on racism and anti-racism in our work. Some of us had engaged with the concept more, some less, and on different paths, too.

We all are aware of the fact that we need to be very humble in front of such a big and sensitive topic, especially considering that we cannot experience it on our skin – one more reason, to remain humble, and accept to stay in the ’learner’ position.

One issue we discussed was the question of what and how we may talk about racism as people who benefit from whiteness and racist structures. Therefore, in making the seminar, we reflected critically on how to approach racism in a fair and conducive way, so to stir and share anti-racist awareness and action. Racism is everybody’s issue and that, as white people, each of us has their own responsibility and position from which they should combat it, in and around us. Denouncing and combating racism cannot be the task of racialized people alone.

At the same time, we did not want to silence or take space from people of color who experience racism and are scholars or activists in racism, anti-racism and related issues. Thus, we consciously included and referred to their work during the seminar. We organized the seminar in the context of our department as volunteers in addition to our usual work tasks. Planning and organizing the seminar was of course a considerable use of power. We reflected on whether we had experts of color in our circles whom we could invite: we had some contacts, but not in our closest circles. In addition, we felt it would be unfair to ask someone else than us to work on planning and carrying out the seminar for free. Finally, we wanted to avoid tokenism or reproducing the idea that “racism is the issue of people of color”. Therefore, we organized the seminar with what we had and we recognized that it is also our responsibility to keep the discussion up.

RASTER.FI: How is a conversation about racism relevant for the fields of geography and geology?

Geography has colonial and thus racist roots. It developed, as a discipline, in connection with colonialist endeavors. For example, mapping the “found” continents for imperialist purposes. Geology is instrumental for extractive industries, which sometimes operate in lands where the rights of local indigenous or other minority communities are undermined. Moreover, in geography – and science in general – there is the risk of resorting to stereotypes when describing sociopolitical and cultural phenomena.

In response, a considerable part of research in human geography (e.g. feminist geography) focuses on power relations, processes of marginalization, social justice and change. We should pay equal attention to the risks of epistemic violence in knowledge production and to the patterns of oppression and struggles concerning gender, race, dis/ability, age and so on. For example, if we carry out fieldwork about vulnerable groups, it is extremely important to know what racist attitudes might be like and to be reflexive. (Self-) awareness about racism and racist behavior when conducting fieldwork in the field of human geography is paramount.

RASTER.FI: Flipping the question a bit: how can the fields of geography and geology contribute to conversations on racism?

Human geography is a lot about space – as physical (for ex. the built environment), social (social relations and interactions), imagined (for ex. laws and regulations) and lived (for ex. experiences and emotions). As such, space is always political. Also, through the concept of scales, geography allows glimpses into different levels where racism is produced, maintained and experienced.

In addition, feminist geography offers useful conceptualizations and theories for observing and studying structural and cultural racism. Some of the common methodologies applied in geography such as ethnography, autoethnography and participatory action research open possibilities for anti-racist reflection and action – especially if strengthened by reflexivity and critical discussions.

RASTER.FI: Why did the seminar focus on the Finnish society?

Finland offers a context that many of us know through everyday life, research and/or activism. It is also where many of those we imagined as seminar participants live and study. So, we thought that they could more easily relate to it, reflect on racism and hopefully act against it here. Finland is a context where talks about and against racism need to be rigorously kept alive. There is a tendency to describe the Finnish nation, history and society as an exception. As if it were an island detached from global phenomena such as racism, colonialism, capitalism and so on. We find some examples in news and institutional communication about how Finland exports knowledge to fix problems in other contexts. These processes often happen in colonial ways. By following a one-way dynamic, Finland provides its knowledge to people – whose knowledge is not recognized or invested – as if they were passive recipients. With the seminar, we wanted to draw attention to these narratives and encourage honest, critical reflections on the role of Finland in these processes.

RASTER.FI: What definitions of ”racism” and ”anti-racism” informed the planning of the seminar? 

We had a long list of scholarly publications. Some that played a key role in the seminar were the first chapter of Keskinen, Seikkula & Mkwesha’s new book (2021), Atabong’s definitions of and approaches to racism (2016), Peggy McIntosh’s writings about white privilege (1989), Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (2019), D’Angelo’s White Fragility (2018), the works of James Baldwin, and Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (1984). Literary fiction has also provided a perspective into the experiences of racism and vividly illustrated the intricacies of how racism manifests – such works as by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and most recently Johannes Anyuru.

RASTER.FI: In retrospect, how was the experience of organizing the seminar?

It was a very rewarding opportunity to talk to people who also see the importance of the topic and take time to learn and familiarize with it further. However, organizing the seminar was also very intense. We needed to learn many things while exchanging and coordinating our views and opinions. It was motivating that people with whom we talked to about the seminar plan agreed that the department and the university needed this kind of event.

Regarding the audience, we originally targeted the staff and students of geography and geology. We hoped to have wide participation from them. We also shared the invitation to the seminar in other spaces that we saw as potentially interested. We also expected that in particular some already knowledgeable and critical people could have joined. However, a full-day seminar may have been a challenge for people to join.

In organizing the seminar, we learned more about structural racism in Finland. We also learned about how to grasp the micro-practices and micro-behaviors that make up racist attitudes – often barely visible, but still harmful and offensive. Some participants made us realize the level of injustice that non-EU academics and students feel while dealing with the current Finnish tuition system, immigration laws and practices, and lack of funding opportunities available for them in this country. Remarkably, there is very little discussion in academic circles on these injustices and specifically, but perhaps not surprisingly, in the white academic bubbles where we, the organizers, often find ourselves.

In the end, we see that the seminar and the conversation cannot be a one-time thing only. However, we fear it might become so. Thus, we feel compelled to push the university to start training staff on racism and anti-racism as well as to maintain an open discussion on racism. We also feel compelled to keep reminding our department to organize discussions, courses and events on racism and anti-racism for everybody in the future. We have seen that the university staff services have some promising interest in organizing events on racism in the near future. We hope they consider anti-racism practices as part of every staff member’s “toolbox” that each of us has to develop, so that we make concrete efforts to address racism within the university community.

RASTER.FI: Can each of you tell a little bit about the work you do?

Salla: I have been doing research on participatory and inclusive land use planning in rural communities in Tanzania and worked in East Africa several years. Whiteness, racism and neocolonial power structures are phenomena that I have thus had to reflect about in research and everyday life. This reflexivity has also carried on into how I observe Finnish society and collaborative research with East-African colleagues. When I sent to the would-be organizers the first email, asking if they would be interested in organizing a seminar on racism at the department, I was thinking of all those people with whom I had talked about racism before or that I knew worked on related topics. From there onwards, we started our numerous COVID-19 conscious planning meetings via Zoom.

Camilla: I have been doing research and activism on the everyday lives and agencies of people with a refugee background in Finland. Therefore, intersectional and racial questions have been an important part – although not the main focus – of my work, especially of my methodology. I have also been learning about racism, anti-racism and power as a co-coordinator of the Activist Research Network together with Leonardo Custódio.

Tikli: I have done my fieldwork in forest villages of Indigenous communities in India. Such research in a foreign context requires particular sensitivity about how to deal with difference and otherness.

Miriam: I am an ethnographer who has been conducting research in ‘sensitive’ contexts, such as segregated and stigmatized urban neighborhoods, or with people belonging to vulnerable groups or minorities. This has made me realize how relevant in my own methodology and research an active (self)reflection on racism and its consequences is.

Thomas: my research focuses on contemporary surveillance practices and in particular the socio-political implications of the automated character of surveillance. I am interested in the politics and the violence of these technologies, addressing the claims to objectivity and the underlying biases and often hiding racialised and stigmatizing approaches.

Hanna: I have worked in a research project that involved asylum seekers and refugees and I am currently studying the nature connection of some immigrant groups in Turku.  This experience has made me interested to learn more about discrimination and racism.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash