Racism - run, but you can't hide

The writer Umayya Abu-Hanna seems to have lit a fire with her article in the Helsinki Sanomat on Sunday. As a black female immigrant - a specific sub-section of immigrants, I have a particular experience of life in Finland and I thought I would add my comments to the fray.

The first is on Abu-Hanna’s description of Amsterdam as a racial paradise; the second on Eva Biaudet’s claim that racism is more common in a place such as Finland; and finally that my experience of Finland as a black woman is that I’d rather be here that many other places in Europe.

In her article, Abu-Hanna describes her how she and her daughter – an adopted Black South African - have moved to Amsterdam after thirty years of being at the receiving end of overt, and sometimes violent racism in Finland. In Amsterdam she seems to have found a paradise; people are nice to each other, minorities are in positions of authority and she has not received any racist slurs in the period she’s lived there.

I am very sceptical of Utopias. The young Black cleaner that winked suggestively at me at Schiphol airport would suggest there lurks many conflicting experiences of racism in the Netherlands. 

Why? Isn’t it ludicrous to base my argument on the tiny act of one man once, years ago? I’m not going to, it is merely an example. Based on my experiences that young man would not have winked at Abu-Hanna. 

Racism, as I see it, is not just about Black against White, it’s an intricate maze of relationships between different groups, some who, to the outsider, may not even compose a distinct group. Having a massive number of people of African, Arabic or Asian origin and of various religions in a country does not guarantee better outcomes for every immigrant, only a greater diversity of needs to be met and relationships to be managed. Therefore, it’s possible to find a multitude of experiences of racism in the same country or city.

It is not ludicrous to suggest that where one finds herself in the social system, the neighbourhoods, the friends the schools, determines how much overt racism you receive. Thus, Abu-Hanna has found herself in relatively racism free microcosm rather like the one I currently inhabit.

In Helsinki, I am spared extreme, overt racism because I live and travel around areas of the city with significant numbers of minorities. Many of the events and occasions I attend attract people who are well travelled or who frequently interact with immigrants and foreigners.

But I have to acknowledge that Finland isn’t some racial utopia. Which brings me to the point that Finland is not any more racist than other countries because of its relative isolation and the novelty of immigration.

I always tell people, I can count the number of overt racist incidents I’ve experienced in Finland in the last two years, however, I can’t count the numbers of Hellos and Welcomes, the number of people who’ve been willing to assist me, the staff that switch to English knowing I can’t speak Finnish. Moreover, I cannot count all the times I’ve been treated exactly like everyone else. 

I attend a choir with women who wish to interact with a multicultural group that includes Egyptian, Turkish, Greek and Finnish women. As an English teacher, my students want to know about me, they want to know about where I’m from, the places I’ve been and what I’ve seen there, our interaction is friendly and profesional.

However, I am aware that the job applications I send are read through coloured lenses and that I am too quick to dismiss slow service or the over-watchful security guard, simply because I am powerless in these situations.

Contrast that with my experiences in South Africa, Namibia and even Zambia. All are countries with long convoluted experiences with immigration and huge racial and ethnic (tribal) diversity. In South Africa, where the taxi driver who’d been sent to collect me couldn’t find me because he wasn’t looking for someone who “looked like me,” South Africa, where I will not dare go out on my own at night because the men (white and black) take it as an invitation to attack, where taking a morning run felt as if I was taking my life into my own hands.

I’ll give the example of Zambia, my home, where I’ve worked with people who earned five or ten times more than I, simply because they were of European origin, a country where it is standard to pay people at different rates for different ethnicities.

In Europe British, French and Irish news is filled reports of violent, salient and covert racism. It’s harder for minorities to get work, education and satisfactory public services than it is for Whites. It’s been verified that Blacks are imprisoned in larger numbers and for longer periods than other ethnicities in the USA – again a country with a very long history of immigration.

I’d like to think Finland isn’t at that point yet – however give it time. Lucky for us who remain here, people such as Abu-Hanna have spoken out. Judging from the blogosphere, many Finns are not only disgusted, but also embarrassed.

The reaction of societal and political leaders and authorities will determine if experiences such as Abu-Hanna’s continue to be repeated. If I am a victim of overt or implicit racism – in school, on the streets, in receiving government services, I should be able to call upon the authorities. Those authorities must take me seriously and there must be repercussions for racist behaviour.

It doesn’t matter if there are one thousand or one hundred thousand immigrants, whether its Amsterdam or Helsinki, racism and racist attacks will thrive where permitted. 

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