The Happiest and the Most Racist: Institutional Racism in Nordic Countries

Of note:

The Nordic countries are well known for topping charts globally in education, equality, and happiness levels. Nordic welfare systems provide citizens with myriad state benefits and free healthcare and education from pre-school to university. However, in The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’ “Being Black in the EU” study, Finland has also topped the charts for something far more insidious as well: racism.

Based on the study made in 2018, 63 percent of people of African descent in Finland have experienced racially motivated harassment, compared to a group average of 30 percent in the 12 European Union states surveyed. In both Denmark and Sweden, the number was 41 percent.

Besides the EU survey, another study showed that the coronavirus death rate in Sweden was 220 percent higher among people born outside the country. In an interview with the HPR, Vesa Puuronen, a researcher on racism and sociology professor at the University of Oulu, commented that “it can be partially blamed on the lack of instructions in minority languages. [Without access to adequate information] those individuals could not act in the appropriate way to be spared from the virus.”

A study shows that in Finland views on immigration have become less tolerant in the past five years. In 2015, 65 percent of the Finnish population strongly disagreed with the statement that the “white European race must be prevented from mixing into darker races because otherwise, the European autochthonous population will go extinct”, but in 2020 the number had decreased to 56.

Segregation problems can be found all across Nordic territories. Iceland recently introduced a custom-designed car to carry out border surveillance, which has been used to disproportionately target Albanians and Romanians; such practices have been criticized as racial profiling. In Denmark, the government has compiled a “ghetto list” of neighborhoods for a decade; new proposals of dealing with the neighborhoods have been identified  by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as “hugely troubling and risks heightening racial discrimination against people of migrant origin – further ‘ghettoising’ them.”

In Sweden, segregated neighborhoods have long been considered a major problem, which has also become a tool for the right-wing to oppose immigration. Nationalist parties overall have been on the rise in Europe, and the Nordic countries are at a breaking point. If Nordic nations want to keep taking pride in their progressiveness and egalitarianism, definitive steps against racism must be taken now.

Systemic Racism in Academic and Professional Settings 

Nordic countries have free and well-working education, but there is inequality embedded in the same system that has been admired worldwide. The 2020 OECD report about Finland criticizes that their education is unevenly distributed. In an interview with the HPR, Michaela Moua, a senior officer at the Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman in Finland, recognizes racially motivated guidance in schools, especially in the Finnish as Second Language studies: “Black and Brown students are often advised to take these classes even if Finnish is their first language.”

She adds that “this shows how it is still widely thought that one cannot be a person of color and Finnish at the same time.” Even though the original goal of Finnish as Second Language studies was to support equal language learning, downward-guidance deteriorates the development of academic language, which will affect those students’ later studies. Often, these same students are also advised downwards in student counseling. Women, in particular, are guided towards care working, even if they are planning on going to university. This kind of downward guidance could affect those individuals’ income levels in the future.

In the Nordic countries, university admissions work solely on grades, which leaves no room to account for different student contexts. This creates inequality, as it incorrectly assumes everyone to have the same background and opportunities to receive excellent grades. In the interview, Vesa Puuronen agrees that “the Nordic university admissions system does not include any attempts to level inequalities”.

Going from school to the labor market, language skills is one particularly troubling factor. In an interview with the HPR, Fatim Diarra, Vice-Chair of the Finnish Greens Party, noted that the Finnish labor market is not prepared enough to accept people without perfect language skills to “access working life and become beneficial for society”, especially considering that Finnish, for instance, is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.

In the interview, Michaela Moua also mentions a research study by Akhlaq Ahmad from the University of Helsinki. Five thousand fake resumes were sent out from five different ethnic groups: Finnish, English, Russian, Iraqi, and Somali with the same qualifications and language proficiency. The research shows that a foreign-sounding name is a significant factor in job applications; local sounding names received callbacks multiple times more likely than foreign-sounding names.

Moua recognizes that there are two levels of discrimination in the Finnish labor market: Horizontal and vertical discrimination. In horizontal discrimination, a specific group gets stuck in a low paying field even when they often have much higher qualifications than the job actually requires.

In vertical discrimination, a person that is discriminated against might be hired for a job, but career progress is unfairly challenging because of racially-motivated factors. The job benefits, like salary and access to training by the employer, are lower, but despite that, the person that is discriminated against is reluctant to report their unfair treatment even if they experience clear racist harassment. “It is so difficult to get the job in the first place so those people do not want to ruffle the waves, so to say, even when their peers left and right are going higher up the ladder”, says Moua.

Hiding Racism Won’t Make It Disappear

Shouldn’t the Nordic states that take such pride in their supposed progressive values be above such behavior? Yet, there is still widespread reluctance to accept racism as an actual problem, which is reflected in the current history curriculum.

It is typically thought that one major reason for racial discrimination is that Nordic societies have long been homogenous, blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who have only gone through rapid demographic changes due to increased immigration since the 1990s. However, the idea of homogenous Nordic societies can be contested. Michaela Moua told the HPR that Finland’s racist history towards Roma and Sami surprises most people because it has not been written about in the school books and it is not part of common knowledge to know about the extreme measures taken to assimilate those minority groups. The Finnish nation is largely considered homogenous, even though there have been people like Tatars, Sami, and Roma for hundreds of years. “Global nationalistic phenomena have affected how our narrative was switched into a strong belief of homogeneity”, comments Moua, but “studying these historical events gives a lot of answers to why things are here how they are now”.

Moua adds that based on the reports sent to the Finnish Ombudsman office, Romas are a group that suffers widespread discrimination in Finland: for instance, restaurants and other services refuse to let them in or they are demanded to pay beforehand. Romas often end up changing their name to get a job or an apartment more easily, even though they have been living in the region for hundreds of years and do not typically consider themselves outsiders. According to Moua, “this is a strong example of ethnic profiling happening here.”

Diarra said in the interview that “it is dangerous to squeeze the situation in the US straight into our context, and this challenges the activists in the Nordic countries to understand how hundreds of years of oppression elsewhere affect our culture.” There are basically no slave owner statues to loot in Helsinki or Oslo, but the thought is prevalent in the region that immigrants come to the Nordic countries just to idle with the state benefits supported by the welfare system.

According to Diarra, studies show that the system currently blocks certain people from truly accessing the supporting net, which entraps people of color in cycles of unemployment and poverty. It must be more widely pondered how the system favors the people born inside the country and fails to give adequate support to minorities who are not able to access the network on their own. Neighborhood segregation has long been a problem in Sweden in particular, but segregation is a threat to the whole region. If that isn’t addressed, the supposed multiculturalism of the region will only be lip service as people become estranged from people from different ethnic backgrounds.

A major problem in the Nordic countries is that racism is not properly recognized. Puuronen noted that “the term [racism] is loosely used and there are people who express racist opinions but get away with them by saying ‘I am not a racist, but…’” In his opinion, an ordinary citizen’s perception and understanding of racism are highly incomplete. According to Diarra, political discussions about racism are outdated and engage in discourse that  “had been done in other countries 50 years ago”. Moua notes that “in Finland racism is understood only as a conscious and deliberate act, but simply not shouting racist slurs on the streets does not make you an anti-racist.” The discourse must be switched from whether there is racism to how to abolish it.

Looking Forward

Recent happenings in the US have brought the issue of racism into wide discourse worldwide, including the Nordic countries. Even though the survey discussed at the beginning of this article shows that trust in police was highest in Finland and happiness appears to be high among immigrants, Black Lives Matter protests in the region demonstrate that things may be more turbulent than the data initially suggests. Policy initiatives to improve workplace equitability have also been spearheaded recently, acknowledging a deep-seated institutional problem. For instance, Helsinki city has introduced an anonymous recruiting policy, meaning that job applications for the city are sent without name, ethnicity, age or gender.

“Globally, we are on the top, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have things to do”, says Michaela Moua. According to her, it is crucial for the Nordic governments to be committed to the human rights programs they are currently pursuing and promote decisions that will affect people’s everyday life in a positive way. Vesa Puuronen adds that more well-conducted and comprehensive research should be made in order to understand the current issues deeper. Those who do not have to experience racism themselves must try to consider how others experience it, and the illusion of Nordic exceptionalism must be broken.

The Nordic countries are in a situation where they still can choose their direction, but action must be taken now and it won’t necessarily be easy. “Our welfare state system truly can ensure opportunities for everyone, but it should be updated and developed further. We are proud of our society and when someone points out flaws, it challenges us to think critically of ourselves, which is extremely difficult”, says Diarra, but “the era of self-reflection has now begun.”

Source: The Happiest and the Most Racist: Institutional Racism in Nordic Countries

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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