The academic world needs anti-racism!

In recent days, the United States and many other countries have witnessed protests and statements against racism and police violence after the death of George Floyd. Floyd was a 46-year-old black man from Minneapolis who died as a result of police brutality when he was strangled by a police officer during arrest. Black Lives Matter, a movement fighting against police violence inflicted on African Americans, has organised demonstrations that have grown into massive protests. The theme has been a subject of public discussion in Finland as well.

Along with statements against police violence and racism, some comments have aimed to downplay the seriousness of the events. Many commentators have argued that racism is a new phenomenon in Finland or proudly stated that no one in Finland needs to be afraid of the police. Some have wanted to externalise this problem entirely and send it back to the other side of the ocean. Racism is also a serious problem in Finland, which is not said out loud often enough.

Racism is discriminatory practices and actions which are based on a person’s ethnic, cultural or religious background and the unequal distribution of power. By racialised persons, we are referring to people who are stereotyped and face prejudiced ideas because of their ethnicity, skin colour or religion – that is, people who experience racism. Examples of racism include everyday racism and systemic racism. Everyday racism is present in everyday interactions through offensive gestures, derogatory language or even violence. Systemic racism refers to practices that cause racialised persons to be at a disadvantage in comparison to white people. Systemic racism is present in legislation and in the activities of different communities, such as universities. By white people, we are referring to persons who are, because of their skin colour, in a position of power over racialised persons in today’s society. By privilege or privileged groups, we are referring to a situation where an individual is not discriminated against because of their characteristics: a white person, for example, does not experience racism, and a heterosexual person does not face discrimination because of their sexual orientation, although they may experience discrimination in other contexts or be otherwise socially disadvantaged.

The assumption that racism does not occur in the academic environment often comes up on different occasions. This assumption is false. Racism has a long history in the academia, and Finnish universities are, to this day, very white. Due to the centuries-long history of racism and the present situation, white communities are unable to identify and recognise racism seriously and firmly enough.

The university community must work towards eradicating racist structures and attitudes in university administration and teaching. At the university, systemic racism may be seen by looking at which backgrounds university students are coming from. The entire previous educational path, starting from early childhood education, largely defines the backgrounds of people applying to universities. Even in a welfare state, social inequality is reflected in people’s educational opportunities. These challenges need to be addressed through anti-racist pedagogy and other methods of tackling educational inequality. SOOL, the Teacher Student Union of Finland, has issued a statement regarding anti-racist pedagogy. Another sign of systemic racism is that the role of Western research is strongly emphasised in educational materials, in spite of the fact that important high-quality research is done all around the world. After all, the Western world only covers a small part of the world’s scientific cultures.

The university’s decisions are made by representative bodies. This is why it is necessary to look at the distribution of power and assess whether the decision-making bodies truly represent all the voices of our community. The working language of the university’s administrative bodies is mainly Finnish, which shuts out a significant part of the university community. We should, of course, keep in mind that you cannot make assumptions of a person’s language skills or background on the basis of their appearance. The university and the society have many non-white persons who speak Finnish as their mother tongue or have learned the language at some point in their lives. We should, however, recognise that these language issues can increase racism indirectly.

There are also other ways in which racism can affect people’s chances of being included in different administrative bodies. Experiencing racism at the university can cause a person to feel, quite understandably, that their voice is not welcomed or valued by the community. Conscious or unconscious racial prejudices among the people who select the members to these bodies can have an effect on who is selected and who is not. Racism causes both mental and physical stress, and systemic racism is also reflected in the poorer health of racialised persons in comparison to white people. Health issues can also limit people’s participation in the university community’s activities.

At the university, people may encounter everyday racism in the lecture room when a lecturer makes a discriminatory comment, or in student associations when a fellow student cracks a racist joke. Student culture is full of racist traditions, such as certain sitsi songs. Yet we seem to have developed a culture of silence. Instead of having more and more members of the community open their mouths and say that they do not accept racism, it is often too easy to ignore the racist jokes and remarks. The fight against racism calls for anti-racist actions. All organisations should review their traditions, general culture of discussion, and diversity of the organisation’s active members. No tradition, no matter how old, can be more important than the organisation’s members’ sense of safety and belonging. A discriminatory tradition is always a bad tradition.

Anti-racist actions should not be left to racialised groups. Instead, people should use their white privilege in the fight against racism. This must be done on the terms of the racialised members of the community and on the basis of their needs. We have written a short checklist of anti-racist actions for the white members of our student community. Although this list is not exhaustive, it will help you get started.

  • Be aware of your privilege and look into anti-racist resources, especially material produced by racialised persons. Make active use of the things you have learned. This list of resources for anti-racist work, compiled by Kiia Beilinson and Miia Laine, is a good place to start. Although the resources are mainly in Finnish, you can also find sources in English at the end of the document.
  • Always address racism when you see it and support racialised persons when they bring it up. Addressing racism should not be the responsibility of those who experience it. If you are told that your actions are racist, apologise without trying to explain your actions. Commit to taking that criticism into consideration in the future.
  • Make sure that your organisation has a comprehensive set of tools for addressing racist actions and dismantling racist structures. The opinions of racialised students should be given priority in anti-racist work.
  • Establish practices for monitoring the implementation of equality-promoting principles. Make sure that your organisation has members who can refer a person who has experienced racism to the Student Union’s harassment contact person.
  • Be critical of your student community’s traditions, such as sitsi songs, and promote the discontinuation of racist traditions in your organisation. Read TREY’s guide for equality in sitsi parties.
  • Pay attention to whether racialised students are participating in your organisation’s activities. If none or only a few are participating, discuss the possible reasons for that with your organisation.
  • When you or your organisation are involved in advocacy work, be sure to analyse how your goals and methods might affect racialised students as well.

We students are a diverse community where all members should have the right to feel comfortable and safe. TREY is committed to supporting organisations in their anti-racist work while also reviewing and developing our own activities and representativeness. We acknowledge that white privilege concerns us as well, which is why we are always willing to accept critical feedback regarding our work. You can send your feedback by email to TREY’s equality specialist or the organiser of the Board in charge of equality matters. Lean more about TREY’s equality policies by reading our policy paper and equality plan. TREY’s harassment contact persons help students who have experienced harassment or discrimination, such as racial discrimination. You can contact the harassment contact persons even if you are unsure about the situation or if you just wish to discuss ways of addressing harassment or discrimination. You can find their contact information here.