Considering race in the context of Finnish schools: why should we move past colour-blindness?

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Photo: Alissa De Leva/Unsplash

Author: Heidi Katz

Race is often treated as an uncomfortable, misunderstood concept in Finland and Finnish schools. Equality, a core Finnish value, is frequently used as a reason to not consider race, but as long as race and students’ racialized experiences are ignored, inequality persists.

There are very few researchers in Finland who touch on the topic of race, and any discussion surrounding race or racism tends to yield discomfort. This is also the case in schools, where an emphasis is placed on equality (i.e. sameness), meaning teachers do not need to see or acknowledge race. Many Finns see race and/or racism as issues that occur elsewhere, despite the fact that Finland also has a long history of racism, which has been fuelled with an increase in overt ethnonationalism. Many researchers and educators in Finland replace race with ethnicity and direct attention to multiculturalism. While race and ethnicity intertwine, they are not the same, and multicultural education is often misunderstood.

What is the cost of silencing race-based discussions?

Race is related to bodily appearance and the power differentials ingrained in the various racial categories. While race is not real in any scientific sense, the construction of race has a real effect on the lived experience of those who are racialized and oppressed. Ethnicity on the other hand is tied to the identity of a population based on various shared aspects, including language, culture, common origin, and religion; while two people could be ethnically alike, they could appear physically different and thus face differential treatment. Finally, multiculturalism involves everyone, not just the ‘other’, meaning multicultural education should involve a critical reflection of oneself not just essentializing other cultures through food festivals and multicultural celebration days.

By avoiding race-based research or even day-to-day discussions about race, racial issues in society and school become invisible to the dominant group, making it easy to say that they do not exist in Finland. However, race is not a stable construct; instead, it transforms over time and varies between contexts. This means that racial issues in Finland may not appear to be as extreme as countries where protests erupt and race is constantly present in the media, but this assumption of absence is a fallacy.

Similarly, racism is not a stable, concrete concept. While most believe racism is based on individual acts of discrimination or beliefs of superiority, the dominant form of racism actually lies in oppressive structures, including schools. In a society such as Finland where equality is a core value, it is easy to argue that everyone, including students, are treated the same. However, racism cannot solely be measured through individual’s treatment of each other. Rather, we must consider how structures are built to support the majority population, and whether they function to also support the needs of minority groups. For instance, does placing immigrant children in preparatory programs benefit them or instead does it create segregation and obstacles to integration?

Why is the colour-blind approach problematic?

As mentioned, schools are one form of oppressive structure. Schools often represent the majority culture in beliefs, values, teaching styles, and whose stories are told in textbooks and learning material. This is supported by the fact that in Finland, multicultural education is often seen as education for the ‘other’ and about the ‘other’, and thus not relevant to native, White Finns.

Moreover, teachers often claim to be colour-blind, which they feel absolves them from being racist. However, being colour-blind allows racist systems to endure. When a student of colour fails to succeed based on the standards put in place by the dominant group, blame is typically placed on the individual student. In many cases this results in more students of colour being referred to special education or being disciplined more harshly than their White peers. In these instances, teachers use colour-blindness as a defence, saying they treat all of their students the same, or equally. Here lies the danger in modern-day racism: it is extremely hard to prove, especially when supported by favourable values such as equality.

Culturally relevant teaching is a way forward

In many cases, teachers are unaware of their own bias, and without engaging in critical self-reflection, they enable inequality to persist. This form of critical reflection falls under the aims of culturally relevant teaching (CRT). Coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006), CRT is a pedagogy of opposition that enables students of colour to succeed academically and to develop cultural competence and a critical consciousness. This type of teaching is incorporated into the curriculum, enabling critical discussions to emerge where relevant. It forces both teachers and students to look past the dominant norms, expectations, and accepted knowledge. For example, during a history lesson, the teacher can ask students to reflect on whose voices were and were not present during the writing of a law.

Instead of forcing minority students to fit into the Finnish mould, schools must broaden their understanding of what it means to be a ‘good’ student. This means moving past the colour-blind approach, creating space for critical reflections about power and privilege, and facilitating discussions between students that reflect the diverse range of cultures, skills, and goals. Through CRT, multicultural education is for everyone, as is the concept of cultural identity. Until teachers and students feel comfortable engaging with topics of hegemony, power, White privilege, and race, systems of inequality can continue to quietly persist.

Read more about this topic:

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2018). Racism without racists: color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. Fifth edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). “Yes, but how do we do it?” Practicing culturally relevant pedagogy. In Landsman, J. G., Lewis, C. W. (Eds.), White teachers diverse classrooms: Creating inclusive schools, building on students’ diversity, and providing true educational equity (pp. 33–46). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Rastas, A. (2005). Racializing categorization among young people in Finland. YOUNG, 13(2), 147–166. doi: 10.1177/1103308805051319

This blog post is part of the Minority Studies series authored and facilitated by researchers from the Åbo Akademi Minority Research profile.