Last Thursday’s racist harassment of asylum seekers by a group of white Finnish men vanishes from the news cycle. In the wake of the harrowing event, Finnish media and public figures do what Finns do so well: speculate obsessively about our reputation abroad. As though the episode of racist violence only just let the cat out of the bag for white Finns (alas, racism does exist here!), the panic over our “country brand” dominates headlines.
Our current government has of course chipped away at what credibility we had as a “progressive Nordic country” since it took office this spring. Juha Sipilä’s (Prime Minister, Finnish Center Party) government began its term in office by slashing Finland’s development aid and cooperation budget by 43%, which totals 300 million euros. Finland now allocates .35% of GPD to development cooperation and aid – a puny percentage compared to our Nordic neighbors, all of whom average 0.7% of GPD, even within the context of the “Euro crisis”.
Last Tuesday, Finland abstained from voting on transfers of refugees at the meeting of European Union interior ministers held in Brussels. “The construction of our [country] image is straight from hell!” declared Finnish ambassador to Switzerland, Jari Luoto, after the vote. Abstaining from voting was effectively a “no” vote. The Finnish government claims to have abstained, as it believes that the transfer of refugees should be on a voluntary basis. What acting on a “voluntary basis” would concretely mean to Finland we can only speculate. However, a glance at the state of current development cooperation projects ought to expose what Finnish elected leaders think of the wellbeing and safety of black and brown people, especially those in the Global South.
The Nation Brand-crisis that ensued from the vote and subsequent comment by Jari Luoto is headline worthy and alarming. Our “compromised country brand” aligns Finland with countries like Slovakia, Romania, Czech Republic, and Hungary, all of whom also cast a “no” vote. Finland, a country that has, since its inception, carefully constructed its image to align with Western World, cannot be seen in such “value-regressed” company.
The moral panic about Finland’s country brand recreates hierarchies within the EU countries. Helsingin Sanomat headline reads: “Finland’s Reputation in the UN has suffered a blow – Finland is cast in the same black hole as Ukraine”. Ukraine, along with Slovakia, Romania, Czech Republic, and Hungary, are all self-evidently posited below Finland as racist, xenophobic countries, that lag behind the value-progressive Western Nations that Finland yearns inclusion to.
Amidst the incessant fap-fap of Finnish public figures over our “National Brand”, the violence and terror inflicted on asylum seekers is decentered. The casual racism so ingrained in our national imageries never gets mentioned. What gets prioritized instead, in a manner habitual for white supremacists, is our white emotions, concerns and comfort.
White fragility is a term that refers to the privilege of being able to feel comfortable even while seemingly tackling issues like racism. Many white people never question the undue right that they do not even realize exists for them. When the conversation turns to racism, and white people are inevitably confronted with their own internalized ways of perpetuating oppression, we get uncomfortable and defensive. These reactions derail any real conversations about white supremacy and racism, and are predicated on maintaining the comfort of white people.
White fragility explains why in Finland, the conversation has been diverted from repetitive outbursts of flamboyant racism in our society to a national identity crisis. Rather than confront the racist climate that our elected leaders perpetuate and thus incite, Thursday’s harassers are cast as extremists whose greatest offense has been to soil our reputation in the eyes of the world.