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Thoughts About Racism

Thai-Que-Minh Bui | 20.03.2020

This week is the annual Week against Racism and tomorrow is March 21 is The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. One of our students Thai-Que-Minh Bui wrote her thoughts about racism in our blog.

Nyt vietetään valtakunnallista jokavuotista rasisminvastaisra viikkoa ja huomenna YK:n rasisminvastaista päivää 21.3. Opiskelijamme  Thai-Que-Minh Bui kirjoitti blogiimme ajatuksiaan rasismista.

A pandemic started in Wuhan, China, and has been spreading across the globe at the turn of the 2020s. It is quite a depressing way to start a new decade, and certainly not a good time to have black hair and small eyes – in other words, an East Asian appearance.

Let me make it very clear. Everything racist against East Asians going on in the world at the moment – ranging from weird looks to downright physical assaults – did NOT come from the pandemic, nor did it come from some sort of fear just recently formed. Rather, they are manifestations of racist thoughts and beliefs that have been quietly running in some people’s minds, hidden because of social disapproval towards overt racism. The epidemic is simply one among many events that can – and will – trigger such manifestations.

That being said, in this post, I would like to name a few incidents I have observed and heard of in Finland, amidst this virus-fuelled, escalating anti-East-Asian sentiments, for the sake of illustrating the different ways in which racism might be expressed on a daily basis.

Shortly before the Finnish government declared a state of emergency and gave instructions on social distancing, the rapidly growing number of infected cases in Finland already concerned me. Thus, I went to the grocery store in my neighbourhood and then rode the metro with a surgical mask on. (Whether you like it or not, it is entirely my personal freedom to wear a mask or whatever clothing items on my face). Having heard stories of East-Asian-looking people in other European countries and the United States being subject to all sorts of nasty treatments simply for wearing a mask in public, I proceeded with caution. Surprisingly, no one displayed any reactions to that. A young woman on the metro even did not hesitate to come and sit close to me. A few hours later, the mask I was wearing turned damp and had to be disposed of. I took it off, sealed it in an airtight bag I brought along to make sure it would be disposed both safely and properly. Then I walked into another grocery store to buy my lunch, this time with my face exposed. A one particular woman in the store, at her first sight of me appearing nearby, literally jumped away from me after shooting me a cautious look. As I went on doing my shopping, she looked at me with more caution and continued to moved back and forth to maintain a certain physical distance from me.

I was not bothered much by that since her reaction did not really harm me in anyway. I always think it is natural for people to have fear, be it reasonable or not, and as long as they do not violate the rights of others, all is fine. However, I learnt that the situation was no longer safe and peaceful when I encountered stories told by my fellow Vietnamese students in Finland in our Facebook group.

A female student mentioned that her friends, with masks on, were parking their car in the garage of their own home as usual when a neighbour came out, called them “sick Asians”, threatened to have the police expel them from the neighbourhood, and told them to go back to their home country. Violence was on the edge of happening, though thankfully did not.

A male student reported being proactively approached and then physically attacked by two Finnish men seemingly in their thirties, close to a grocery store in a Central Finland city. He managed to get out of the situation with just one blow to his shoulder and no injuries, but noted that it could have been far worse. His story quickly triggered a discussion on personal safety measures, equipment such as personal safety alarms, and I then joined in by sharing the law of self-defence in the Finnish Criminal Code to make sure everyone knew how to do it lawfully.

This is a time when we, Vietnamese students studying abroad, and in particular in Finland, need to resort to extra measures to protect ourselves from racist attacks, but such reaction from others is in no way surprising to us.. I personally have expected something like this to happen since the moment I left Vietnam. It is – and has long been – a daily reality for people who move to a new land to make a new home, especially for non-Caucasians in a world still plagued with white supremacy. This is not to say Caucasian people do not face racism: In the same thread where the two stories above were shared, another student replied with a different story about their Caucasian Finnish friend who had been subject to discriminatory treatments by some businesses in Vietnam – probably because the pandemic had hit some European countries hard. Clearly, racism is still a big part of our lives, and I doubt it is going away any time soon.

The mentioned incidents, nonetheless, are just a small part of the bigger picture regarding xenophobia and racism in Finland.

My view about how racism in Finland can be tackled as a social issue is that we need to go way beyond its explicit, easy-to-notice manifestations. Assaults do happen, but are not as common as rejections to job applications. Weird looks and raging neighbours are annoying and perhaps even frightening sometimes, but are not as damaging as the systematic exclusion from opportunities. By this I am referring to a recent social experiment which used fake job applications with the same candidate profiles differing only in the applicants’ names to demonstrate that people with foreign names are way less likely to land a job compared to people with literally the same profiles and Finnish names. I am also referring to people who order cleaning service with an explicit demand that male black cleaners should not be assigned to clean their facilities, and more importantly, have their demand complied with by the cleaning company.

The reactions I have seen and heard so far from Caucasian Finns who hold the power to make changes are all well-intent but far from consistent with the actual seriousness of the problem. I have heard: “This is an important issue which we have been working on and will continue to do so”. Also: “This is illegal in Finland, and it is very good that you have spoken up”. However the solutions have not reached anywhere beyond raising awareness among Finnish employers and offering advice to the ones discriminated. I must stress that the discriminated ones are more often than not marginalized, disadvantaged and living with a whole lot of burdens on their shoulders which will not be lifted with a mere piece of advice. I must also stress that some employers do not respond to awareness raising but will only respond to actual legal or economic consequences for their discriminative choices.

The vast majority of native Finns I have met throughout my 5,5 years of living in Finland, Caucasian and otherwise, have been kind, open-minded and righteous people who uphold fairness and justice. Hence, with what I have shared in this post, I rely on them just as much as ourselves to continue to support and empower the ones in our society who are unfortunate enough to be subject to racism, so that it can become a thing of the past as soon as possible.

Thank you for giving us a voice, for listening to us, and for always making efforts to push improvements forward and forward. On the other hand, I also thank you for taking your time to note that there is still much – in fact, there is still a lot – to be done.

Thai-Que-Minh Bui
Master’s degree student, Faculty of Education, University of Turku
A permanent resident in Finland

Master’s degree student, Faculty of Education, University of Turku
Thai-Que-Minh Bui