This time I’m writing about something that has less to do with literature and more with my home country, Finland.
Since 30th December, the news and social media have discussed fiercely about an article by a Finnish politician and writer Umayya Abu-Hanna. She’s Palestinian-born and lived in Finland for 30 years, but in 2010 decided to move permanently to Amsterdam because she wanted to protect her adopted daughter of Zulu heritage from everyday racism they have faced in Finland. The child was repeatedly called with the N word in public by passers-by. I can’t even imagine any sane person acting like this, but Abu-Hanna isn’t the only immigrant who has shared such experiences. Even a white German-born male can face off-handed verbal abuse around here, so no doubt a black child can fall victim to the abuse too. Sadly.
Umayya Abu-Hanna is a controversial character in the Finnish political circles even though she is also celebrated, awarded, and well-liked by many Finnish voters. One of the biggest “scandals” happened in the month she moved out of Finland with her daughter. Abu-Hanna was invited to Finland’s Independence Day celebrations at the President’s Castle. When it was her turn to greet President Halonen, she broke protocol as she handed her a letter from her daughter to the president. It read that since President Halonen did not invite the child to her “party”, she wouldn’t invite the president to her own party either.
People against Abu-Hanna’s negative views claim that she should be thankful that Finland has treated her so well. In turn, Abu-Hanna points out that the Netherlands doesn’t expect her thankfulness for “getting to live in Amsterdam,” so to speak. The way I understand it, her value as a citizen is not measured by the amount of thankfulness she feels for the Netherlands. Or as if her criticism wasn’t worth anything if she doesn’t first thank the country she’s lived in for 30 years for, what, giving her prizes? Inviting her to an Independence Ball? As if she hadn’t done anything to achieve these things, as if they were given to her without her putting any effort into it, as if she coudn’t have achieved what she has without the generous Finland handing her opportunities left and right!
Believe me, you don’t get anything easily or free. Not here, not anywhere.
I have to admit, I don’t understand this obligation for thankfulness either, especially when it comes to criticism. As if owing to something or someone, or being thankful to them, made them beyond criticism. This is all too familiar to many a Finn, I’d say. Most notably, we are asked to be thankful to our forefathers who fought in the Winter and Continuance War for our independence because without their sacrifice, we wouldn’t have an almost 100 year old, independent Finland. I’m not saying I didn’t appreciate or respect their efforts, but I don’t think I owe them my existence, my happiness, my achievements, and most importantly, I don’t believe I shouldn’t criticize the wars because I owe to those brave soldiers. Thankfulness and criticism aren’t mutually exclusive.
On another note, I’m sure Abu-Hanna knows the Netherlands isn’t racism-free, but if the racism there isn’t as blatant and abrasive as in Finland, it makes sense to change environment and quit fighting windmills. Especially when she has a daughter to protect and care for. And what wouldn’t a mother do for her child?
Besides, isn’t that what some people think about immigrants? “If you don’t like it here, get out.” Well, Abu-Hanna just did that. Kudos to her. I hope the people who have verbally attacked her or her child are happy now.
Yet there is another dimension to everyday racism in Finland, and this is something that foreigners or immigrants may have trouble taking into account about Finns:
“Stereotypes flourish when there are fewer opportunities for contact with different types of people.”
Minority Ombudsman Eva Biaudet says. And I think there is a grain of truth in her words. What others may mistake as racism, can be pure ignorance. It doesn’t justify it, but it doesn’t necessarily make the ignorant person a racist, only his/her words. I’m not trying to defend anyone who’s called a child with the N word, they should know or learn it’s offensive, and if blurting out a racial slur doesn’t come down to ignorance, maybe it can be explained by straightforwardness. Sometimes the straightforwardness of Finns may take a foreigner/immigrant off-guard. Many people here believe one should speak their minds. “That’s freedom of speech, isn’t it? I have the right to express myself!” But what I wonder is, why are you taking your negativity out on a kid? Or a stranger in the street who looks different than you? You don’t have to keep your trap shut, but you can unlearn the mindset that sows hatred around you. Trust me, that’ll be best for all parties involved. And you can learn to apologize. I’m willing to give someone who apologizes a thousand chances. Call me naive.
All I really wish is that we could celebrate our differences, fight our insecurities, and expand our understanding of others. Can we do that? Yes, we can.