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Understanding the power of identity

What language and words do we use to define ourselves? What are the internal and external forces that shape and mend who we are – our identity, either in a good or in a bad way?

Culture Center Stoa Itäkeskus, Africa in East Helsink, panel discussion
Africa in East Helsinki. Panel discussion "1st vs 2nd Gen immigrants integration in Helsinki". Picture: Tommi Aalto

In October 2020 I attended a panel discussion at the Culture Center Stoa in Itäkeskus Library. The topic of the discussion was 1st vs 2nd Gen immigrants integration in Helsinki, and in Finland and their stories and what difficulties struggles both generations of people have faced living inside the Finnish society.

I found the conversation to be very interesting and I even spoke out about my own life experiences in-light-of multiculturalism and growing up with and having friends with people from multiple backgrounds.

All the panellists were amazing and very captivating to listen. Their life stories and examples of experiences helped me to see our society through different eyes - and it is very important for us all to able to do so in-order to build a better society with equality and equity for all.

At the end of the panel, I was asked to give in my feedback about the discussion. I noted that only 1st gen immigrants were present in the panel talking about their experiences, they of course gave elaborate examples of their own children’s experiences about life in Finland, but I felt I would have liked to hear these stories directly from the children themselves.

So, I began to think more about Identity. What is Finnish Identity, Who is, and can be Finnish? How do we determine what does it mean to be Finnish? Who am I? Who are we? How do I define myself and How do I tell my own story? What about as a nation, how do we tell our collective stories?

I thought about what I could do and how I would be able to do in my part to help 1st and 2nd gen immigrants to build stronger identities and become more rooted to the Finnish society.

In-order to build a stronger identity

among the immigrant youth I would first start by listening and understanding their background – their families’ stories and secondly telling them about the collective Finnish story – our history, hurdles, and triumphs, all those things that have made us suffer and have bound us together as a strong and proud – unified nation and people. Thirdly I would look for mutually shared experiences and stories.

Also, I would like to hear how those experiences have shaped ours and theirs, self-image, self- confidence, sense of pride and belonging. What stories their identity grows and gains strength from and what stories they feel most comfortable telling about themselves to the world, to other people.

On top of this I would like to include people from all these reaches of life, i.e. the academia like teaches, and others alike who interact with immigrants on a daily basis, but may not share, or have somewhat similar values, but yet often feel misunderstood by another.

I would open my ears and listen, to everyone and have a multi-sided conversation about thoughts, expectations and stereotypes everyone very likely has or may have about “the others”, and how those constructed views have affected and manifested in their own behaviours, shaped their own identity and how they may also have made them draw conclusions about the “others” identity, either in a good or bad way.

I would ask friends of mine from Somalia, Kenya and Vietnam, and their friends to talk about their recent experiences of favouritism and neglect by teachers and counsellors in the academia affecting their academic performance in negative ways.

Talent and talented people can’t be allowed to be supressed by authority figures, just because they can’t see the talented as someone “desirable” and to their own liking.

I would also ask friends from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria to share their thoughts and experiences from the perspective of being immigrant and in a sexual minority in Finland.

I would also ask Aracelis Correa from the student organisation Students Of Color to join the discussion, to hear and learn from their work – to get a more comprehensive picture of experiences and ways for fighting against problems related to multiculturalism and racism in our educational system.

I would also ask friends from Cameroon and USA to share experiences and thoughts about coming to Finland to play soccer and then quitting it and ending up in an office job in the UK Trade mission in Finland.

I would ask teachers from OAJ, lectures from the Finnish Universities and the Minister of Education to join in the discussion and to ensure that necessary steps will be taken afterwards, to effect real result and change.

Finally, I would bring all groups together and listen some more, let everyone be heard and then work together with all parties to come up with concrete ideas and steps on how to fix all these and every other discovered – hidden and systemic problems we encounter and face, to find out how to best change people’s learned ways of unconsciously biased thinking, to undo these hidden and unconscious biases, to finally end racism.

Another thing I feel would be very helpful and beneficial for everyone is art. Art connects us and brings us together. Art can tell our history and be used expressed our feeling, emotions, and identity. Therefore, I would start an art program or an organisation that supports children and young adults to embrace their heritage through art and trough making their own art, to find their own strong and proud identities in Finland as children from not just one, but many worlds.

Having put my thoughts in writing about how to improve the panel, the status of immigrants and their lives in Finland - I started thinking about identity in even more detail.

Finland is becoming more diverse and multicultural.

Around 15,42 %* of people living in Helsinki are of migrant backgrounds and it doesn't take much to see that when you head out on to the streets and you see which incredibly rich and diverse population Helsinki has. When talking about Finnish culture and especially about Finnish identity we should never forget that Culture is not something static- always constant and never changing. Cultural influence doesn't just flow in one way. It’s an evolving exchange of ideas and believes. The "natives” become as affected as the immigrants.

But many people still struggle to accept that. Identity, or changing one’s identity – because identity evolves slowly. Yet already there are a lot of people who are becoming more vocal saying that more things need to be done – and there things, that are already being done.

Identity everywhere is related to generations of storytelling and myth making around identity and inclusion and exclusion. All, of those ideas and characteristics, which describe what it means to be Finnish – like “a Finn is withdrawn”, “blue eyed”, “blond haired”, “introverted” and “heavy drinker” – held on over time – and these ideas may began with one story, but then the story gets reinterpreted and transformed over the ages, and then exported, and once that happens there is no stopping the reach of such ideas.

There is so much beauty and magic in Finland both because of the country itself and it's people, but we are not seeing that being reflected enough, or at all. If this image and archetype sells and continues to function in society, it's because for several decades it’s been very much pushed in a commercial and branded way within Finland and abroad – there are companies and brands that have made millions and even billions of euros on selling product and ideas on this very image.

When we only see a small slice of the population that means that there is whole chunk of the population of any city or the entire country that are not being represented and are effectively being erased and that's very damaging psychologically. And for this very reason talking openly and critically about identity and what it means to be a Finn is so very important in the 21st Century.

"Uuden kohtaaminen tarjoaa uusia tilaisuuksia tehdä asioita paremmin ja viisaammin kuin ennen. Uuden kohtaaminen voi myös tuntua pelottavalta. Paljon vaarallisempaa on kuitenkin yrittää ripustautua sellaiseen vanhaan, joka ei enää palaa."

- Sauli Niinistö, Suomen tasavallan presidentti (uuden vuoden puheessaan 31.12.2020)

”Facing the new, offers new opportunities to do things better and wiser than before. Facing the new can also feel scary. Much more dangerous, however is to try hold on to something old which is not going to return.“

- Sauli Niinistö, The President Of The Republic of Finland. (in his New Near’s address on 31.12.2020)

What language and words do we use to define ourselves? What are the internal and external forces that shape and mend who we are – our identity, either in a good or in a bad way?

We often forget and fail to see that identity by it’s very nature is firstly man-made and secondly exclusive.

This means that when I say I’m male, it means I’m not a female, if I say I’m white I’m not black, if I say I’m European I’m not African, if I say I’m educated I’m not illiterate – all the little words we use to construct identity put us in a box, they don’t free us. This is something people don’t think about, because people today have assumed an identity for who they are and it’s all over in the media and on social media, on tv and newspapers and music videos. We are being sold an identity – what we should be based on where we come from and based on how we’ve been socialized.

One form of exclusion can the thought about along economic lines instead of racial and cultural lines. for example children in poor families, or young students in schools and young adults in universities might have been told that they can’t, or that they shouldn’t, not that the World doesn’t want them to succeed – but they have been discouraged to strive for their dreams, or higher pay, or higher education – so the words we use do mater remarkably. But we must remember hearing I shouldn’t do something, doesn’t mean I can’t do it. Perhaps you feel I shouldn’t be in the same room with you. I doesn’t mean that I can’t be in the same room with you – in-fact I can, and I can try my best to change your mind about it.

Another strategy for describing one’s own group or ideology as more valuable than others and for distinguishing “us” from “others” is intertwined with persuasive narratives of one’s own “purity”. The identities by which some are their own and others are their enemies distinguish the “pure” from the “filthy”. The supposedly higher status of “us” in each case is also gladly wrapped up in a story cherished as a founding myth: one’s own belief or identity is better, more important, more valuable than others because it can be based on some original ideology or natural order.

It is often a story from the mist of history telling of family tradition or one’s own form of life. In the imagined past, when society was still “pure” and all had common values under the same conventions - everything was “more real”, “more authentic”, “more right”. Against this background, the present is often described as “degenerate,” “depraved,” or “sick”.

Individual people, actions, or positions are measured by how far and “authentically” they or those correspond to the ideals claimed to be original. The identity by which people are despised here distinguishes some individual qualities, certain types of bodies, or entire life forms as “unnatural” or “unreal”.

None of us should have to be simply what society tells us to be, we can and have the right be different. We don’t have to accept something less than who we are just because of what society has told us or expects us to be. Everyone must have the right to self-determine.

Today we live in a very complex and changing World where almost all identities are assumed.

Identity in Africa for example is often about gender, it’s about the tribe a person comes from and about the generation a person is a part of and belongs to – similarly belonging to a certain group of people, looking a certain way, living in a certain place, speaking a certain language, or having a certain skin color – are used to assign identities everywhere in the World.

These identities are handed down to us as ready written scripts, something someone else determined for us – which we don’t really like and which doesn’t really fit us – so what we must do is to decide either to hold on and keep the tradition and the emotion or get the progress and evolve into something new, but we can’t have both.

In-order to break into the breeding ground for hatred (and not just terrorism and organized violence), to address the mechanisms of exclusion, the processes of increasingly radical thinking that should be identified early, the involvement of the social environment, neighbors, friends, family and online community is always needed in the prevention of fanaticism.

Such a perspective on the structures that feed and channel hatred, the discourses that legitimize violence in advance and reward it afterwards, expands the roles and possibilities of civil society. It doesn’t leave the fight against fanaticism solely to the responsible security authorities, when references to criminal activity are found. An open and pluralistic society that provides space for religious, political and sexual diversity needs all its defenders.

Mere erroneous name-calling annoys us. An erroneous name-calling can even be physically irritating - irrelevant of, whether it was unintentional or intentional. The mind howls and definitely wants to correct the mistake. This is already happening with nick names that you don’t feel comfortable with. It makes us want to smirk at them repulsively, even when used benevolently and gently. Insults, verbal attacks, or name-calling on the street or on social media are more hurtful.

From words that are offensive, a special relationship can be observed between name and reality, between knowledge and the exercise of power. The name always also confirms social existence. The way I am addressed also determines my position in the world. If words that are loaded or offensive are attached to me, I will also move to a different kind of social position.

There many 1st Gen and 2nd Gen immigrants living and born in Finland, especially in Helsinki are working behind the scenes and on the front lines to change Finland. Activists, athletes, politicians, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, native-born, Helsinki-adoptees – the gathering is an amazing, diverse, and insightful examination of a cross-section of men and women from different racial, gender, and economic backgrounds.

We must be willing to introduce the Next Gen voices

of second-generation immigrants from all age groups - children in day care, students in academia and young adults in all aspects of life in Finland – through every person’s unique and profoundly inspiring story, by telling honest stories about identity, representation, ambition, struggle, craft and creation to tackle the myth of Finnish identity (and what it means to be a Finnish man or a woman), and to present an alternative narrative of the Finnish identity for 21st Century – and to also hear how and in which forms they have experienced racism and unconscious biases in their lives within Finland – how they have coped/handled/managed those experiences, and to fix those issues, and to correct them, and to build a stronger - more unified and heterogeneous society in which everyone can proudly feel a sense of belonging.

With the rights, representation, and lives of immigrant men, women and children all-the-more firmly anchored in today’s public discourse, they should add to the discussion, and help us break down the dangerous and reductive archetypes of the Finnish identity, highlighting more wider range of industries and backgrounds, including countries of origin, who are influencing the fabric of the whole country.

As I mentioned before, everything we know and have learned about identity is given to us and it’s a ready-made template that someone else has written for us – we can either choose to live by those scripts of macros or choose not to – and be something else for ourselves.

How we conceptualize ourselves in the World and the World around us becomes our identity. We must enable people to see themselves as they are, not as they hoped they were. Not as they’ve been thought they are, but as they actually are.

*Helsingin kaupunki, Tilastoja 2020:10, Helsingin väestö vuodenvaihteessa 2019/2020 ja väestönmuutokset vuonna 2019,

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