Everyday Racism in School. An Ethnographic Study of Group Relations between Finnish and Immigrant Youths

Anne-Mari Souto

(In Finnish: Arkipäivän rasismi koulussa. Etnografinen tutkimus suomalais- ja maahanmuuttajanuorten suhteista)

The study looks at everyday racism in young people’s school lives. The focus is on both the forms of racism in interaction between Finnish and immigrant youths, and the kind of ideas and categorisations that support the practices that foster and feed racism. The analysis concentrates on the formation of social configurations that define group relations between youths in particular from the point of view of identifying cultural and racial differences. The key concepts of the work are everyday racism and membership. The study makes use of previous literature on racism, which builds predominantly on conceptual frameworks developed in sociological youth research and cultural studies.

The study uses an ethnographic approach. The target group is two groups of 13-16-year-old high school students in Joensuu in eastern Finland. One group are a class of 9th grade students, all 18 of whom were born either in Finland or the former Soviet Union. The other is an 8th grade class, whose 24 students were born in Finland, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia regions. The main data for the study is comprised of student interviews and participant observations during the school year (2000–2001). Before these observations the researcher worked for two years (1998–2000) on a youth work project that was based on action research which aimed to scrutinise racism among young people from Joensuu. During this time the researcher participated in school and regional youth club activities.

The research shows that racism in many ways organises and structures the ways that Finnish and immigrant youths view and encounter each other and form group relations – whether male or female, with a Finnish or immigrant background. Groups of Finnish and immigrant youths seem to differ with regards to the kind of relationship they have with multi-culturalisation and racism. The primary divisive factor is the kind of strategy young groups adopt in relation to violence as they compete to set the group’s boundaries and for public space. From the perspective of immigrant youths everyday racism is made concrete in peer relations in limits on their freedom of movement, social isolation and the obligation to continuously prove that they are good and reliable people.

The study also shows that racism is a strongly present phenomenon in school. A consequence of racism is that membership of the youths’ school community is not open to everybody equally, so not everyone has the same possibility of belonging. “Ordinary Finn” is a category which is used to attempt to limit full rights of belonging to white-skinned, Finnish-born, Finnish-speaking youths who have Finnish ancestry and have mastered the culture. As a social and cultural term, “ordinary Finn” also slows down the pace of multi-cultural integration: the normal Finn is not e.g. socially active with regards to the immigrant and he does not intervene when practices that discriminate against the immigrant occur. An analysis of everyday racism also highlights how racism arises in school not just according to differentiating racial factors but also by pinpointing cultural differences. At the same time questions about racism and its consequences are hidden beneath the discourse of cultural differences which have an aura of political correctness. The research also points out teachers’ challenges and even an unwillingness to get involved in everyday racism. The study stresses the responsibility of and opportunities for professional pedagogues to work to eradicate racism among young people.