The Roma – an Overlooked minority

Written by: Leif Hagert

Introduction: The Roma in Finland

The Roma arrived in Finland approx. 500 years ago. Just like in other parts of Europe, the official history of the Roma in Finland has included rejection, annihilation, control and assimilation. One particularly powerful example of annihilation is the hanging law enacted in 1637, authorizing killing Roma without trial. This law was in force for more than a hundred years. As for assimilation, Roma children were taken into institutional custody as late as in the 1960s, where they were not allowed to maintain their culture or language in any way. As a result, the Romani language in Finland is in a very weak state, and there are no reliable estimates of how many people actually speak the language.

Due to homelessness, the Roma in Finland had an itinerant lifestyle until the mid-1970s. When the municipalities became obliged to house the Roma, people were no longer forced to wander around looking for a place to stay or live in tents in the summer. With permanent housing, the educational participation of the Roma became possible, which means that the history of Roma education is young. This is apparent in the level of education of the Roma today, since there are not many Roma with a university level education. In the 21st century, we have only reached a situation where Roma have systematically attended pre-school and primary school.

Secondary education has only become an established practice within the last ten years, and things are now developing towards completing university studies. This is the starting point.

Why is it important to talk about Roma history?

The history of the Finnish Roma is not learned in elementary school history classes, when the history of Finland is discussed. The 500-year history of the Roma in Finland is colorful. It includes e.g. racism directed towards the Roma, various forms of discrimination and different state-governed ways to implement them. It also includes the coexistence of the Roma and the majority population with its contradictions and harmonies, facing the same challenges, working together, and building Finland together.

The lack of factual historical information has also enabled various negative and racist stereotypes associated with Roma to reach a position where they are not scrutinized in a critical manner but accepted as facts. Many negative stereotypes associated with the Roma have a historical context. A more thorough understanding of the Roma history would help people to see where the images and "facts" that have been passed on from one generation to another originate from. It would also help people to recognize and question many of the negative attitudes and assumptions there are towards the Roma.

Many still question the Finnishness of the Roma. In some cases, this may be due to racism; but more commonly it is ignorance. The teaching of history in Finnish elementary schools is very white normative, which leaves room for nothing else than an image of a “white Finland.” Due to this, the media and journalists in Finland have poor knowledge of Finnish racism and its history. The media repeatedly publishes incorrect claims that Finnish history has not been diverse, or that racism is a relatively new phenomenon in Finland.

My friend Päivi Majaniemi and I have laughed at such media claims that Finland does not know how to deal with racism, because Finland has not been a multicultural country in the past, as many other countries have been. Why was it forgotten that Finland has been under Swedish rule or under Russian rule? Where are Finland’s old minorities: Tatars, Jews, Karelians, Sámi or Roma? There have always been different cultures and different languages spoken in Finland.

Now that extreme right-wing attitudes gain in popularity and racism is beginning to be normalized again, it is finally time to stop maintaining the "Finland has always been white" narrative. One tool for doing this is making Roma history visible. Awareness of the diversity that has always existed in Finland, as well as the history of discrimination and oppression helps to recognize the mistakes and wrong-doings that have minorities have encountered throughout history. In Finland, we see very well what happens when grievances are not addressed: time legitimizes them. The wrong-doing becomes the norm, which is repeated, because "that's how it's always been done."

In Finland, it is possible to talk about racism and react to discrimination. Discrimination against the Roma, however, has become so normalized that it is often ignored. For example, the Roma experience widespread discrimination when looking for work. It is very challenging for Roma to get even the kinds of jobs where education or previous experience in the field is not required. When a Roma woman is employed at the cash register of a store, it is still so exceptional for us that the media makes a story out of it. If a Roma's access to cashier work is so exceptional that it breaks the news threshold, isn't this such a significant flaw that should awaken our society to the racism that plagues it? This did not happen, however, and the news item was ignored.

The fact that we in Finland would be able to face racism and discrimination against the Roma as rationally as against other groups means that our history must be known. Let's recognize the model of racialization, understand that the current anti-gypsyist way of seeing and treating Roma is not normal, and there is no justification for it. It is an injustice from history that has not yet been questioned, and it can’t be justified. With the recognition of the wrongs that have been done, people may develop a desire not to let history repeat itself. This is what I want to believe.

How does ahistoricity affect the Roma?

Many Roma have a weak Roma identity. This can be seen, among other things, as internalized racism, self-loathing, or as shame of being Roma. The society around us does not speak well of us. Strong negative stereotypes have been associated with Romaness. The words "Romani" or "gypsy" are used as insults.

We are also offered the opportunity to succeed in life if we hide our Roma background, for example by changing our name, etc. Noone wants to be a failure or a laughingstock.
The Roma must reach a point where they see the value of their own history and take ownership of it. To get to this point, the history of the Roma must be visible to everyone, a matter of public interest and something people want to talk about. It should be possible to talk about the Roma in other ways, too, not only through a negative perspective.

Internalized racism and self-loathing affecting many Roma can manifest e.g. as weak interest and lack of knowledge about one's own history. If others in society talked about our history and the media took our history into account, it would convey the message that we, the Roma, have the right to talk about it and be proud of it. A better command of one's own history would lend strong and healthy support to Roma identity.

Until now, the history of the Roma has been written by others than the Roma themselves. The history of the Roma has been in the hands of researchers and historians. If the level of education of the Roma was different, this situation could also be different. But the situation being what it is, the experts in our history, language and culture seem to come from the mainstream population.

Of course, as part of the research process, they have interviewed and heard Roma people, so this is how we have been involved. But researchers have defined what is being talked about, from which point of view and how. Additionally, the Roma in Finland have weak trust in authorities and all kinds of investigations and surveys. And this certainly also affects what the Roma want to or have courage to share in interview situations.

The Finnish state's support and actions towards the history of the Roma have been weak. In 2012, a book on the history of the Finnish Roma, edited by Panu Pulma, was published. This was supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Other than that, there has not been and there still isn’t any direct support from the state related to the history of the Finnish Roma.
The work edited by Panu Pulma is a good and extensive volume of almost 500 pages. How likely is it that people with lower socio-economic status, in this case the Roma, would read that book? The Swedish kings, Charles and others, mentioned on the first pages of the book do not necessarily encourage people to read the book, if it was originally picked up out of interest towards the history of the Roma. It's about accessibility.

In April 2023, we implemented a Roma history month together with the Peace Education Institute. The campaign consisted of short stories and historical facts published daily on social media. The stories were collected from the oldest Roma people, and they were set in the Finland of the 50s and 70s. While collecting stories, we came up with concerns about which stories would be “appropriate” to tell. For example, when telling a story about selling liquor, an old man wondered whether it could be told publicly, or whether it would cause more harm than good to the Roma. The incident in the story took place decades ago, it is a story of survival, and it culminates in humanity and caring. Even that story wouldn't have seen the light of day, if it hadn't been for a Roma interviewer and author who were also Roma.

The feedback from Roma about the Roma history month was positive. Although the social media posts also dealt with heavy and dreary topics, the feedback from many Roma even after the end of the campaign was that "It was so nice to read them." Prior to this campaign, the history of the Roma had not been featured on social media in this way.

Our history matters. It's time to make it visible. Our history needs to be recognized and acknowledged.

Is Finland a welfare society for the Roma too?

Finland has a good constitution. We have legal protection, social rights, cultural rights, economic rights and the principle of legality in criminal law. Unfortunately, these basic societal rights maintained by society written into the constitution do not always hold on a practical level.

For example: the Helsinki police department started the Kuri1 operation in 2013. During the operation, the police stopped Roma in the Helsinki area and recorded our data, altogether 2258 entries were made. According to the police, the operation ended in 2015, but in reality, the police continued to register Kuri1 operation data until 2017. The operation that was carried out was not only made known to a small circle of people within the police forces, but it was widely known at least in the Helsinki Police Department.

In 2021, the Police Board made a self-initiated legality control report on the operation. That is, action was only taken after enough time had passed so that the potential crime committed had expired and a criminal report could no longer be filed. "Since no criminal reports have been filed, there has been no wrongdoing," the police later pleaded.

The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman stated that there is a presumption of discrimination in this case. Based on the operational guidelines, were based on a discriminatory instruction prohibited by the Equality Act. Despite this, the police still seek justification and understanding for their operation targeting the Roma.

Another example is a Finnish Broadcasting company story about doctors in November 2023. One of the interviewed doctors mentions that Roma sometimes receive worse treatment, just because they are Roma. The article explains how a surgeon operating on a Roma patient has been imitating the speaking style of the Roma throughout the operation and found it funny. According to the doctors interviewed in the story, this is just one example of how racism and prejudice are visible in Finnish healthcare and, in the worst case, also affect the treatment patients receive.

Many Roma share their experiences of , neglect of treatment, belittling of their pain and inappropriate treatment in health care among other things. Many of us have wanted to let ourselves believe that healthcare professionals’ unusual behavior towards us could, for example, have taken place due to the doctor being ignorant, too busy or maybe having a bad day. But now we can no longer avoid facing the fact that such highly educated, trusted and responsible people in our society can be just as racist as anyone else. We have to think whether it is the Hippocratic Oath or racism that guides the doctor treating me or my loved ones. There is also a grim question hanging in the air: has anyone died due to neglect caused by racism?

Racism permeates all structures of Finnish society. You may have to face it as a child at school or as an adult when renting an apartment, even on a shopping trip. But it makes a significant difference whether the store cashier stops smiling at a Roma customer, or a doctor stops giving equal treatment to a Roma patient.

Just knowing that doctors and police officers can let racism guide their work and affect their attitudes towards us has profound effects on our well-being and sense of security. Finnish society is not a welfare society for the Roma and many other minorities to the same extent that it is for many white Finns. You are in a privileged position, if you can trust the authorities, the services and structures offered by our society.

Why are the Roma also left out of the anti-racist discussion?

We organized the first and thus far the only demonstration of this millennium on behalf of the Roma in 2021. About a hundred people participated in the demonstration. There have been protests against racism and for equality in Helsinki before, and the number of participants in these demonstrations has been several thousands. In our demonstration, we had the same themes as in these other demonstrations that attracted thousands of participants. The only difference was that we had Roma as the main title.

Speeches were given. One of the speakers at the demonstration was Eva Tawasoli, a regional and city counselor. In her speech, Tawasoli shared how the staff at the reception centre had talked about the Roma in stereotypically racist ways to she and her family and warned them against us. I have later heard about a similar activity from many others. In the reception centers, the customs and value hierarchies of the receiving country have been taught to the newcomers from the start.

White Finns can work in a multicultural and multi-background environment, they can oppose racism and shout their voices hoarse for equality, but we, the Finnish Roma, are a stumbling block for many so called "tolerant" people.

In Finland, there is a lot of talk about racism, but many people would like to leave the Roma out of the discussion. Day-long seminars and events have been organized on the topic of racism, but not a word has been said about the Finnish Roma. There have been interviews in the media where people who work with the themes of equality talk about racism and precisely those forms of racism that are especially aimed at the Finnish Roma, and again the same situation, not a word about the Finnish Roma. And this is how the Roma are once again made invisible.

The Finnish anti-racism field is also troubled by a too heavy focus on America. In the United States, the discussion about racism is far ahead of that in Finland. There, different forms of racism, such as institutional racism and systematic racism are already being talked about, while here, we are still wondering if there is racism in Finland, and why we are not allowed to use racist vocabulary if the white speaker themselves don’t’ consider it wrong. Lessons can be learned, but we cannot copy the conversation from the US to the European and Finnish context as such. We have a different history and a different demographic structure, and direct copying means ignoring the Roma again.

As a Roma, it is also very difficult to talk about specific forms of discrimination against Roma, as there is no room for that. When a Roma tells you how they are being discriminated against, or how common it is, they will be told that "others also experience discrimination" or you are forbidden to make comparisons. I am not allowed to say out loud that the Roma are the most discriminated ethnic minority in Finland or Europe, but a white Finn can say it without a problem.

Why is it important to react to all kinds of racism and discrimination?

The Roma are of course not the only minority in Finland that experiences racism and discrimination. However, racism against the Roma has a very long history in Finland. If we didn't let anti-gypsyism limit us, we could better understand the history and mechanisms of Finnish racism through the Finnish Roma.

The inhumane way of treating Roma today originates from history. Already hundreds of years ago, the Roma were presented as a threat to other citizens, a threat to their safety and well-being. It's easy to dehumanize people who are presented as dangerous, they don't need to be treated the same way other people are treated. Because the Roma were seen as a threat, it was possible to enact racist laws and actions against us that were exceptional for the rest of the population. The laws were later abolished, but attitudes remained.

Now a similar threat and creation of an enemy image is being developed towards other non-white young people. This is what politicians and ministers do. We must no longer allow such campaigns to proceed, to reach an end where racism towards some is normalized or even seen as desirable.

While we must oppose and dismantle racism from society, individuals must also examine their attitudes. It is easy for us to condemn the wrongs done in out there in the world, but the closer we get to our own country, to ourselves, the more challenging it is to recognize and condemn wrongdoing.

As I said before, the Roma are a stumbling block for many when it comes to equality. I want to remind you that a person cannot be anti-racist and at the same time justify racism towards a specific group of people. It doesn't matter if your justification for this is a pattern learned at home or a bad experience with a single person belonging to a minority group.

Human rights are indivisible. They are not earned. They belong to everyone. They cannot be lost. When we are on the side of human rights, we cannot choose to stand only by the side of some and against others. Non-discrimination is not a pick-and-mix shelf at a supermarket.

Leif Hagert is a human rights activist, writer and journalist. He is former chair of the Finnish Roma Association, and former chair of the Finnish Romani Youth Council. The text is based on an invited speech at the EtmuDays 2023 Conference in Jyväskylä.

Translated from the Finnish: Päivi Iikkanen and Taina Saarinen