Anti-racist strategies
into the curriculum

Police brutality and the killing of black people in the United States, as well as the impact of the Black Lives Matter Movement have finally highlighted the topic of racism and the work of anti-racism activists also in Finland. Discussing racism has largely been left on the shoulders of marginalized people, especially black people, and indirect, systemic racism is frequently downplayed. Only acts of overt racism, such as neo-Nazi parades and racist slurs heard in public, are viewed as racism. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg as racism is notably a much larger issue.

In the report on the experiences of discrimination of people of African descent published by the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman on 9th of June in 2020, it is stated that the majority (67%) of the respondents had experienced discrimation in education. At the same time, the racist history of assimilation politics that has targeted the Sami and Roma people in Finland is being forgotten and its impact disregarded. The racist, stereotype establishing depictions of Sami and Roma people created by the Finnish media and art field have had a large impact on how the majority reacts to and thinks about these minorities. Numerous other minorities have also been poorly represented and are not seen in the media or in the arts as neither makers nor performers - and when they are it is through depictions that reaffirm harmful stereotypes. The euro- and anglocentrism in the media produces a one-sided and narrow worldview which centers around whiteness. The conversation in the cultural field is often overshadowed by white fragility*.

*White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. / Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 2011

Educational institutions have great power and responsibility in dismantling systemic racism. The dreams and ideas of graduating students build the reality of tomorrow. Their work will take space and gain visibility in major theaters, film, television, galleries, art museums, concert halls and opera houses. They also have a broad impact on the field of art education. For this reason, it is essential for educational institutions to increase systematic awareness of the prevailing social power structures and their manifestations in educational as well as work environments. The eurocentrism and whiteness that permeates academies and influences the whole system of teaching must be addressed and acted upon. Resources must be allocated to the accessibility of education, the diversity of teachers/lecturers and the updating of educational contents. Professors, lecturers and teachers should be provided with information and competence on anti-racism.

Besides systemic racism it is important to talk about whiteness as a position. Whose voices are heard, whose stories are told? Who is positioned as ‘the Other’? It is vital to dismantle the idea of a ‘neutral’ point of view, which sets whiteness, masculinity, cis-genderness and being able-bodied and/or healthy as the basis and norm of humanity. This ‘neutral’ defines everything from educational contents to the tools being used. Currently the curriculum also ignores completely many continents, nations and cultures. Courses include very little if any content on the arts and histories of Finnish Roma, Sami, Afro-Finnish and other groups that are marginalized based on their ethnicity, religion, culture and/or language. In addition to that, the representations of BIPOC* used in education are often problematic or entirely non-existent.

*black, indigenous, people of color

At the moment, courses that do consider racism and whiteness are few and far apart. As these courses are optional, it is the student’s own responsibility to participate in them, and students have limited resources of time and energy. This is problematic as awareness should not depend on the time or personal interests of the student. Consequently, it is essential to increase all students’ understanding of the prevailing structures and to pay attention that future artists and educators are able to make conscious decisions about power and ways of expression. If we don’t learn to detect and understand how certain images, materials and styles that we use in our work benefit from colonized countries, histories, peoples and hierarchies, we won’t learn how to change our ways either. We need to learn to understand what a commitment to anti-racism means in terms of content and aesthetics.

Everything — from the contents of seminars and exercises to the word choices of
a lecturer — matters. Marginalized groups often have to witness and experience discriminating speech containing microaggressions* since instruction is directed primarily from white people to white people. Therefore, the anti-racist strategy of an institution must be concrete, comprehensive and clear; if students experience discrimination, they must know who they can contact and tell about their experience and how will the matter be dealt with. In what ways is the well-being of students facing racist discrimination supported?

*Microaggression is often unintentional and unnoticeable comment or act that is directed to a particularly culturally marginalized group and strengthens known stereotypes towards this group. The term was coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce 1970.

In addition to the changes in course contents, we also demand that attention is paid to who is accepted to these schools and universities. The great majority of students in higher education in Finland are white. Especially in art schools the threshold is high and often unattainable for applicants whose cultural background or language differ from the norms of a eurocentric conception of art. If the disproportion within the body of students is justified by the homogeneity of applicants, the application process needs to be examined in terms of how it could be made more accessible to everyone. For example, how, where and to whom schools and universities advertise their study programmes? It is also necessary to examine critically the entrance criteria for students: are the premises currently eurocentric? Who is responsible for choosing the students and is there a language criteria in place for the applicants? How could these structures be dismantled?

In the future, anti-racist strategies must be an inseparable part of art education. Art is never apolitical or neutral and ignorance is silent approval. Which is why we demand change!

Some starting points for changing course contents

!This list is only scratching the surface of the contents that should be taken into consideration in teaching. Discussion about the details should be continued among students, lecturers/teachers and researchers.

  • Decolonization and colonization
  • Cultural appropriation and racism
  • The imagery of colonialism in Finland: the role of Finnish people as reproducers and affirmers of racist and global colonial imagery

  • Questions of accessibility in relation to degree studies/majors
  • Applying for jobs and education from the perspective of cultural/ethnic segregation
  • Strategies to address injustice and discrimination in working life and in one's studies
  • The unsuitability of tools and protective gear (e.g. how breathing masks fit for anyone else but average-sized white men)*

  • The relation of space - a performance space, a film, a television programme, contemporary art and contemporary music - to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, abilities, size, class, religion, culture and to all intersections of these.
  • How to define safer spaces
  • Gender sensitivity
  • Intersectional feminism from the perspective of the maker/performer; as a tool and a starting point

  • The diversity of being Finnish and the incorporation of foreign voices into the Finnish identity and dismantling the white perspective in the field of arts and research
  • Bringing Finnish Roma and Sami art and culture as part of Finnish art history. Recognising other minorities as part of Finnish culture and as being Finnish also in historical contexts.
  • The history of assimilation politics in Finland
  • Non-western traditions and modern art: in performance, music, cinema and television

* based on Invisible Women (2020), a non-fiction novel by Caroline Criado Perez based on statistics and research.