Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Making jokes about race

Last weeks Hesari International has an interesting story about Finland’s first black citizen – it’s an good piece that recounts how perhaps unsurprisingly with attitudes prevalent across Europe at the time that the woman concerned decided eventually to leave Finland, finding a more happy life in the immigrant melting pot of the United States. It is obvious to an outsider who has been here some time, that Finland is still very much coming terms with being a multiracial society more than a century after Rosa Clay left her adopted homeland. The real changes in the make-up of the Finnish population have taken place in the last 20 years, so are comparatively speaking, recent. Many have no problem with the changes – indeed, a younger generation growing up particularly in Helsinki knows no difference – but society does not adapt quickly overall. Of course there is some outright racism in Finland as there is everywhere, but then there are many others who just can’t quite get their heads around what the change means and how to think and talk about it.

This thought was sparked by another Hesari article I read a couple of weeks back. President Halonen was speaking at a high school about her role in Finland’s international affairs and showing a presentation of her with various world leaders. There’s a picture of her between the French and American presidents – who I guess are amongst the two most well-known political figures in the world. According to Hesari, Halonen joked: “Obama is the darker one of the two”.

I don’t agree with President Halonen politics on a number of things, but I’m certain she is not a racist. The ‘joke’ isn’t really particularly offensive – more just a very odd thing to say. It is though a rather ungallant and coarse thing to say. Firstly you wouldn’t think that heads of state would make jokes about each other in public (“the Queen is the one in the funny hat!”, “Prime Minister Berlusconi is the one pinching the young lady’s bum!”), they can leave that to the rest of us. But to pick the first black American President’s skin tone as the subject of your throw-away laugh line seems a quite remarkably unsubtle thing to do that reflects both a fascination with, and a condescension to, the ‘otherness’ of non-white people that is common in Finns of a certain age (and of Brits of a certain -older- age). It's almost as if she just couldn't discuss the President of the United States with out mentioning that he is black. Why the need to say anything at all?

I should add I wasn’t going to blog about this at first thinking Halonen’s line might have been translated badly or taken out of context, but the article came up in conversation with Finnish friends who had read the Finnish original and had had exactly the same surprised and bemused reaction to the direct quote from President in Finnish.


otyikondo said...

I tend to agree with you, and yes, she DID say it like that. Then again, she may have been attempting to play down the "And this is me with Ban Ki-Moon, and this is me with Kofi, and this is me with Angela in Stralsund..." nature of the show. Would you have been less offended if she'd said "Sarko is the one with the elevator shoes"? I'm not ALTOGETHER sure I'm comfy with your view that all heads of state should form a cosy Excellencies' Club and not make gently derogatory or jocular remarks about one another - it seems a tad, well, "incestuous". But of course it's not the done thing, and whenever Buffo Berlusconi does it, we give him stick for it. Shrug.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Oh - I'm sure lots of Heads of State loath each other, but basic diplomatic niceties suggest you keep your country's best interest in mind and don't publicly comment on other HoS. I've actually had the discussion about other jokes she could have made with my friends. If the President had said "Sarkozy is the shorter one" it might have actually been quite funny - even if perhaps upsetting to M. Sarkozy had he ever heard about it. But height is hardly an explosive political issue that race is. Everybody knows that - regardless of what their personal opinions are - which is what makes it such a strange thing for a person in the President's position to make a comment on.

I think that's my point - it wasn't that what she said is particularly offensive (really it's a statement of fact). Thinking about it now, I know the President has been directly involved in organising events designed to address tensions and point out the benefits from Finland becoming a more multi-ethnic society; so in that sense all credit to her. I'm more interested in what makes a middle aged Finnish politician and leading public figure say such a thing in the first place. If a world figure used a wheelchair, you wouldn't expect a president to describe them as "the one who could go down hills faster", would you even if its true? I don't think they would say that, so why say this?