21.03.2024 Tuulia Perttula

Antiracism is a verb

Reading time 8 min

We are celebrating the Week Against Racism and the Day Against Racism. There should be 52 weeks like this in a year, and 365 days. The theme of this year’s anti-racism week is intervening to racism, anti-racist action.

I interviewed two researchers specialized in racism, Jasmine Kelekay and Aminkeng A. Alemanji, to find ways to act as an anti-racist and, on the other hand, to understand what might be hindering anti-racist action. Kelekay, originally from Helsinki, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Alemanji, who has settled in Turku, leads the master’s program in social exclusion at Åbo Akademi University. He has researched racism and its manifestations, for example, in the education system.

82 percent of those living in Finland have witnessed racism

The feminist and anti-racist organization Fem-R, operating on the terms of racialized people, defines racism as follows: “The valuation of a person or group of people as inferior to other groups of people. Historically constructed especially on the concepts of eugenics and the history of colonialism. Racism as a concept includes the assumption of the dominating group’s power position in relation to the oppressed group.”

A survey conducted by the Finnish Red Cross and Taloustutkimus reveals that 82 percent of those living in Finland have witnessed racism directed towards themselves or others. However, only 45 percent report having intervened. While passivity can be racism, activity and taking action are anti-racism. As Dr. Alemanji points out, “To be an anti-racist, mere speech is not enough. One must do work that has consequences in the area of racism and anti-racism.”

Racism is a structure and a process  

Dr. Jasmine Kelekay summarizes anti-racism as active opposition to racism. “Anti-racism is understanding that racism is a structure and a process.” According to Kelekay, racism is a societal shaping force and not an individual psychological phenomenon. Thus, it’s not merely a matter of personal opinion or prejudice.

Anti-racism is something done actively

On the other hand, anti-racism, according to Kelekay, is a position that requires purposeful, active efforts to interrupt, dismantle, and eradicate the structure that produces racism in our society. According to Alemanji, anti-racism can be any action against racism. “It can be in politics, education, or anywhere.” Kelekay states that anti-racism is actually a verb. “It’s something done actively, not something one simply is.”  

Jasmine Kelekay

Antiracism at different levels

Kelekay notes that anti-racist work can be done at different levels. “An individual can act anti-racist, as well as a community, and then there is, of course, coordinated action. One example, not often considered anti-racist action, is the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign against the South African apartheid state in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Actions related to boycott campaigns are often seen as economic or political tools, but they are actually coordinated anti-racist actions. Understanding state-led violence based on race and organizing against it as anti-racists is, according to Kelekay, a good example of anti-racism that is not usually talked about. “Often anti-racism is seen only as interventions in mean actions or words.”

Finnish and Nordic exceptionalism

Recently, the term “Nordic exceptionalism” has been brought up in discussions. According to Alemanji, it means that Nordic values are seen as superior to everything else, that Nordics are the best of the best. According to this mindset, development should follow the Nordic example linearly towards the goal set by the Nordic countries. Kelekay states that Nordic exceptionalism is evident in public discourse, politics, education, and how different cultures are portrayed.

Finland also tends to downplay and deny its colonial history. There is a need for us to think that we are not as bad and see our history as innocent. According to Kelekay, it’s interesting how Finnish and Nordic exceptionalism is used as a means to distance ourselves from the responsibility to rectify colonial structures.

Denial of racism is its backbone

Both Alemanji and Kelekay point out how “non-racism” is not sufficient. According to Ibram X Kendi, author of “How to be an Anti-Racist,” the claim of neutrality regarding racism is a mask for racism. Alemanji says, “We perpetuate racism by standing still and doing nothing. Talking, talking, and talking only produces talk.”

Aminkeng A. Alemanji Photo: Arttu Timonen / YLE

According to Aminkeng A. Alemanji, denial of racism is the backbone of Finnish racism. “When the existence of racism is denied, the legitimacy of anti-racist work is also denied, and thus, it is thought that there was no problem in the first place,” Alemanji explains. Kelekay states that the biggest problem with denying racism is that racism remains invisible: “It entails not taking responsibility for it.”

By sticking to the discussion of the existence of racism, we never get to the questions of how it operates and what consequences it has on the lives of racialized people. Kelekay also points out that denying racism is part of its process—it helps it survive.

From performative allyship to solidarity

Choosing to remain silent in critical moments is also a form of exercising power. Bringing marginalized voices to the forefront is important and cannot be done without relinquishing one’s own power. Currently, it is problematic in anti-racist work that the responsibility for anti-racism falls on the shoulders of racialized people. I write this as a white privileged woman. We need to take more responsibility for anti-racist work and examine our own privileges and dismantle power structures.

International Solidarity Foundation’s anti-racist work

When we talk about International Solidarity Foundation’s (ISF) work, we are contributing to the portrayal of African societies and people. We talk about a continent that unfortunately often faces racism and prejudice. This is an important place for acting as allies. Therefore, we focus on having Ethiopian, Kenyan, Somali experts as speakers. We aim to dismantle the image of misery and instead convey a truthful, diverse picture of ISF’s work areas.

Discussion and reflection on the topic are ongoing in our workplace. We are not ready in our anti-racism—not even close.

At the core of ISF’s work is the fight against female genital mutilation, which in itself can be a marginalizing topic. It is particularly important to focus on the image we convey of societies, communities, and individuals practicing FGM.

As Jasmine Kelekay points out, anti-racism must be done collectively. NGOs have a significant role in this work. She hopes that we would think more in terms of action and use our position actively. “At work, in the family, or anywhere. Together we can do more and have a better impact on structures and processes,” Kelekay concludes.

10 anti-racist actions

● Intervening

● Listening

● Writing

● Supporting anti-racist campaigns

● Supporting the work of racialized people

● Participating in demonstrations

● Contacting politicians

● Organizing against racism

● Social media activism

● Educating oneself

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