It would be mildly put to say that we have “moved on” since my childhood on some of the most overt issues regarding racism. I don’t know if you have similar examples from your countries, but at least in Finland we kids happily played a card game in which the loser was the one with “Black Pete” (Musta Pekka) in his hand when all the other (white) characters had been united in their families. Black Pete had no family. While we played this game we may have been munching on a weird sticky biscuit/candy concoction called “nigger kiss” (neekerinsuukko). My favourite was the strawberry nigger kiss.
While I cringe writing down these examples, the crowning moment is thinking about the little snot-nosed me standing in the middle of the school yard and shouting “WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BLACK MAN?” while all the other kids run away from me (the black man) screaming. Because that is of course what kids should do when they see a black man.
Honestly. This all happened. Not that long ago.
But at least kids in Finland no longer play “Black Pete” or “who’s afraid of the black man” or eat nigger kisses.
Which is why I was so unprepared to find to my embarrassment and horror that a Finnish Christmas tradition that in my mind clearly belongs in the same camp as the examples above was still going strong last year at least. It is a little play and it is called “Tiernapojat” (a version of Star boys’ singing procession). It features four boys (it is played by children of course) who act out the scene in which King Herod is told about the birth of Jesus. One of the characters is called “Murjaanien Kuningas” (King of the Moors). Not only does this character not do much else except kneel before King Herod (don’t ask me what this has to do with the birth of Baby Jesus, I have no idea), but he is played by a white kid with his face painted black. Yeah, that’s right. A white kid in blackface kneeling before another white kid. This is how we celebrate Christmas in Finland.
Last year I saw on TV this play being put on at a school somewhere in Finland and I hit the roof. I hit the roof so hard I immediately started ranting at my mum and dad who were in the room. In addition, I was so agitated, and so unprepared for my parents’ reaction (=they thought this was a totally innocent Finnish Christmas tradition) that I can’t pretend to having made a particularly coherent argument. I mostly just screamed at my parents, although they obviously had done nothing wrong. After a while they got annoyed and started screaming back at me. So it was all very merry at our little Christmas party!
I still can’t get over it, though. Earlier this month I was obsessively scanning the Finnish media for signs of awakening to how racist this whole thing is. Nothing. Not a peep. Instead, the main newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported recently on the Dutch beginning to consider the racist implications of their Zwarte Piet tradition – and at no point did it cotton on to the reporter that maybe there were some parallels to be drawn with our own blackface tradition. Oh, the irony. At least the Dutch version brings presents as opposed to KNEELING before a little white dude!
Please somebody tell me that we’re not alone in this, that other countries have similarly embarrassing remnants of some racist crap from decades ago to which everyone continues to be blind...?!?
On a more positive note, I thankfully heard nothing about Tiernapojat around this Christmas, so ours was a lot more peaceful than last year. I hope yours was too!