Because of the recent scandal involving a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume during a recent protest against refugees in Finland, I decided to write an opinion piece on what it is like being a black man doing business in Finland. I was reluctant to address such a polarizing issue because it is not always politically correct to discuss such topics but I felt compelled to. These issues need to be put out there for open discussion. Great change in any society comes from opening Pandora's box, sifting through the controversy and having the uncomfortable conversations that may be the catalysts for substantive social change.
My take is that doing business in Finland as a black man is difficult because there are cultural issues at play that don't allow me the same advantages as a Finn, but this should be expected. I am not Finnish. I don't look like everyone else and I am not fluent in the language. And I sometimes make the social faux pas of being the American who talks too much during those awkward silences that typify Finnish culture.
The recent scandal involving a joker in a KKK costume protesting against refugees in Lahti does not in any way embody the Finnish culture's general attitude toward immigrants and refugees. It was the act of one hateful individual. Of course this fool is not alone in his sentiment. There are many who feel the same way without donning a hate-suit, and this fear and hatred only serves as a temporary monkey wrench. The inevitable tide of multiculturalism will sweep across Finland like a breath of fresh air whether the hate mongers like it or not. Finland is apart of the EU and with that membership certain obligations follow. Isolation is not an option, especially when you consider that Finland is becoming more international because of business and political dealings. The hate mongers will lose. The only question is how soon will they lose.
Acts like the guy in a KKK costume gets a buzz in the media because they're controversial and not because there is widespread fear and hate. No one is outside my doorstep with a burning cross threatening to lynch me. I don't worry about the cops stopping me in the streets for no reason or killing me because I'm in the wrong neighborhood. This is not happening.
Of course there is skepticism accompanying the Iraqi and Syrian refugees coming here because most Finnish folks don't know how Finland can accommodate people without a plan to help integrate them smoothly into society. Some of this concern is motivated by cultural misunderstandings that don't have a chance of being bridged if neither side makes an effort to breaking barriers.
The solution to some of these cultural barriers starts with refugees and immigrants learning the Finnish language and cultural values. As a client of the company I work with, I can tell you that Finns will appreciate your effort to learn their language regardless of your proficiency. I am not alone in trying to find cultural parity by trying to learn the language and culture. Forward-thinking immigrants and new refugees who decide to make Finland their home will also make this effort. This is the right step toward establishing common ground. Finns who are also forward thinking will make the individual effort needed to make change. That Iraqi refugee asking for directions to Rautatientori needs your help finding their way and not a silent snub.
By putting aside our prejudice and helping someone outside our culture, we share our truest and most enduring cultural virtue: being a good neighbor. Shouldn't this be the the objective of any meaningful cultural interaction? It's what we teach our kids. Treat people how you want to be treated. If we teach our kids to treat some with acceptance and others with prejudice we violate the very principles we were raised with. Is this the path toward progress? Of course not.
Despite these efforts to bridge cultural gaps, there is a sinister minority whose ultra-nationalist agenda hopes to undermine these efforts with hate. Sadly, one of the results of this ultra-nationalist agenda is that those who may have a legitimate grievance against Finland's stance on the refugee crisis or immigration reform are unfairly labeled as racist by the court of public opinion and effectively silenced. Is this the path toward progress?
I have had many instances where racist insults were hurled my way by a small minority of people. Usually these insults were made by individuals with social challenges of their own. Perhaps they had substance abuse issues. Perhaps they believed the ultra nationalist rhetoric meant to divide us. Whatever the issue, I don't believe they reflect on the Finnish people themselves. When I met obstacles with individuals or with companies I've been open to having an uncomfortable dialogue that could help advance our understanding of each other. Silence was not always an option. Rarely did I meet opposition if the approach was respectful and sincere.
In my time here I have been embraced personally and professionally by a culture that prides itself on honesty, tolerance and accommodation. I've made friends who love and support me and who even took me in when I didn't have a place to stay. Organizations like AmCham helped me find the first company that employed me an an English teacher 5 years ago. Today I'm an entrepreneur living the American dream in Finland.
I've been helped by public programs that support entrepreneurs with unparallelled access to resources, companies and business insiders willing to do business or be open to future collaboration. Is this racist? Of course not, and you won't read about it because this news isn't click-worthy. Click-worthy is the new newsworthy. Blogs have trumped credible news sources and journalistic irresponsibility is the norm and not the exception.
Stories like mine rarely make the news because they don't feed the propaganda-machine. They don't get tweeted because its more than 140 characters, it's not a cute cat on FaceBook and because it can advance a career on LinkedIn. It's just a positive perspective that reports a contrary opinion. The punch in the gut Finland experienced at the hands of the worldwide media is undeserved. A jerk in a KKK costume bears no resemblance to the Finland I love and call home. Few media outlets are reporting on the Red Cross in Finland that is helping displaced refugees find the resources they need. Few media outlets are reporting on President Sauli Niinistö's speech where he underscored Finland's humanitarian aid efforts to help refugees. A KKK costume gets more clicks. If we equate the amount of clicks to real news then we've condemned ourselves to be at the beck and call of popular opinion that values controversy over content. Should this be the path? Of course not
As a black man doing business in Finland I can only speak from my personal experiences which have largely been positive. I understand that my perspective is a biased one because , as an American, it has been easier for me to bond with Finns because we share many Western values and traditions. Everyday I'm in the city center I can see American corporate icons validating my culture. I turn on the television and see American shows. Many immigrants hailing from the Arab world don't necessarily have these cultural anchors. Though there is diversity among us immigrants and refugees a few things are fairly universal.
No foreigner doing business here,or anywhere else for that matter, should expect preferential treatment or even full acceptance without knowing that a certain level of skepticism will invariably shadow their business dealings. Acceptance might happen. Perhaps it will never happen. Despite the odds and because of them, most of us know that we have to learn the language, work hard, eat humble pie, and add value to our adopted country. It's par for the course. Understanding these issues does not mean, however, that intolerance of any sort should be accepted by anyone. Finland has to continue to do her part and stand behind her commitments to be tolerant toward refugees and immigrants. Uncomfortable conversations need to be had and feeling might get hurt. More protests will happen and those of us willing to have a dialogue may become the de facto ambassadors for peace and change. Silence is the enemy of progress, and if we're unwilling to talk and honestly engage, mutual understanding can't be had and harmony for most of us is all but lost. .