The Finnish equity mirage mirrors our own
For years America's white educators pointed to Finland as a model education system, ignoring racism there as they do here
A Twitter thread about anti-Blackness in education posted by Finnish-Senegalese journalist Ndéla Faye has me thinking again about progressive blindspots when it comes to racism.
Let’s come back to her thread shortly, but first, a little grounding.
For years Finland was a Gräfenberg spot for swooning white American educationists who saw Scandinavia as a Disney-ish example of what an equitable education system could be.
Educators told us that the land of frolicking reindeer and communal saunas was an education superpower where teachers were well-paid and respected on the level of doctors, and the pressures of standardized testing were nonexistent. Therefore, school choice was unnecessary because all schools were good.
We were told their schools were havens of joy, play, and wonder.
I thought the Anglophilia and smarmy love was an odd focal point for Americans. The Finns are roughly as diverse as ABBA, and there have been longstanding Asian examples of educational success that surpassed Finland’s.
In 2018, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and other countries beat Finland in mathematics, and four of those countries topped Finland in science and reading.
Still, Finns enjoyed such uncritical fanfare in new articles that, amazingly, the culturally suspicious fawning was replaced only by an odd silence once the long decline appeared to be more than temporary. So, where was the public revision in thinking of all those Diane Ravitch-inspired educators who pointed to Finland as the ultimate refutation of everything American education reformers proposed?
Ravitch herself had once recycled the dictum “when the facts change; I change my mind” to explain her transition from education reformer to education system apologist.
Well, the facts encountered a severe ass-kicking in Finland. So, where was the change in stories from the Finn-atics?
What I suspected all along, the idea that a homogeneously white nation heralded as the capital of educational equity needed better accounting for its non-white students, surfaced as accurate.
As a Minnesotan, a state where the population size and demographics mimic Finland’s, I was stubbornly suspicious that the hidden equities we face in our beloved Wobegon could also be present in the Finnish education system.
Far from being the equity champion, Finnish students experienced differences in outcomes based on family background, gender, race, and immigration status, just as other nations do.
So, back to Ndéla Faye’s Twitter thread. It hints at the voice that I think was missing in our Finnish joy ride.
Read her account of “Everyday racism in Finland’s (world-class?) early childhood education” below.
Here it is:
My child came home and told me they play an old board game, the Star of Africa, at daycare. For those who don’t know, it’s a game from the 50s, and the point is to travel around Africa, mining for gemstones and looking for a big diamond; the Star of Africa
If you get stuck at Slave Coast, you become a slave and have to stay there for 3 rounds. To most people, it’s obvious why this game is…problematic & not suitable for daycares or for 4yos — but to a lot of Finns, it’s an important part of “cultural heritage”, apparently.
When I went to collect my kid from nursery, I asked one of the carers what the deal was with the game. She immediately started to defend the game, calling it “interesting”, “an important part of Finnish cultural heritage”, and “educational”.
I’m really curious to know what kind of education they are drawing from this game, and how this fits into the early years’ curriculum. Apart from games on slavery and colonialism, are they also playing these ‘educational board games’ with 4yos about the Finnish civil war, or WW2?
She then told me it’s very difficult these days because some people get offended by everything. At this point, she referred to a chocolate that, until 2001, had the n-word in its name. She said the n-word, out loud - and in full - in front of me and my child.
She also said that even a licorice had had to change its logo (see pic below) because some people were offended.
I told her saying the n-word was completely unacceptable. She apologized - and then said: “well what terms are we supposed to use? ‘Dark-skinned’?
This whole conversation also happened in front of my child. I had hoped to prolong them having to hear the n-word - in any context - for a little longer than this, at least - but it happened and I can’t change that now.
But this isn’t about what one carer said, or me or my child. It’s about what this whole thing says about the level of understanding, and of the antiracism education that the city of Helsinki gives to all nursery teachers and carers, apparently.
It’s about the fact that Finland is #1 when it comes to being racist towards people of African heritage (closely followed by Luxembourg, then Ireland…)
It’s about the fact that a fifth of under 7-year old children in Finland have experienced racism in daycare.
It’s about what is still considered normal and acceptable in Finland. This is about more than ignorance. There is an active resistance to changing outdated and racist ideas and practices.