Date and place of birth
27 April 1974, Dublin.
Education PhD, Dublin
City University, Social + Cultural theory.
Family Wife Päivi. 2 boys, aged 8 and 5.
When I was young I wanted to be… well, a pilot. That would be handy now.
Racism is… a system of power, violence and hierarchy that shifts over time.
Finland is… a country like any other, but different.
If I could change one thing about
Finland it would be… Silent staring, I’ll never get used to it!
One thing I admire about Finnish culture, which Ireland has yet to have, is… a strong
historical sense of universal entitlement and social provision

Dividing his time between Helsinki and Dublin, Gavan Titley’s shares his views on multicultural Finland.

DUBLINER Gavan Titley works as a Lecturer in Media Studies at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He has also lectured at the University of Helsinki, where he worked as a researcher for the Renvall Institute (currently the Institute for World Cultures). Having first lived in Helsinki in 2001, Titley now divides his time between Dublin and Finland’s capital. Aside from his academic pursuits, he also writes for a range of publications, including The Guardian.

Titley’s particular research interests focus on racism and multiculturalism in Europe, and with Alana Lentin, he wrote The Crises of Multiculturalism? Racism in a Neoliberal Age (Zed Books 2011). The book examines the ways in which myths of multiculturalism have been circulated in political debate and rhetoric across Europe, and in particular how the idea of multiculturalism’s failure has been used to legitimate racist logics and harsh integration policies. He is currently working on a book about racism and hate speech online.

What brought you to Finland and what was your first impression?

This is a conversation that a lot of men like me end up having, and it’s always a similar answer – meeting a Finnish woman abroad. In my case it was in Budapest in the late 1990s. When I first moved here in May 2001, I was working on a PhD in Dublin, and I was given a scholarship by CIMO to work as a researcher in the Renvall institute. Moving to Helsinki then was a really good experience, I enjoyed the university and benefitted a lot from it, and I lived in Kallio and was immediately attracted to the scene there, even if I didn’t understand a word at the time. My positive impressions were all the banal things that are in the end very important. I liked the size and scale of the city, I moved at the start of a really beautiful summer, found a football team that I still play with. It’s all very banal stuff but it was a great introduction to the place.

What sparked your interest in your particular research area of racism and multiculturalism?

As well as being a researcher, I worked for many years in youth work and antiracism education, which is where I originally teamed up with Alana, who had a similar set of interests. In working across these two areas we were exposed to the impact of major political developments on antiracist politics, and to common issues across countries, as we worked a lot at the European level. Since 9/11, everywhere we looked politicians and high-profile commentators were arguing that ‘Multiculturalism has failed’ and that ‘Multiculturalism is a disaster’. The same idea has become commonplace in Finland over the last years, but while this mantra is constantly repeated it needs questioning. In the end, when we decided to write about it, we asked a fairly straightforward question: How can multiculturalism have failed when multiculturalism hasn’t been tried anywhere? This might be straightforward, but it isn’t easy to answer, in part because the idea of multiculturalism brings together a description of society, a philosophy of difference, and a policy framework. But across Europe, no country adopted ‘multiculturalism’ as an official state policy, and those policies that are called multicultural, in education, community support, and so forth, have always been very limited and partial. So, how can such a weak and messy history of ‘multiculturalism’ be held responsible for so much political conflict and so many social problems?

I can’t go into the whole story here, but one obvious reason is that talking about multiculturalism had become a way of doing racism. It become a way of singling out specific populations as problematic but with the licence of saying, ‘Look, we tried. We tried to be generous and respect multicultural difference, and it didn’t work. So it’s not our fault, it’s theirs, and now we need to get back to basics; our way of life, our basic values, respect for the nation, and so forth.’ What’s interesting in Finland is that a lot of these same arguments have been adapted very successfully by, for example, Hommafoorumi, Perussuomalaiset or Kokoomusnuoret. We live in a world where ideas travel transnationally, and these political actors are very politically literate; they look at what’s happening in other countries and they adapt the tactics to Finland. The big question in Finland, I think, is examining how a relatively small group of people has been able to shape political discourse about racism so effectively over the last few years. All of the recent ideas introduced, like ‘immigration sceptic’ and ‘flowery-hatted ladies’, well, you can find versions of these cooked up in the UK or France in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Can you tell more about the discussion of racism in the book?

The book came out in 2011, and as I said, we ended up exploring the very confident but historically inaccurate idea that ‘multiculturalism has failed’, and then looking to find different ways of explaining this story, particularly in relation to the legitimacy it provides for coded racism. One central aspect of this was examining racism as an elite project. There is often a strong impulse, and this is clear in Finland also, that blames racism on individual ignorance, and the inability of people to tolerate or value diversity. This is quite comforting, because then it is assumed that, for example, ignorant working class men are the main problem. Of course racist attitudes exist in all sectors of society, but we often fail to appreciate that in Europe racism is shaped at the highest level of politics, and by highly influential journalists, public figures and intellectuals. One of the things we tried to argue in the book is that racist politics search for ways of being justified as a good and necessary thing. This involves thought, energy and strategy, and we will never understand or be able to combat these strategies and arguments if we assume that racism only exists in the minds of ignorant people and in the recognisably violent extremes.

Racism is not just a question of morality, but of political power; it isn’t mainly about good or bad intentions, but about impacts and effects. It is a constant potential in nation-states where some people belong with more legitimacy than others. In contemporary Europe, the impacts of globalisation, defensive nationalism, competition over who deserves what as the welfare state is reduced, the status of religious identities, and many other issues, means that there’s a complex cocktail feeding into the politics of racism right now.

Umayya Abu-Hanna mentioned in the interview for the previous issue of SixDegrees that Finland’s multiculturalism might be one of the fastest to grow and on a big scale in a very short time, so it will be painful. Do you agree?

Assessing multiculturalism is always in part a matter of perception, and how perception is shaped in public discussion. I wouldn’t ever romanticise everyday life, but very often it’s left out of explosive debates and soaring rhetoric. In the places where I have lived in Helsinki, and looking at the way, say, my children integrate here and at the social, cultural and ethnic mix they live in, I think everyday multiculturalism, if we want to call it that, just is, and rubs along well. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people live their lives, lives that are different, but that also have a lot in common, and frankly everyday life occupies time and energies. It’s when you explicitly call something multiculturalism and invite it to be evaluated and debated in certain ways, that what she calls ‘the pain’ creeps in, or is very deliberately introduced. Abu-Hanna’s contribution in Helsingin Sanomat and Wali Hashi’s subsequent blog on the YLE website were very important. The debate that followed was also important, because one thing that is needed in the current Finnish political climate is space for people who experience racism to describe it. The people targeted by racism have the right to call it racism and to lead others in how best to oppose it. I think that her contribution was crucial in that regard, because so much energy is spent on denying the existence of racism, and telling those targeted that they must be mistaken, it must be something else. It was a very personal interview, and I have no intention of criticizing her experience, but readers could be left with the general sense that the Netherlands is a paradise in comparison to Finland. This really isn’t the case. We wrote extensively in the book about racism in the Netherlands, which has been central to the political culture for many years prior to the current success of Geert Wilders. Racism, and questions of power and anxiety over who belongs in society, exist everywhere.

Do Ireland and Finland share similar problems with racism?

I think every society shares similar problems with racism in the sense that racism is a structure of power. In a global economy, depending on your place of birth you are inserted into hierarchies of movement, opportunity and freedom. According to the permit or passport that you hold, way you look, or faith you are associated with, there is a radically unequal ability to simply go about your life unharrassed or uninjured. All nation-states wrestle with issues with power and hierarchy, and with ideas of who belongs more. Where it’s different, I think, is that there hasn’t been a political opportunity in Ireland for the same kind of right-wing populism that has come to shape Finnish politics over the last couple of years. That doesn’t mean that Ireland is a better place than Finland, or has a more enlightened population. It means that the history and political culture is different. During the early 2000s when Ireland was experiencing what we now realise was a deeply problematic economic boom, the immigration that came with that, especially from Poland, Czech Republic and the Baltic states, was deeply associated with economic success. So public discussions of immigration were frequently very positive, if self-obsessed. Behind this, of course, were realities of everyday harassment, particularly for Africans.

And also, in Ireland as elsewhere, the forgotten population of asylum-seekers are subjected to an abusive asylum system, kept dependent for long periods of time while their cases are determined, and deported often with very little warning. So of course, Ireland and Finland, as states, share similar political structures and practices of state racism, but what’s certainly different is the nature of political discussion at the moment.

What does Finland mean to you?

I consider it home, while at the same time considering Ireland home, and I don’t see any contradiction in that, while there can of course be tension. For the most part I appreciate it, and one of the things that happens when you spend time in two places for long periods of time is that they start to rub off and reflect on each other. That can be a source of stress as well as a source of insight. I find it enriches my life to be here and there, to have a family life conducted in two languages, to have a felt sense of two different regions in Europe. Being in Finland and listening to Finnish has over time become part of the fabric of my life, so much so that that it’s actually kind of difficult to separate it out for this question, and I think that probably tells its own story.

Annika Rautakoura