Friday, April 25, 2008

I Know Me

In the course of the last two years I have attended I think five British Council networking events on topics ranging from corporate social responsibility to social cohesion. And what do you get every time you put a group of young European professionals in a room: a discussion on immigration. And sadly, the discussion is always rather dominated by the Western Europeans extremely concerned for the reason of their existence.

Today’s most stimulating speech was Swedish Actor/Director America Vera-Zavala who showed a clip from her play Etnoporn. The monologue takes the position of a young woman with an immigrant background who wants to win the Swedish Idol competition and simultaneously start a political and sexual revolution. The highly acclaimed and popular play attacks the way Sweden deals with immigrants, immigrant women and tolerance. In her clip the main character is seen shouting:

“We are normal! We don’t want to be multicultural! We are Swedish!”
“We’re tired of multiculturalism. I am tired of project managers!”

Vera-Zavala herself has Latin American parents, was born in Romania and moved to Sweden in the age of three. She accused the European culture for being fundamentally racist and criticized heavily the way the Swedish establishment has for instance embraced the Gringo phenomenon where a group of immigrants started claiming back the notion of an immigrant through a magazine and other forms of media. She stated that she feels that things are not improving when the establishment is introducing notions like second-generation or third-generation immigrant and branding a range of social problems as ethnic problems. According to Vera-Zavala the focus has only shifted from 1970s’ “violent and abusive Latin American men” to today’s “problem with the Muslims”. As she said:“I don’t want another generation of girls needing to feel like they have to defend their fathers against stereotypes on violent immigrant men.”

She said it is absurd when a teenager with an immigrant background is all through childhood told that she is Swedish but at the age of 13 she seems to always turn into an immigrant or when a woman beaten by her husband is forced to a discussion over “your culture” with the police.

Vera-Zavala’s take was personal but according to some of the Swedes she was inaccurate and incorrect and thing were improving. As a British theatre director Karina Johnson rightly stated, we have a major problem where one’s personal experience of discrimination or racism is not valued but brushed off as a coincidence or as an exception to the rule.

The situation reminds me of an experience of my dear friend who was interrupted in an important seminar by a Finnish middle-aged multicultural expert when my friend stated in her talk that she as an immigrant feels more comfortable in Amsterdam than in Helsinki. The Finnish “expert” felt that she had the right to publicly invalidate someone’s personal experience of discrimination. The level of arrogance shown in this is just criminal.

Vera-Zavala’s presentation made me wonder what is the Finnish future in this respect. Just a few month’s back the lifestyle magazine Image praised in their editorial and in a big feature the Gringo phenomenon saying that we would need something similar in Finland. I am wondering whether these kinds of phenomena help the native establishment to “talk with and about immigrants” but whether they actually lead to equality of opportunities. Because let´s face it: this kind of critical self-distancing ironic reflection is the way we are used to talking about identities.

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