On the importance of acts of compassion

When walking past the main railway station in Helsinki these days one cannot avoid noticing the sea of candles, bunches of flowers, cards and condolences in front of the side door. This spontaneous memorial was formed to mourn a tragic event in which a young man was violently attacked, and later on he died in a hospital.  The reason for his gloomy destiny was his courage to question the entitlement of the racist demonstration organised by a group of a right wing nationalist movement, of which the suspected assailant was part of.

This very sad incident has triggered a heated debate on racism in Finland. Last weekend tens of thousands of people gathered in demonstrations to stop racism. Most leading politicians have condemned racist violence, and the decision makers have promised to investigate all possible means to prohibit organised racism.

The strong reactions and a collective appraisal against racism give hope for the better future. At the same time one cannot help feeling sad:  did we really need this death before the formal Finland was able to firmly condemn racism and racist violence?

Racism has been among us for long

In the DiMe project it has become evident for us that everyday racism and discriminating acts are a regrettable part of metrosociality, too. Our observations echo a recent report published by Ministry of Justice. According to the report public transport is one of the sites of everyday racism, discrimination and harassment.  This is an experience of not only racialized minorities, but also other minority groups, such as disabled, religious or sexual minorities. Often these experiences are not explicit or brutal violence, but instead mundane, everyday experiences, insulting words, discriminating gazes or rude gestures.

img_5249Sometimes even being young may trigger unwanted attention. Some of our 14 to 17 year old informants have told us stories on how their privacy has been intruded in metro. Not all, but yet some recalled feeling that they had been left alone to cope with in these ambivalent but often unpleasant situations. As a consequence, they said that they routinely engage in various safety measures when traveling in metro, such as browsing their phones or concentrating on listening to music to secure to be left alone.

Young people might be noisy or mischievous while moving in the city space. But there is another side there, too.  According to our observations many young people would like to see more safe and trustworthy adults around in public places who have the courage to help and intervene in troublesome situations. Young people value adults to whom it is easy to turn to if needed, who are friendly and fair.  They also understand and accept that in some situations their own conduct might be in need of restrictions and control.

Public declarations against racism and discrimination are important, and improvements in legislation may help to make our social surroundings safer. Yet, at the same time, we as city dwellers and fellow passengers are responsible for this, too.  Keeping silent or looking away allow discrimination to continue. Interventions based on caring for others, even strangers, make urban public more inclusive for all. What is crucially important, too, is that interventions should be possible without fear of violent repercussions.


Päivi Honkatukia

Professor, PhD
Master’s Programme of Youth Work and Youth Research
School of Social Sciences and Humanities
University of Tampere