”Hey, should we close the curtains?” asks a board member of Aalto University Business Students (KY) who carries around a plastic scepter with a cardboard ruby sitting on top.
It’s an October evening at Espilä, one of KY’s official premises. KY’s new secretariat has begun its term in the beginning of fall, and it is now time for the office staff to get to know each other over a relaxed office crawl. And as is customary for student events, this evening, too, has been given a theme: ”Office Crawl Empire Edition: The British Imperium and Its Colonies”. A few people are dressed as animals, and some have crafted themselves a sea captain or colonial lord’s hat from paper or cardboard.
The idea is to go around the office workstations while completing different playful tasks. At one of the offices you can watch Downton Abbey and drink boozy tea. In the secretary general’s office, the task is to come up with the most insulting jokes you can think of. The more outrageous the joke, the more drink you are offered with. The jokes are documented in a text file that is presented to me at the office the next day – this time I am told that the task was to come up with the crappiest and most racist joke. According to one office worker, the worst – that is, the best – joke had to do with an Indian person, a cow and sex.
The KY board has set true internationality as a key point of its strategy.
Aalto University strives to attract international degree students, and currently its student and employee base consists of people from around a hundred different nationalities. This lot of 17,500 students and 4,000 employees also includes many Finns whose roots are outside of Finland.
On its website, Aalto University lists as its goal a working environment based on equality, where employees and students are treated impartially regardless of gender, position or background. Foreign students, teachers, researchers and partners must have the same opportunities to operate in the university as other members of the university community. Diversity is also visible in Aalto’s external communications, where all kinds of people are well-represented.
The worst – that is, the best – joke had to do with an Indian person, a cow and sex.
However, looking past Aalto University and its student organizations’ strategy and policy papers, we get to the grass-roots level of student activities. Are the values and goals regarding internationality and diversity face the danger of being diluted?
It is said that vulgar humor is a part of student culture. On the afternoon of November 20, if a person interested in KY’s activities would have walked into Espilä to meet the secretariat, they would have seen in the hallway a laminated picture of a board member with an interesting marker makeover: a blackface and a speech bubble saying ”ooga booga!”. It is impossible to say whether the person behind the doodles was someone working at KY or a mischievous visitor armed with a black permanent marker, but in any case, Espilä’s atmosphere is approving of racist jokes.
KY is not the only community within Aalto University where inappropriate humor is given a foothold. In many tech students’ parties, the stroke of midnight prompts some to sing the tech students’ anthem with the original, racist lyrics that date back to the end of the 19th century. At the 2015 White Overalls Sitsit, a sitser transformed a white tablecloth into a Ku Klux Klan costume. Last fall, the organizers of the Information Networks students’ guild Athene’s Höpöhöpö-sitsit encouraged participants to dress as tribesmen, explorers and ”evil colonial lords”. Just the previous year, the dress code for third year students at a Willy Wonka themed sittning was set as ”Sexy Chocolate”, a reference to Finnish-Congolese rap artist Seksikäs-Suklaa. Pictures of a sitser in blackface and a fez hat are available for anyone to view on the guild’s public Flickr account.
Antti Tolppanen, Athene’s vice chair of 2016 and chairman of 2017, was not involved in organizing or deciding the theme for the sittning and cannot comment on what has led to these sorts of ideas. He points out that many guild members are organizing public events or parties in an association’s name for the first time, resulting in the occasional lapse of judgement.
”For instance, when you start putting together a theme based on the Age of Discovery, you might glamorize it – that hey, we’ve got adventures, new worlds, thrill. Then you miss that there’s pretty unpleasant things related to the topic as well”, Tolppanen contemplates.
He underlines that office terms in organizations are often only year-long and that practices pass on as tradition from one actor to the next.
”The institutional memory in this sort of work is short.”
Racially discriminatory themes are explained with not only ignorance, as mentioned by Tolppanen, but also with humor and the burden of privilege.
Entering the hashtag #AMSinAfrica in Instagram’s search field results in pictures from last fall, when Aalto Marketing Society (AMS), the association of marketing students at Aalto University School of Business, went on a trip to South Africa. There are beautiful landscape photos from Cape Town’s beaches, adorable pictures of elephants playing happily and group portraits from corporate visits.
In addition to these, there are also photos of AMS’ Chairman Henrik Lähdesniemi posing by sights wearing desert boots and a safari jacket and hat. In the caption, he refers to himself as a colonial lord and to South Africa as a colony:
”AMS Goes Cape Town day 5: colonial lord Lähdesniemi evaluated the local wine production’s quality at the district of Stellenbosch. After a strict and elaborate inspection, we can say that 2017 is a good wine year. After the vineyard tour we savored 100 shots in honor of a centennial Finland #stellenbosch #wine #finland100 #AMSinAfrica”
Afterward, Lähdesniemi clarifies the colonial lord outfit and rhetoric of the photos by saying that he has always been keen on history and culture. The attire was initially a tribute to Ernest Hemingway and the age of adventure, until someone on the trip had pointed out the kind of connotations the costume might carry.
”That a western, white person like me comes to South Africa and tours vineyards, climbs mountains and visits companies, there were these sort of – considering the country’s history – rather strong overtones. The intention was to laugh at this situation and the preconceptions about me”, Lähdesniemi says.
Lähdesniemi admits that the outfit might have been distasteful in a country where the trauma of colonialism still shows in societal structures.
”Surely someone might be offended by it, and probably fairly so. But I wouldn’t see the photos as extremely insulting or as crossing the line.”
At the time of the trip, Lähdesniemi was Chairman of AMS, a position that comes with a representative duty. According to social media researcher and adjunct professor Janne Matikainen from the University of Helsinki, especially those in a position of trust should consider what they share on social media.
”When you’re on a student organization’s trip and use the student organization’s hashtags, you can’t really detach yourself from the role of a chair”, Matikainen says.
Over Christmas, the now former Chairman of KY, Jyri Heimo, published a post in Facebook group KY Today regarding the principles of the organization and its events. The post states that KY activities should be safe for all and that no one should have to feel threatened, disrespected or harassed. According to Heimo, older students, tutors, subcommittees and event organizers have a special responsibility to set an example and ensure that everyone feels welcome and safe. The text ends with a reminder: ”We don’t need to be overly PC, we are at KY for Christ’s sake :).”
Heimo comments the post to Aino magazine by saying that although there is a lot of work done for equality at KY, student activities do not need to be dead serious.
”At KY, we have quite a lot of the kind of culture where you can make crude jokes about things. It doesn’t affect real things at KY, like opportunities or for example access to certain positions. It doesn’t lead to any kind of discrimination”, Heimo emphasizes.
The text ends with a reminder: ”We don’t need to be overly PC, we are at KY for Christ’s sake :).”
Heimo believes that racist jokes, too, might be made at KY depending on the group. He thinks that being able to laugh at things stops them from becoming too serious. Laughter diminishes the power unpleasant things have.
According to Heimo, the colonial empire theme was not chosen for KY’s office crawl with the intention to laugh at anyone.
He says he has not seen racism during his time at KY.
Doctor of Education and Helsinki University’s visiting researcher of racism studies Aminkeng Atabong Alemanji has a different perspective.
”We want to trivialize issues of racism and its effects, but laughing at it doesn’t make it go away. People say that oh, we’re just playing, we’re just having fun. But you do that at the expense of someone else. Only the receiving end gets to determine what it means”, he says.
According to Alemanji, playing with racist jokes or colonial characters is a result of not having been taught the dangers of this sort of humor.
”When people say that they haven’t seen racism, they mean a certain kind of racism. They are waiting to see something violent. If you grow up in a culture where racism as violence is hardly present or it’s not spoken of, of course you become blind to other modes of it.”
Last summer, Harvard University withdrew its admission offer from at least ten student prospects after learning they had shared misogynist and racist memes in a closed Facebook group. With this controversial move Harvard made one thing clear: racism or sexism are not tolerated.
There are also similar, domestic examples. Last spring, the University of Helsinki’s Student Union’s (HYY) Financial Board decided to cut off support for a student organization called MIKS because its board for 2016 had had a position for ”Minister of Ash and Jewish Affairs”.
Steps to achieve a more equal student culture have been taken at Aalto, too. For example, English has been chosen as KY’s working language to make participation more open for all. Aalto University Student Union (AYY) states on its website that discriminatory speech, sexist and racist jokes and sexual harassment do not need to be dusted off as humor. If a member of AYY experiences harassment, they can discuss their experience with a harassment contact person in confidentiality. AYY also organizes training for association actives on, among other things, insensitive party themes. In January, AYY and HYY organized training for student actives in matters of event safety.
Organizations and associations with activities that do not necessarily stand the test of public scrutiny also receive funding from AYY and the KY Foundation. In order to be approved to AYY’s association register, an association’s purpose and policies must be in accordance with the Finnish law and good manners, and it should unify students of AYY. The KY Foundation that finances KY ry’s operations, on the other hand, takes into account the purpose, finances, size and activeness of the operations, as well as the activities’ and communication’s reach.
”Good manners” leaves room for interpretation, but are racist jokes or party themes that flirt with colonialism in accordance with good manners?
The problem is ambiguous terminology. ”Good manners” leaves room for interpretation, but are racist jokes or party themes that flirt with colonialism in accordance with good manners?
”In my opinion, no”, says AYY’s Secretary General Niko Ferm.
According to KY’s Secretary General Esa-Pekka Mattila, KY’s office crawl’s theme and its racist joke checkpoint were inconsiderate. In his opinion, problematic themes could be avoided if there was some kind of a process for reviewing them.
”Clearly my judgement has failed and I need to own up to it. I should’ve simply been more alert. In a larger group someone would’ve taken up the dubiousness of the theme right away.”
Could clearer written rules then help in organizing parties that observe good manners? Information Networks student guild Athene’s former chairman Tolppanen believes they could. However, he would be careful when drafting written rules.
”If we start logging and listing things too rigorously, someone might start to feel like they don’t get to be themselves or that their freedom of speech is being limited”, he says.
According to Ferm, the first step to resolving blunders is discussion. If an association understands that it has made a mistake and is ready to revise its activities, Ferm does not think that AYY would directly go to cutting off financial support and ties to it.
”The greater our involvement, the better our cooperation works, the better we can have discussions”, he says.
But racist jokes or dress codes that joke with colonialism are not something Ferm is ready to shrug off as humor.
”The way we talk creates action. Humor reflects onto all activities and behavior. It generates societal models. We should be thinking more long-term than just that one moment.”
Comment 9.2.2018 12.99: Henrik Lähdesniemi was the chair of AMS in 2017, during trip which was described in the article
11.2.2018 17.03: An Instagram account was added to the text due to a request from the interviewee.
Correction 20.2.2018, 18.10: Deleted: ”A printed image of a mound of ivory lies on a wooden table. Taped on its top is a picture of one of the board members.” The picture wasn’t linked to the party.
I was one of the three people dressed as terrorists at KY’s party in spring 2017. The costume was supposed to mock the prejudices some might have about my being an Arab. I would not do so anymore.
When asked, KY’s former chairman Jyri Heimo kept his stance that KY is an environment where being overly politically correct is unnecessary. He thinks that student activity should not have to be dead serious. But political correctness and seriousness are not synonymous. No doubt a work or student community is more relaxed without racist or otherwise discriminatory humor.
Athene’s former chairman Antti Tolppanen worries that excessive writing down of rules leads to someone feeling like their freedom of speech is being limited. Frankly, I am not sure whether someone who cannot be themselves without organizing sits that flirt with racism needs to enjoy this liberty.
Student associations are meant to build a sense of community. We need more talk about what is racist and discriminatory. Despite – and especially because of – the fact that a majority of these blunders are due to ignorance.
You can emphasize that no one is really being discriminated against as much as you want without changing the fact that a racist joke or sits costume make many people feel like an outsider. That is discrimination.
Sonia El Kamel
Translation to article and comment: Victoria Odum