Race, bordering and disobedient knowledge, episode 3, transcription: Towards developing racial equality data

Length of recording: 25 minutes

Participants: Nelli Ruotsalainen and Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin

Transcription notes:

NR: Nelli Ruotsalainen, Interviewer

ASH: Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin, Respondent


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NR: Hello and welcome to the third episode of the race bordering and disobedient knowledge podcast. We are coming to you from the Studio Soc&kom at the University of Helsinki. My name is Nelli Ruotsalainen I’m a PHD researcher for the no act project and here today with me is my colleague peer and fellow researcher Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin

ASH: Thanks Nelli. So I’m Amiirah and I’m currently a PHD researcher in the no act project so the project on intersection of border struggles and disobedient knowledge in activism that was funded by the academy of Finland from 2018 to 2022. And my part of the project is on racial equality data or more specifically towards developing racially quality data in Finland in the current landscaping challenges surrounding that.

NR: That’s super interesting. Could you tell the general public what does racial equality data mean?

ASH: So, racial equality data basically refers to disaggregation data or data that is separated you know to assess the comparative situation of a specific discriminated group or groups of people at risk of discrimination. So when we are talking about racial equality data then this data is disaggregated or separated by race. And it’s really a method of collecting information or in groups (-) [01:37] self-discrimination in an ethical way. And it uses an equality tool for anti-racist and anti-discrimination legislation. Now when I say you know, separated by race or disaggregated by race, I’m obviously not speaking about race in a biological way, but (-) [01:55] sociological construct, so I think I can speak more about this later on in the episode you know, when this comes up.

NR: Yeah, definitely. So I am interested to know and I think our listeners would like to know, why this is important right now. Is racial equality data being gathered in Finland and if not, why, and what your research would change. Or will change.

ASH: Thanks for that question Nelli. I think in Finland and I suppose in a lot of other European countries right now there is an idea that they are collecting racial equality data, although some people would say that no not really. And the difference in this is when it comes to racial equality data, there is specific principles that are attached to it. And these principals are self-identification, voluntary participation, confidentiality of personal data, informed consent, community participation, and the right to choose multiple identifiers. So with these six racial equality data principles, and if you look at a type of data that is being collected and used at the moment in Finland, you know you can see that it’s not quite following all of those six principles of racial equality data. And these principles, I didn’t just come up with them, this has been researched on, this has come about because of the participation of civil society, of activists. Doing this (-) [03:43] has been advocating for racial equality data collection in European member states. So the question, is Finland collecting racial equality data for me is well, as an academic and also an activist I would say not really. Because at the moment in Finland, the types of data that are being collected or being used, the official statistics, that comes from the population registers that we have and we do censuses like other countries. So we just base a lot of the data on population registers. And then there’s also I suppose discrimination data, which can also be used to sort of cover or to supplement racial equality data. And also workplace data, so in terms of recruitment, intention, and composition which actually we don’t really have in Finland. Excuse me, and in a lot of places. Sorry, excuse me. So in particularly the population registers that we use and administer these files that we use in Finland. So this data, they rely on proxies so when it comes to the categories we use we rely on proxies like citizenship, country or birth, country of birth of parents, language spoken at home, migration background, and maybe even the name. Rather than any explicit racial and ethnic categories like this quote on quote colourblind categories while they may help to sort of approximate racial and ethnic identity groups, they are not precise enough to establish a clear picture of the racial inequalities that exist in Finland. So when you’re talking about groups of people who are not seen or perceivers of the majority of dominant white population, like after which generation is someone no longer of migrant background you know, and how is this sort of reflected in our everyday discourse, legislations, official demographic statistics, you know, all those things. So using such (-) [06:24] and colour evasive data, it only contributes to further stigmas associated with specific racial and ethnic minority groups and they might even (-) [06:34] on going inequalities and disparities.

NR: Yeah. I think that’s all very interesting. So to sum up for our listeners who may not be as familiar with this, what your research would do is give a more accurate picture of the types of discrimination that is race or racism based in Finland or this model of collecting data implemented.

ASH: Yeah. Just to make it more, I suppose, easier to understand. Because this is definitely one of the question that always comes up when I talk about my research when I talk about the issues with the current methods of collecting data or the current usage of or dependencies on population registers and the categories that are being used there. So, because the categories are migration-based, so someone who is born in Finland, has Finnish as their mother tongue, they see their ethnicity as Finnish, having Finnish cultural practises and all this kind of stuff, but they might not be seen or accepted as Finnish and face discrimination on things such as their skin colour, right. So whenever this sort of discrimination happens, this is not reflected in any of the data.

NR: Excellent, so a lot of people and their lived experiences go missing in the current gathering of data.

ASH: Exactly.

NR: I think that leads very well into this next question and I think you talked a little bit about this already, so why is this research impact, why is it impactful especially now?

ASH: Well the push for racial equality data has been going on at the European level for quite some time. Well you know the UK’s not part of EU anymore, but at the moment you talk about Europe it’s really only the UK that does what people would see as racial equality data in all the other EU member states. Not quite. So the advocating for racial equality data has been going on for quite some time, and it’s because having comparable sets of data, like this advocated data, racial equality data, is useful in various ways. Like it informs the designing of effective public policies, so you actually have a baseline against which any changes can be measured. And you can use it to assess equality and integration policies. And then also to be able to monitor the progress of these policies over time. And also more crucially to provide evidence of systemic and structural discrimination in courts. So, you know, the need for racial equality data I can’t stress how important they are and how impactful they would be in terms of the everyday lives of racial (-) [09:53] groups in Finland. So I think particularly with the increased attention on issues of race and racism especially after the global research in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, two years ago, like it just made more apparent the lack of data that we have in Finland to actually talk about the things that we are talking about in a very meaningful way. We can talk about individual narratives and these single stories, but when we talk about policies, politicians like numbers, that’s how they do their policies, they want the numbers, they want the statistics, so what do we do when we don’t have those numbers and statistics. And I would also say the Covid pandemic has also highlighted how we don’t have that data, so we know in other countries how Covid has impacted people from racialised backgrounds in particular. But in Finland we don’t have the numbers to sort of make the same claims necessarily. But not that it isn’t happening because don’t have the numbers.

NR: Exactly, and those are all very good points. This leads me to think about further practical applications of this. Currently you mention that this would be something that would be carried out at state level. Is this something for example that companies striving to further their (-) [11:47] policies or something like the university would do or would it be meaningful for smaller institutions than the state level to gather this data?

ASH: Absolutely. You know, I know in a few other countries, in Sweden for example, the racial equality data collection efforts have started very local. So, it started with one school for example, one organisation, because often times that’s also the easiest way to do it, you don’t have to think about the whole country and having to change the whole system of data collection used by a country. So definitely companies and organisations can start doing it. Can start collecting racial equality data. And I mean at the end of the day this data would only benefit them, because as I mentioned, at the moment we don’t have a baseline and there’s all this hidden discrimination that is not brought to light because of the lack of data. So, yeah, definitely.

NR: And it sounds good also so in your research Amiirah you have kind of I don’t want to use the word pioneered but kind of tried out or developed the methodology of collecting this data with the organisation in Finland, or is that something you are planning on doing. You mentioned the six pre-requisites that must take place in order for the data to be considered ethically gathered. So in term of your research, what is the outcome after you’re done? I mean as researches we don’t know but I’m wondering about does it have to do with how this would carry out in practise, does it provide a model that people could use or does it provide the kind of data about the discrimination in Finland right now and what is the scope of your research and your desired objective?

ASH: So, I started doing this research with the objective to start collecting the data myself. Thinking okay so my research project would be the pilot of this racial equality data collection. However, as I started on the research process and I started talking to more people from the communities. I realised that I was maybe jumping two three steps ahead so I definitely had to scale back like we think might research and what really came up in the initial research process for me was that there was a lot misconceptions that was going around when it comes to the topic of racial equality data. And even amongst anti-racism activists themselves and people from the community and also when I speak about community I am speaking about communities that are in most (-) [14:56] discrimination here in Finland. So, you know, I had to rethink my research and be less ambitious I suppose. So now I’m not really going out to do this pilot of the actual collection of data, but it’s really to get an understanding of the conceptualisation of race and racism on this topics, on racial equality data collection. And what’s actually the understanding behind certain legislation and policies and the collection of these statistics through the population registers. Because all of this, we tend to think of these as fixed sort of institutions, but all of these state practises, they have constructed. Someone at some point saw okay this is how we should collect the data. This is how we should go about doing things. This is how we should address race and racism and discrimination in Finland so they design certain practises and ways of collecting data to support whatever legislation and policies that they wanted to implement. So really my role right now is to sort of question this like I suppose that’s also the role of the researcher, no? To question everything, problematise everything, so yeah, that is what I am doing right now. I’m really questioning some of the practises that are being done, surrounding the collection of data particularly when it comes to issues of inequalities and discrimination of racialised minorities in Finland.

NR: It sounds very interesting. It sounds to me that you are kind of scoping out the current field and landscape and then in that also making space for this and I think your point about questioning the fixed notions about what is the government (-) [17:24] that whatever the government does sometimes considered the be all end of that so I think that you being the researcher who comes with the problematising and the question is really important and then you’re also kind of making space for them for then the data to be gathered and exemplify is necessary and I think what you said also about the tracking current conceptions around race and racism is also really important because you’re kind of setting the parameters for gathering that data by defining or looking at the existing definitions around that because if they’re not defined or if they are not problematised, the collected data will then also show that I think.

ASH: Yeah and also at the same time like questioning and problematising all of these concepts, I am also in conversation with community groups also to find out what are their thoughts on racial equality data, and if we were to start collecting racial equality data, what are some of the categories that they would identify with. Because as I mentioned before, one of the principles of racial equality data is self-identification. So what other categories that they would feel comfortable self-identifying with, so that’s an exploration that I am trying to do through my research as well.

NR: I think that’s super interesting, because I think it will, and I’m just hypothesising but I think it will also bend and enlargen the definition what we count as Finnishness and really problematise that category. In interesting ways. I’m thinking of the US for example where people identify as Asian American for example, or how can we trouble the fixed notion of Finnishness that is inherently white and speaking Finnish a certain way.

ASH: Exactly, and it’s important you know because it involves the community, so there was another principle or racial equality data like a community participation. And it’s also important in the larger scheme of things, because this is something that would then come out the communities themselves, rather than something that is imposed by the state. So that is a very crucial element to me in terms of racial equality data.

NR: So it sounds to me that in this year research being in the context of disobedient knowledge, that’s definitely one of the aspects of your research that could be counted as disobedient knowledge, being disobedient towards the state. And empowering the community. Do you wanna speak more about that? The role of disobedience and disobedient knowledge in your research?

ASH: Yeah, I think as you mentioned, I think the whole project is about being disobedient against what is the status quo, right? What is assumed to be the norms, especially when it comes to Finnishness and things like that. And I think also, just because it’s a participatory action research and I’m really involving the communities about the research process, this idea that. So, most of the time, the communities, the racial lies minorities communities and even myself, I consider myself as part of these communities. We are often the ones being researched on. And we’re never really given the driver’s seat. So to be able to do this research and in a way legitimise the knowledges that are being produced by our communities. I think that’s also another form of disobedient knowledge. That we are really also questioning and problematising years of what it legitimate knowledge, what is academic knowledge. Like who are the experts of our lives. We are the experts of our own lives. So yea, I think for sure that is one aspect. There is another aspect of disobedient knowledge in my research.

NR: Definitely and it sounds like it premeets your entire project, the methodology part of action research, but also what you said taking the driver’s seat and also legitimising that knowledge so I think it entangles itself also very well with theory. And puts itself at very prosperous crosshairs with university and that’s great. Would you like to say if somebody is interested in doing similar research what they can learn from your work.

ASH: Well, this is a tough one in a way. Well, I suppose the thing I can say is to be patient because this is going to take a long time. I’m not going to be able to change the world, or change things in Finland just through this one PHD. That is the dream of course, of every academic of course, but realistically, I don’t think that will be the case, because we are talking about deeply embedded structures and systems that are in place. And it’s going to take a lot of effort to change those systems and structures. I think also in terms of being open enough and flexible enough to change course. So it’s before I mentioned that I had a specific idea of what I wanted to do and setting out to do this research but through my conversations with the communities I realised that I needed to change course, and that’s okay. And I think it's more of a good thing that I was able to pause and reflect and take a step back and re-evaluate what is actually needed at that point. And I think this idea of what is actually needed by the communities so rather than my own agenda as a researcher I think that is something that I think more researches should have.

NR: Definitely, and also so much research is driven by kind of wanting to get it done and this pace is fast and this idea of slow research and this kind of really evaluating the communities’ needs and how you can help and your position as an academic that is there because of your context and because of your position is really important. I think that is absolutely something that academics should see more of. So as we wrap up this episode with Amiirah, we’ve been hearing about equality data and what it is and how it would be impactful right now and why we need it, and what Amiirah is doing in her research. Amiirah is there something you’d like to say about what you plan to do next in terms of your research, before we finish up today?

ASH: Yeah I think just to sort of connect to what you said in this episode Nelli, you know in terms of funding opportunities like as you said there is this idea with research we need to get certain things done and that’s because of our funding situation that we are tied to certain funding bodies and there’s certain obligations in a specific amount of time through those funding opportunities. I mean currently I’m doing this unfunded and it’s definitely not something that is easy to do a whole PHD research unfunded while working full-time and things like that. And there’s something that I also want to bring up, I mean this is not about resilience and that is really something that has come up all the time whenever I speak about in equalities in the academic level in academia as well. The limited funding opportunities and the advice that oh you just need to be resilient and somehow everything will fall into place. And I suppose this is also me questioning and problematising everything again, but we know that discrimination exists when especially people from racialised minorities background try to look for jobs in Finland for example. There’s been so many research on that. I’m just putting it out there, there’s no research that has been done on who gets the funding, I mean why would funding bodies not be, why would they be exempt of this idea that there’s this discrimination within their structures. So that might be something controversial to say, but I think it is also important to say it out loud because nobody else is saying it out loud. And yeah. So if that answers your question about my next steps. But my immediate next steps is to get funding and to actually push for this research to go on because I think it’s an absolutely important research to do in Finland. And I’m saying that because it’s my research and I might biased but it’s also the feedback that I’ve gotten from people on it.

NR: Absolutely Amiirah I look forwards to you getting funding and I really hope you do and I think your vantage point is someone who has an understanding of what is happening on the European level in terms of anti-racist efforts and organising and you understand better than anyone else the importance of this research and I think that your research project is very well designed and should get funding in case someone is listening to this. And the questions you bring up about the discrimination. To end this podcast I want to thank you for being my colleague for the past two years and other colleagues who you will hear more about as this podcast progresses. Thank you.

ASH: Thank you Nelli.