A student costume party involving traditional music at the University of Jyväskylä in Finnish Lakeland has sparked a racism controversy, Finnish national broadcaster Yle reported.
In particular, one of the students arrived to the party wearing traditional "Black Pete" makeup, which involved a black-painted face. During the course of the party, traditional tunes were sung, albeit with modified lyrics, featuring "Nazi references" and racial slurs, particularly the "n-word." The merriment continued despite an outcry of protest, according to students.
In the aftermath of the party, Bella Forsgrén, the chairwoman of the Jyväskylä University Student Union's representative council, penned a petition claiming that racism has no place at either traditional parties or the university in general. Forsgrén, who herself is from a mixed racial background, called "blackface" inappropriate and stressed the fact that the party took place during the Red Cross-sponsored "anti-racism week." Forsgrén argued that the world has changed more rapidly than the student parties, stressing that this sort of humor "maybe was OK twenty years ago," but not anymore.
Sitsi kulttuuri kaipaa muutosta! Rasistiseen kielenkäyttöön tai tekoihin puuttuminen ei ole mielensäpahoittamista, huumorintajuttomuutta eikä ilonpilausta vaan aidon yhdenvertaisuuden edistämistä ja hauskojen sitsien varmistamista kaikille. #olentodistanut https://t.co/EDaNFp3r4h— Bella Forsgrén (@BellaForsgren) March 23, 2018
Forsgrén's post received significant attention, sparking a hot debate in university milieus. In the following days all student groups involved in the party have issued statements of apology, pledging not to repeat their actions in the future. In a general statement of apology, the Jyväskylä University Student Union (JYY) stated it was currently preparing guidelines for party organizers, specifically denouncing all forms of racism occurring during such events and pledging "zero tolerance."
The apology by Jyväskyä University triggered a number of similar formal rejections of racism across Finland, with several other student unions addressing "questionable content." Helsinki University targeted songs that it decried as "blatantly racist, discriminatory or violent" and were therefore to be avoided.
"Academic celebrations would have been much more fun if these traditional homophobic and racist songs were finally thrown out of the program," Jyväskyla Festival manager Kyösti Ylikulju tweeted, calling them "soul-wrenching."
Writer and blogger Annina Nirhamo called some of the popular lyrics "vomit-inducing."
The Nordic version of fraternity parties locally known as "sitsfests" have been a part of student life for generations. The garden variety sitsfest involves students sitting at long tables and consuming copiuous amounts of alcohol to the accompaniment of traditional songs.
Yhteispoliittisilla sitseillä! Harvoin kuulee Vöyrin ja punakaartin marssin samassa tilaisuudessa 😂 Huippua! Epäkorrektia! Ite ehdotin erästä juomalaulua Sinisten gallupkannatuksen kunniaksi. 😉 #sitsit pic.twitter.com/oYQtNxkFCm— Tiina Ahva (@TiinaPlz) February 1, 2018
The Finnish variety of "Black Peter" is known as "Tiernapoika" and is quite similar to the Dutch "Zvart Piet" tradition of Christmas celebration. Both are rooted in medieval nativity plays about the three wise man prophesying the birth of Jesus Christ, one of them being a Moor, hence dark-skinned.