Failing forward: A discussion on anti-racism in Finland

Failing forward: A discussion on anti-racism in Finland



Date: 13 March 2024

This article captures the dynamic conversation on anti-racism featuring Monica Gathou (cultural producer and multidisciplinary researcher) and Antonia Atarah (actor and performer) on 20 February, as part of the GAP Peer-to-Peer Program (2023-2024). Through anecdotal exchanges, we explored actionable strategies, challenged institutional norms, and reflected on representation in the arts in Finland. From discussions on color-blind casting to reimagining audience outreach, our conversation highlights the ongoing journey of self-reflection and collective action in contributing to anti-racism.

Guests: Antonia Atarah (AA), Monica Gathou (MG)
Facilitators: Wena Ho (WH), Anna-Sofia Nylund (AN)
Participants: Participants of the GAP Peer-to-Peer Program (P)

Text: Wena Ho, Anna-Sofia Nylund

WH: To open the session and align our understanding, let’s first talk about what anti-racism means to both of you.

AA: It could be so broad. One thing that is very relevant for me currently, is the importance of actions. In school, they put up a lot of stickers saying “anti-racist”, “we are anti-racist”, but the question is, what are you actually doing that is anti-racist? Who is getting into the school? Who is welcome to apply? Who are the teachers? You can’t call it anti-racist if there is no action.

MG: When I talk about anti-racism, I talk about anti-discrimination in total, and anti-capitalism as well. It is more about dismantling the institutions that are built on racism and categorization of people. I also think knowledge in itself is very colonised. What is knowledge? What do we know and how do we know it? I agree with Antonia that it is about practice and process, to push against established institutions.

P: There seems to be an easy way to talk about anti-racism. It is that we must listen broadly and change broadly. This doesn’t seem sufficient. I wonder, what role does the element of class play in the discussion of anti-racism?

MG: This is a very relevant question. It is the question of our time. Often when you go do something, you bring people with you, and you end up pulling your friends, and that excludes the rest of the community.

AA: It is also about how we perceive art and who art is for – which are big questions for me. The notion of contemporary art seems to stem from neutral, but because of the institution the neutral is not so neutral. We have to dig deeper: what are the other neutrals? What are other ways of doing things? The question of representation is also important.

MG: I always think there is no neutral, because the experience binds the context. In Finland, people are taking more steps towards private fundings in art production. This brought up the question: who this money is taken from, to be able to fund certain work. 

AN: I am thinking in terms of audience outreach, it is also about capitalism, for example, who can afford to come see a show at Svenska Teatern (Swedish Theatre). 

AA: Exactly, in a production that I am in, I wanted to offer discounted tickets to BIPOC families, so people who have not thought about going to a theatre might come because it is much cheaper, so then it could be more ongoing for the future. But then the organizer had a problem about it from a legal perspective. I do believe you have to go the extra mile when this discussion has to be done. 

MG: We can also think about the concept of periphery, as the Swedish-speaking Finns are mostly in the west coast. Who is the real audience of Svenska Theatre? Are they even coming to the (Helsinki) city centre? Do they come here for other things, too? How do you reach out to them? That has to do with class as well for sure.

AN: Antonia, you have been involved in the practice of color-blind casting. Can you tell us more about it?

AA: Color-blind casting is the act of casting someone into a movie, a play or a piece, without thinking about their ethnicity, gender or sexuality etc. It shouldn’t matter for the role. So that there can be a broader representation of BIPOC people. It is especially important for fantasies, fictional characters, or characters that do not have a fixed ethnicity, gender or sexuality. For instance, the Little Mermaid, or like all the characters that when we close our eyes and think about we presume as white. That’s a common practice to diversify the cast. It brings a lot of good things, but I also question that, through color-blind casting, we also become a bit blind towards the structure that we are in.

MG: Yeah, like saying we hire them because of XYZ, but not because they are white. This is also something that they are trying in the municipality of Helsinki, it’s called anonymous recruiting. But it is not really anonymous. Even if you remove someone’s name, you see on their CV the university of a certain place, then you are like, sure, this can be anyone. 

P: I also think about who certain stories are created for. When I think about queer people, I can imagine it is also upsetting for a queer person to see queer oppression. Or, a Black person to see slavery being portrayed over and over again. 

AA: I feel oppression pieces are usually created for a white audience to think about what’s wrong. When we talk about representation, there are also many things to think about. Is that role the main character? What does the person do? If you don’t do research about it or diversify it, then what you do also becomes a narrow representation. The nice thing about identity-conscious casting is that it brings a broader point of view, there is more thinking about research through the performer, and race is not the only part of your identity – what makes you a person? There are always small details.

MG: Going back to the arts in general, we should also think about who are the artists that are allowed to tell certain stories. Contemporary art has a lot to do with identity and personal experiences, but at the same time there are intersections. Are we presenting the whole experience of the intersection that other people have as well? Because when you bring an artist into a gallery or a museum, you are only portraying it from one perspective, unless it is curated in a way that allows discussion with other artists and provides other entry points.

P: You mentioned how race and ethnicity can have different effects in storytelling, for example in fantasies and fairy tales. It has caused some controversies when they changed the race of characters, like in Little Mermaid and Rings of Power. What are your opinions on this practice of race swap?

MG: I think it is interesting that we think there should be a specific race for these characters, like an elf has to be white. This has to do with the idea of “White is good, Black is bad”, so in the fantasies it plays out who is the good one and who is the bad one. But it is interesting how people have such strong feelings about it. Why do we … I mean, she is half fish, does that not bother you? Why are we bothered that she is Black? How do we engage with fantasies being fantasies, being productions of pure imagination?

AA: It is a form of possessiveness. What are the rules when it comes to fiction? It seems like it is ok to swap things for mythical creatures, but when it comes to things that we can relate to in our lives, it is a straight “no”, it has to be a certain point of view. 

MG: We are so conditioned to thinking that a specific color, feature or behaviour, is always representing non-white. The white is always the neutral, the starting point. We need to get rid of that in the institutions and system. We need to rethink our whole world and realize that this is not the truth.

WH: Throughout our discussion we have spoken a lot about identity, knowing who we are and getting rid of biases. This is profoundly rooted in self-reflection. I have been reading the work of Ibram X. Kendi, an influential scholar in anti-racism, who said, “the heartbeat of racism is denial, and the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession”. “Racist” and “anti-racist” are not fixed identities, you can say one thing racist today and have an anti-racist reflection tomorrow. Being anti-racist is about acknowledging our biases, constantly reflecting on them and thinking how we can do better. Perhaps as a final note, we can reflect on what is something that individuals can practise on a daily basis, which in turn contributes to what and who we bring to a group or community, including the way we think, speak and act. 

P: Some said that as a white person, you can never suffer from racism that BIPOC experience. But you can also notice how as a person you would like things to change for people in a similar situation like you. Listening to all the problems, it makes you also want change in the society and be a part of it.  

MG: You can certainly relate to experiences when you feel exclusion and violence. When we talk about privileges, a lot of people say they can’t do anything. But you have to think about what you can do, because of being you, rather than someone who is not you. So now you have a whole list of things that you can say and do. I encourage people to always learn about themselves. I have my flaws and am grateful for people who point them out. When I was doing research on able-bodiedness, I had a conversation with my friend in which I kept saying “that’s not a good word to use”. A good personal reflection is, if that is not a great word, why would I use that word to describe anyone or anything? We are really coded into creating distance between people.

AA: It is also about failing forward. If you fail, it doesn’t mean that you have to stop then, but it’s actually your time to think forward: why do I think like this? What can I do better next time? It is a continuous wheel.


Antonia Atarah
Antonia Atarah is a Ghanian-Finnish actor and performer who has in addition completed courses in musical theatre studies. With her multidisciplinary background she has curiously varied between different performing art forms, practices and groups in Finland, Germany and Ghana. In autumn 2023 onwards she will be employed for a year with Svenska teatern and touring with a performance by choreographer Sonya Lindfors. Atarah believes strongly in collective work aims to broaden the perception and task of “the actor” by finding diversity within that role. She is interested in black body politics and decolonisation in art forms. She aims to create formats that would favor and promote BIPOC identity and creativy.

Monica Gathuo
Monica Gathuo is a cultural producer, a multidisciplinary researcher of digital media usage of BIPOC women in Finland, produces minidocumentaries, music videos and her writing can be found in various publications. She is currently located in Helsinki, Finland, but operates in an international framework. Gathuo collaborates with Black lead grassroots organisations and supports initiatives led by BIPOC youth. Gathuo also works with institutions and educates antiracist work methods. 


Wena Ho
Wena aspires to be an empathetic museum educator. Her interests revolve around participation and human connection among the versatile contemporary art practices. Having worked as an art researcher and educator at K11 Art Foundation, she has curated educational programs for various social groups and developed learning materials, in collaboration with creatives and institutions in Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, London and more. She received her Master’s in Education in Finland. She finds joy in connecting with open-minded, like-hearted people and indulging in conversation that inspires. She is the founding facilitator of the GAP Peer-to-Peer Program. 

Anna-Sofia Nylund
Anna-Sofia Nylund has a background in media and documentary film (Arcada 2011). She finished her Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Fine Arts’ Helsinkis Time and Space department 2023. She works mainly with moving images and is operating between live performance and experimental film.


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