January 1999                   

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Multiple identities in a multi-cultural society

His father was from Trinidad. His mother is Finnish. He also has Chinese and Scottish ancestry. He grew up in London where he later married a woman from Guyana. He describes himself as a Finnish nationalist. His daughters describe themselves as English.

These multiple identities are the life story of Michael Hutchinson-Reis. He gave an interesting account of his and his family’s identity paradoxes in a seminar on Multiple Identities in a Multi-Cultural Society, held at the Finnish Institute in January 1999.

Being the only black kid in his London school, Hutchinson-Reis had early experiences of racial abuse and also an understanding of his visibility as a representative of a minority race. This was brought home to him by an elderly black man who once reprimanded him on a tube train for misbehaving. "Don’t ever forget that you are a son of a black man", the stranger said. "That man is still behind me every time I misbehave", Michael laughed.

In his frequent lecture tours in Finland on social work, multi-culturalism and anti-racism, Michael – or Mikko as his Finnish friends know him – likes to tease his audiences about paradoxes of nationality and nationhood. They tend to answer negatively his question whether he is Finnish, the ultimate argument being that he holds a British passport. Yet, as he likes to remind his listeners, he speaks Finnish and his mother’s family has lived in Porvoo, Southern Finland, for 300 years. So why couldn’t he be described as Finnish? His audience seemed to have no problem in describing a recent Miss Finland as Finnish although she is half Nigerian.

Michael believes that Finland is changing rapidly. Younger generations are becoming more internationalist. Their nationalistic feelings aren’t as strong as his own.

"If I take away the notion of nationalism from my identity, where does that leave me?" Michael asked. "It leaves me with a document in my pocket saying that I am British.

Hutchinson-Reis told about his efforts to ‘indoctrinate’ his children with the history of Finland and Guyana, the history of slavery and other aspects of black culture. The daughters are being sent to Finnish classes. But they describe themselves as English.

For Michael this was initially a shock because Englishness in his mind was connected with imperialism, slavery and other negative connotations. But he understood that for his daughters being English simply referred to the country they are living in. To them the accounts of the problematic history of black people don’t seem relevant any more. "I’m fighting a losing battle", Hutchinson-Reis concluded.

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