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Are Finns White?


This issue came up in the comments to a post from earlier in the week. Before you answer that question with the obvious no, note that this was a real issue in American history.

John Svan was a Finnish immigrant to the United States. He came to this country sometime before 1882. But he was not considered white by the United States government. Why? He carried with him the blood of his “Mongolian” ancestors. This meant he could not become a citizen. Various laws were passed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, restricting US citizenship to those of the white and black races. These laws were intended to discriminate against Asians, but what about Finns. Were they white? The Finns were not helped in these discussions by their reputation for political radicalism, which also led people to question their whiteness. Finns were much more likely than most groups to join socialist or anarchist groups and played major roles in many labor struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is from the 1908 court decision deciding that, in fact, Finns are white.

John Svan was born in Finland and calls himself a Finn…According to the ethnologists, the Finns in very remote times were of Mongol origin; but the various groupings of the human race into families is arbitrary and, as respects any particular people, is not permanent but is subject to change and modification through the influences of climate, employment, intermarriage and other causes. There are indications that central and western Europe was at one time overrun by the Finns; some of their stock remained, but their racial characteristics were entirely lost in their remote descendants, who now are in no danger of being classed as Mongols. The Osmanlis, said to be of Mongol extraction, are not among the purest and best types of the Caucasian race. Changes are constantly going on and those occurring in the lapse of a few hundred years with any people may be very great.

The chief physical characteristics of the Mongolians are as follows: They are short of stature, with little hair on their body an face; they have yellow-brown skins, black eyes, black hair, short, flat noses, and oblique eyes. In actual experience we sometimes, though rarely, see natives of Finland whose eyes are slightly oblique. We sometimes see them sparse beards and sometimes with flat noses; but Finns with a yellow or brown or yellow-brown skin or with black eyes or black hair would be an unusual sight. They are almost universally of light skin, blue or gray eyes, and light hair. No people of foreign births applying in this section of the country for the full rights of citizenship are lighter-skinned than those born in Finland. In stature they are quite up to the average. Confessedly, Finland has often been overrun with Teutons and by other branches of the human family, who, with their descendants, have remained within her borders and are now called Finns. They are in the main indistinguishable in their physical characteristics from those of purer Finnish blood. Intermarriages have been frequent over a very long period of time. If the Finns were originally Mongols, modifying influences have continued until they are now among the whitest people in Europe. It would, therefore, require a most exhaustive tracing of family history to determine whether any particular individual born in Finland had or had not a remote Mongol ancestry. This, of course, cannot be done and was not intended. The question is not whether a person had or had not such ancestry, but whether he is now a “white person” within the meaning of that term as usually understood. This is the practical construction which has uniformly been placed upon the law….Under such law Finns have always been admitted to citizenship, and there is no occasion now to change the construction.

The applicant is without doubt a white person within the true intent and meaning of such law.

The objections, therefore, in my opinion should be overruled and it will be so ordered.

Thus, the Finns were now white.

I don’t actually know a whole lot about this case and in fact took this from a textbook which used it as an example of the weirdness of whiteness during these years.

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