After a brief layover in Stockholm, my sister and I boarded a plane to Helsinki. I had won a creative residency to Helsinki and was allowed a guest. We were the only black people on the plane—something that did not surprise me and I was prepared for—but I did not expect two of the flight attendants to grab my hair upon entering the plane.
"Your hair!" they shouted as I lugged my backpack on board.
By that time, I was used to comments about my hair. Two months prior, I added crochet dreadlocks to my hair as a protective style from the harsh, bitter Chicago winter. It didn't make sense to remove the dreadlocks before my trip to an even colder country.
The flight attendants grabbed my skull, but I was able to maneuver around them, bobbing and weaving my head as if in a boxing match. In Chicago, I was used to comments of praise. After years of women speaking out and objecting to this treatment, most in my home city and country know not to touch a black woman's hair. But according to Statistics Finland (the national statistical institution of Finland), the population of African descent in the country was just under 43,000 in 2015. I realized I might be more of an exotic creature than I anticipated.
My brief, uncomfortable experience on the plane was no match for the everyday lived experiences of the black and brown women I met during and after my time in Finland. My encounter, while annoying, is what many women of color who have grown up in Finland continue to face.
"It's a crazy experience to grow up in a white country where the white people don't even realize they are white and what kinds of privileges it gives them," said Koko Hubara, founder and editor-in-chief of Ruskeat Tytöt (which translates to "Brown Girls"). The lifestyle website describes itself as the first site for brown people and by brown people in Finland. "The conversation on the implications of whiteness [in Finland] is only beginning now, very slowly," she said.
Although Scandinavia, and Finland in particular, conjures images of pale skin and long blonde hair, a new generation of black and brown Scandinavian women are working to make their very real lived experiences a part of the cultural narrative. Hubara, for example, was born and raised in the small country, though she was often treated as an outsider, an experience that prompted her to launch her site.
The children of immigrants born in Finland are not automatically given citizenship, like in America. They are only given Finnish citizenship if they cannot obtain citizenship anywhere else. "Very few people get to be Finnish and people like myself—born and raised here—are treated as foreigners," Hubara said.
What does it mean to be a brown body in a land of white snow? Despite its idealized progressive politics and culture, Finland lacks representational media for women of color and is far behind countries like the United States, a place that already severely underrepresents its black and brown populations.
Ruskeat Tytöt began as a personal blog on Valentine's Day 2015 after Hubara woke up alone with a "horrible hangover" and did not sleep over at "some random dude's house." "I was laying in bed and decided on a whim to create a safe space for public discourse by a person of color for people of color," Hubara said.
She described her experiences growing up in Finland as a woman of color as complicated. Hubara grew up as the only brown kid in her working class neighborhood. Her childhood home was filled with different languages and cultures, but the outside world was a different story. "None of the families in kids' books were like mine, very few kids looked like me, and if they did, it was always some religious Christian story about homeless orphans in Kolkata or some such," she said. "I found it very confusing."
Misrepresentation—or a lack of representation entirely—creates a difficult environment for women of color to navigate. It reminds me of the experiences I faced entering and leaving Finland. Upon my arrival, my dreadlocks were a source of slightly dehumanizing fascination; something Hubara understands. "I am the most ordinary, boring, chubby girl with glasses and messy hair and allergies and an affinity to romantic comedies and it's weird when people tell me I look like Beyonce or Ashanti or Aaliyah or Jasmine from Aladdin because those are literally the only representations they've seen in media," she said.
The exoticization can turn negative in an instant. While returning to Chicago and navigating the Helsinki airport, my visibly black hairstyle became a source of contention. Just days after a terrorist attack in Stockholm, where my sister and I were flying for our connecting flight to Chicago, I was pulled aside and questioned for things in my carry-on bag that were not an issue when I arrived. I went from being exoticized to being criminalized.
Hubara said many women of color also face sexualized violence due to the warped representations of WOC in her country. "Many WOC experience sexual harassment or sexual violence that's deeply rooted in white men's assumptions of what WOC are like sexually and physically and these assumptions come a lot from media representations," she explained.
She credits her father with finally introducing her to culture featuring a diverse array of people of color. "My dad introduced me to the concepts of history, memories, colonization and also African-American literature when I was really small, so I think that has played a big part in how I became a writer," Hubara said. "I always had this dream to just make something similar to what I had seen in Essence or Ebony magazines, but from my point of view."
In 2016, Hubara decided to expand Ruskeat Tytöt into a full-fledged media site with the help of her friends, visual artist Caroline Suinner and fashion designer Ervin Latimer. Hubara sells Latimer's designs online and uses the profits to pay the journalists and photographers who contribute to the site. The new site launched three months ago.
With Ruskeat Tytöt, Hubara aims to create a vocabulary that discusses issues such as systemic racism, sexual violence, and the intersections of race, gender and class. "A lot of the people we work with create content that deals with this absurd space or trauma, if you will, of not being seen as human or as a Finnish person in your own country," Hubara explained. "We also just create content in which we try to normalize POC bodies and show them doing normal things."
She also wanted to write about less weighty issues, including books, movies, beauty, and the sort of "funny, everyday occurrences," that are missing from public narratives. "Before we opened the Ruskeat Tytöt website," Hubara began, "there had never been one article in a Finnish magazine or any online content in the Finnish language that dealt with afro hair or brown skin makeup."
Before we opened the Ruskeat Tytöt website, there had never been one article in a Finnish magazine or any online content in the Finnish language that dealt with afro hair or brown skin makeup.
Recent features include an interview with American artist Theaster Gates, a three-part "Brown Girls Guide to Ethiopia," a story on arab designer Hafsa Lodi, and a review of Zadie Smith's Swing Time. The site also includes a regular feature, "Model Citizen," highlighting everyday women of color in Finland like Yilin, a 21-year-old art history major at the University of Turku. Although the site focuses on millennial and Gen X women of color in Finland, it also garners attention from white parents of children of color, who Hubara describes as "desperate for answers concerning how to deal with issues their kids may face," and white readers interested in feature stories on people typically not seen in Finnish media.
Although there is a lot for Hubara to feature on the site, she still refers to established outlets and countries to help build the tone and language. Finland borders or is near Russia, Estonia, and Sweden. Only the latter country offers insight on more expansive representation in the Scandinavian world. "They are far ahead of us," Hubara said. "They have politicians of color, journalists and authors of color, and influencers in general. Immigration in Sweden is an older phenomenon so there are more people and more language."
Hubara and Ruskeat Tytöt stand at the forefront in expanding black and brown representation in Finnish culture. She attributes the journalists of Ruskeat Tytöt along with public intellectuals like writer Maryan Abdulkarim and artistic director/choreographer Sonya Lindfors as leading the conversation. "It is something that's constantly belittled by mainstream media and framed as "getting upset" or "being sensitive," Hubara said. "We've tried to have conversations on cultural appropriation in Finnish arts or sexism/racism in Finnish hip-hop, which is predominantly white, but the backlash was pretty tremendous. Not that it's stopping us."
A certain level of black female American burden was lifted from my shoulders while I was in Finland. I am based in one of the most racist cities in the United States. For six years, I have lived in a neighborhood where my presence is always in question. My time in Finland was pleasant because I didn't have to think about any of that. I was only a black body in a white space for a temporary amount of time. I knew that despite my disdain for Chicago, I would be returning to a strong community of black and brown creatives and that whatever strangeness I might've felt would soon come to pass. Hubara and Ruskeat Tytöt remind me that not all black women lead the same lives and that, most importantly, our lived experiences shape how we see and navigate a world that refuses to appreciate us. "Representations are building blocks for dreams," said Hubara. "Really, for seeing yourself for who you are and who you could be."