Not Half Of Anything: Putting Race and Identity on the Map in Finland
“MY STORY IS NOT how passersby pull my eyelashes, touch my hair without asking or tell me how I look like almonds, coffee with milk or a mocha latte,” writes 35-year old Koko Hubara in her book Ruskeat Tytöt: Tunne-esseitä, or “Brown Girls: Essays of Feeling.” “I'm just there all the time, regardless of racism and whiteness."
A journalist, blogger and translator from Finland, Shirley Meital Hubara, popularly known as “Koko Hubara,” has made it her mission to defend the rights of people of color in Finland. Though she was born in the southern city of Vantaa in Finland, she grew up and lived all around the country’s capital of Helsinki.
Coming from a Jewish Yemenite-Finnish family, Koko’s parents always encouraged her to embrace her multifaceted identity. “When people ask me whether I’m half Jewish or half Finnish, I respond to them by telling them that I’m not half of anything, but a whole individual. People can choose their identity on their own terms,” she says in an interview with Migrant Tales, an online community which debates the issues of minorities in Finland. But with identity comes representation, and Koko found people of color were not adequately represented in Finnish media and culture. She felt she couldn’t relate to the country’s politics, culture and society without seeing more people like her featuring in them.
Irked by the lack of representation and tired of being mislabeled, she started a blog in 2017, called Ruskeat Tytöt (“Brown Girls”), in which she writes about her experiences. However, Ruskeat Tytöt is more than a support network for brown girls in a mostly white country. It has transformed into an award-winning online media community, which not only tells the stories of those Finns who suffer from racial profiling, but also celebrates their lives and voices. As mentioned earlier, Koko also published a collection of her personal essays. Apart from exploring racial identity and discrimination, the book also dives deep into topics like parenting, hip-hop, body positivity and gender.
The open space Koko created didn’t only resonate with Finland’s ethnic minorities, but also became popular with many of the white people in the country. “Before Koko, there weren’t many diverse writers in Finnish media. Ruskeat Tytöt has helped to make the invisible visible,” says Tuuli Räty, a Finnish expat who is currently living in Belgium. But Räty is apprehensive about the future of Ruskeat Tytöt: “Koko’s media platform is popular in my social circles. Even though it’s an example of a positive development in Finnish society, the rise of far-right parties in the country has increased hate-speech towards minorities and could serve as a backlash to media platforms like Ruskeat Tytöt,” she says.
Alemanji Aminkeng Atabong, a PhD student in racism and ethnic relations at the University of Helsinki, agrees. “It is romantic to think that there is any improvement with regard to racism in Finland. In fact, to think there is any improvement is a feel-good project. The victims feel powerless in the face of racism.” But Atabong asserts that online communities, such as Ruskeat Tytöt, are helping the Finnish people to reach a better understanding of racial issues in their country.
However, not all minorities in Finland agree with Koko's emphasis on skin color and identity. Before the 2019 Finnish parliamentary elections, Binga Tupamäki, a city councilor from Kauniainen, criticized Koko Hubara for the publication of a list of all the “brown candidates” one could vote for. “I ended up on the list because I am an Asian girl, who by her very existence is breaking the structures of white domination. Everyone has the same opportunities and rights, whether they are white or not,” she says on her personal blog. Tupamäki asked people not to vote for her because she is of Asian descent. “If Ruskeat Tytöt were genuinely opposed to racism, they would remove the list and promote Finland in a way in which my skin color is no excuse to enjoy unjustified benefits.”
Koko, however, is determined to make Finnish politics more representative. “We cannot permit ourselves to be non-aligned when we write about parliamentary elections, for example. We have to do the opposite and stand behind the brown MPs and support their journey towards representative democracy by all means,” she says in an article on Ruskeat Tytöt. “Even if it’s tough to be dark-skinned in a predominantly white country like Finland, together, we will find a way out of this mess.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue