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4 Things That A White Girl Can Learn From Ruskeat Tytöt, by Koko Hubara

Koko Hubara is a journalist and founder and editor-in-chief of Ruskeat Tytöt (brown girls), ‘the first ever media for brown people by brown people in the history of Finland’. Her book, based partially on her blog texts, contains essays on what it’s like to be a brown girl in Finland. It’s personal, political and above all, as the name implies, a love letter to all the brown Finnish girls out there.

These are some of the things that Hubara’s book taught me, a white Finnish girl.

 

1. The prevalence of racism

If you’re white, like me, the world of racism is largely hidden from you. You might have seen people on the metro shouting racial slurs, or seen racist comments on the internet, but you yourself have not experienced the kind of recurring, daily, weekly, or monthly racism that pervades the lives of people who are not white. To this, must be added the constant questioning of brown and black people’s belonging to Finland, where many, like Hubara, were born, or have lived their entire lives. Of course I knew that racism existed, of course I knew that people whose name doesn’t end in –nen, or who have a darker skin are discriminated against in this society. But reading someone’s personal experiences just hits you in a way that statistics or news reports don’t. It probably shouldn’t be like this, but it is.

2. Awareness of my own privileges

As a white person, I’m benefiting from the kind of system where being white is normalized, where being white is the norm, and anything that isn’t white is a ‘deviation’ from this norm. This is the case, whether or not I approve of the system, whether or not I think that it is just. For the record, I don’t. My disapproval doesn’t liberate me from the unequal advantage that this system accords me, even though I myself try to live my life so as to treat everyone equally and to become a better person. By admitting that I am being privileged by structures in society is the first step towards contributing to building a country where people’s skin color, ethnicity or religion does not prevent them from reaching their full potential. I might not like the status quo, but I’m involved regardless of that.

This is also one of the most unpleasant things that I learned. It’s not nice to admit to yourself that you’re benefiting from a system built on centuries of oppression, violence – both physical and cultural – that still shapes our world today. But it’s the least I can do if I want to take part in the building of a better world. Like Hubara says, it’s hard to see the system in which you live and benefit from. And it’s easy to ease your bad conscience by telling yourself that things are not really that bad, when in reality you need to consciously educate yourself to become aware of the extent of the problems that are part of the system. Like Hubara, who is aware of her privileges – we are all privileged one way or another – and lists them, writes them down, so must I as a white person. She describes how it’s okay to feel ‘disgusted’ and ‘confused’ when realizing that you’ve been complicit in a system of oppression, but it’s not enough to just feel. What is then needed is action, learning more, and being willing to and able to contribute to change. Like Hubara puts it: ‘Watching difficult things square in the eye is the start, after which the real work begins’.

 

3. The importance of representation

Hubara emphasizes her experience of not being able to relate to the people that populate the Finnish media, literature and music. I find this to be a crucial lesson, because it’s hard to be aware of the importance of representation if you’re a white girl, living in a white country. The lack of representation is, simply put, the lack of people who look like you doing things, all sorts of things, normal things in society. Sounds simple, right? There are thousands of brown girls in Finland, yet how often do you see brown people represented in Finnish movies, in Finnish politics, in Finnish books, in Finnish plays? Not often, despite the fact that in reality, there are brown people, and brown girls, being doctors, council representatives, writers, designers, waiters, nurses and doing everything that white people also do. As someone who’s always been able to find white women characters to relate to on TV and in movies – albeit not always realistic, often constructed more to correspond to male fantasies about how women ought to be than how women actually are – it can be really hard to understand how dull and downright psychologically damaging it is when you’re not given the chance to imagine yourself in the shoes of a lawyer, or an actor or a politician. It deprives you of the chance to imagine that one day you could do all those things that you see people like you doing. Moreover, Hubara argues that the erasure of people who look like you from the pages of magazines, adds, commercials and society at large makes it seem like you can’t really exist in this society. Like Hubara puts it, it makes you invisible. It’s important to be aware of this, just as it’s important for men to be aware of just how frustrating it is when women are portrayed in a one-sided and stereotypical way in popular culture. Being represented in books for instance, in Hubara’s words, is something that allows you to ‘hold on to something so as to be able to exist’.

4. That we don’t talk enough about whiteness

Or that we’re not really even aware of it. This is because being white is the norm, it’s the yardstick against which everything else is measured. Whiteness contains, in addition to skin color, ideas, non-material things that are used to define the worth of other colors, cultures, ways of expressing yourself in popular culture, and a host of other things. Hubara does a great job in exposing how whiteness is invisible, because it’s omnipresent, so deeply embedded in our cultures and societies – and through colonization even in cultures and societies where the majority of people are not white – that we here don’t see it. And that’s problematic, since it pervades our societies to such an extent and pretends to be neutral and value-free. But is it really neutral and value-free? The more I look around myself in society, the more I think about what is considered neutral, the clearer it is that this is not the case. We should problematize our whiteness and the connotations that it has and how it’s being used to discriminate against non-white people and to erase those who do not match the arbitrary ‘standards’ born as a result of centuries of inequalities. When reading this book I learnt that whiteness functions largely the same way as patriarchy, which presents (white) male as the norm and by extension, the very definition of human being, while women and non-white men are women before being people, non-white before being people. Whiteness does the same, by presenting white as the norm, and by making anything else negatively visible against it. It is not neutral, it is power that has normalized itself through history and practice.  

This book exposes the things that remain hidden from you if you’re a white person. The book enables you to become aware, and thus be able to criticize the structures that are present in our society. It is an intellectually challenging, but at the same time a rewarding experience to look into what you are not used to seeing.  

 

This article is based on Koko Hubara’s book Ruskeat Tytöt (Like Kustannus Oy: Helsinki 2017). The book is written in Finnish, translations in direct quotations are my own.

You can read Ruskeat Tytöt online here (mainly in Finnish).

Photo of Hubara by Toni Härkönen (from http://like.fi/kirjailijat/koko-hubara/). 

A 28-year-old Global Politics major and former Campus Correspondent. International and national politics, current affairs, feminism, and societal and political issues fascinate me. Other than dreaming of one day travelling the whole world, I drink loads of cappuccino, eat too many cakes, and try to find the time to read more books. My guilty pleasure: American Late Night Shows.
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