How do black women make their voices heard in Finland and Brazil? This was the subject under discussion at the Breakfast Well in the Lauttasaari Manor on a sunny winter morning last Thursday (21 February). Participating in the discussion were the first resident of Lauttasaari Manor, journalist, activist and filmmaker Silvana Bahia, as well as the founders of the Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance (ARMA), journalist Monica Gathuo, and researcher Leonardo Custódio.
The discussion began with speculation on the source of black women’s growing empowerment. Does the rise in right-wing extremist ideologies activate minorities to take space for themselves, or are racialised people simply tired of the situation they are in and therefore ready to take matters in their own hands? According to Monica Gathuo, both are true: the events are driven by a chain reaction where extremist thinkers voice their opinions, which makes minorities fight harder for their rights, which in turn gives right-wing extremists renewed impetus for driving their agenda…
In her opening speech, Gathuo said the dilemma in Finland resembles that of the egg or the chicken. It’s difficult to say what has caused this spiral or where it originates. However, rather than thinking about it, what is important is for minorities to come out of hiding and to take space for themselves – especially since there have been so many black women behind major social movements, unknown to most people. If people remain passive in the face of the challenge, the battle for equality has already been lost.
According to Silvana Bahia, more than half of the population of Brazil is black or racialised, even though the media mainly paints a picture of light-skinned Brazilians. There has always been a movement of black people in the country, but documenting on it has been neglected. Communication and information technologies have brought people belonging to this majority in Brazil together and made them aware of each other and about the power of working together. However, this is a new kind of development in the country and consequently still in its infancy.
The work carried out by racialised people for human rights is not new in Finland either. Romany and Sami communities have built a foundation for other minorities in the country to base their achievements on.
Younger generations have re-defined their ethnic identities and the significance of these identities both here and in the rest of the world. New technology has helped a great deal, especially social media. In Brazil, it has created significant activity that is bringing generations together. As an example, Silvana described how her mother has learned to accept her Afro now that the Natural Hair Movement¹ has changed people’s hair identities globally.
One of the most important indicators of change is self-esteem. Bahia and Gathuo, like many other racialised persons, have felt that they were somehow wrong as themselves because that is what their environment implied. Bahia feels that the importance of self-esteem is not emphasised enough, even though its impact on the individual and, consequently, the individual’s ability to interact with society, is great.
Leonardo Custódio said he had noticed that there is heated debate in both Brazil and Finland about hair, why all types of hair are not taken into account in the product ranges on offer and why people feel they have the right to touch racialised people’s hair.
While eating our breakfast porridge, we watched the trailer for Brazilian Yasmin Thayná’s film Kbela, which raised more thoughts on the subject. Bahia and Gathuo also emphasised the importance of hair because the appearance of people with an African background, in particular, is often viewed in a discriminatory and stereotyped way. It’s easy to see the Natural Hair Movement¹ merely as an inclusive and empowering phenomenon and to ignore the colourism² occurring within the communities of black and/or racialised people. It’s much more difficult to steer the movement in a direction that would offer real representation to everyone.
Like Bahia and Gathuo, I too have noticed how times have changed. There are still a great many unresolved issues related to racism and immigration policy in Finland too, which is why we must not let the progress end here. However, even in the last ten years, the general climate has become more inclusive and culturally sensitive with the help of globalisation, of course. I believe the positive development in Finland is due to the fact that things are being talked about and people really try to take each other into account.
In Brazil, the roots of these problems are deeper. Although on paper everyone has the right to public services, various forms of structural racism in practice prevent people’s access, for example, to universities, and consequently to higher-ranking professional posts. Through technology, Silvana Bahia’s Pretalab project strives to provide black women with new tools for finding their place and being heard in society.
From the perspective of a young African-Finnish person like myself, it was refreshing to learn about new approaches to a subject that doesn’t depend on geographical location and to discover how deeply a Finn and a Brazilian can identify with each other. What is personal is also universal.
¹The global Natural hair Movement is focused on curly and Afro hair and its purpose is to encourage people not to change the texture of their hair and instead to learn to take care of it.
²Colourism is prejudice and discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone within communities consisting of ethnic minorities.