Greetings from Finland! What an awesome trip it’s been so far. Finland is really quite lovely. My mother and I’ve have figured out the public transit system, ventured to Tallinn, Estonia, and tried very hard to learn a few Finnish words. I gotta say the language is different than anything I’ve ever heard, and I thought I’d really heard a lot. I’m not a neophyte traveler, but I have been this far north east in Europe. It’s definitely worth the trip, but the language is not an easy one to pick up. That said, the people have been very nice and generally a accommodating.
But then there is the gaze.
I mean, in the US, we talk about the White Gaze a lot in terms of race. I’m not going to go into a full on explanation about White Gaze here. In a nutshell, the white gaze is white privilege and supremacy on full on display in such a manner that everything not white is wholly defined as and by its non-whiteness. Everything and everyone else is other.
As a black woman in America, I often feel subjected to this gaze, sometimes at work, sometimes when shopping, at church—where it’s diverse almost more so because Hope and I show up sometimes—at the condo board meeting…you know; it can just happen anywhere. But that particular form of white gaze, the American tradition of white gaze, I’m used to, if not annoyed by.
My usual experience of traveling abroad involves white gaze, but usually a kinder, gentler gaze. In some countries, my experience with the gaze has been more exocticized—the affluent black American who likes to travel. I get hit on a lot, and bevies have been known to be sent from the other end of the bar with a raised glass, a wink and compliment.
But Finland. Oh Finland. This white gaze is so damn strong.
My very being is other here.
So Finland is super homogenous—Finnish folk, Swedish folk, Russian folk, Roma folk (who are admittedly a little more tan than the others, but still…white) and a really small smattering of Asian and north African immigrant folk. So, it’s like whiter than your average white. It’s seriously Clorox white here. Now Helsinki is a very cosmopolitan city with lots of tourists and a huge convention center, so there are lots of folks coming through here. That said, I’m guessing that your average Fin can go a long damn time without seeing someone like me anywhere around other than on a tv or movie screen. So, to see me on the street? Well that’s just an anomaly of huge proportions.
Apparently, I’m like a leprechaun, but I’m not sure that I bring good luck. In fact the overt clutching and moving of some purses suggest that mayhaps I do not bring luck at all.
I saw a child walk into a door while staring at me. Ok, I’ll give the kid a break, but the grown women and men who openly gape. Ugh.
Immigration control acted like someone like me shouldn’t or maybe couldn’t possibly be attending an international education meeting. The limo driver acted as though he were mute the 20 minute drive to my hotel, prompting my mother to tell me to give him a big tip to prove that we black folks know how to act. (It was he who needed a lesson in how to act.)The least he deserved was a tip, and it annoyed the hell out of me to give him that cash after he ignored us. But that’s what we do—people of color are always trying to prove belong in a world that was not intended for us.
Things have eased up in the last couple of days. Our trip to Estonia was lovely, with low levels of gaze. Either the gaze was so low key it wasn’t bothersome or the engagement felt so genuine that it was easy to answer questions and to share how we ended up shopping in the town square. During our ferry ride, I decided to meet white gaze with black gaze for the rest of the trip. Open air, direct eye contact lessens the gaze. It makes folks aware that they are staring. It reverses the issues of comfort. It triggers the acknowledgement that being defined and subjected to another’s gaze doesn’t feel all that great.
For me it allows me to take some of my comfort and my power back. It allows me to resist being a curiosity, no matter how innocently.
No, I don’t think any of this behavior is intrinsically malicious, and the Finns are, apparently, known for being reserved. But the behavior does inherently reinforce a system of white supremacy that I openly resist.
With every person of color, especially black folks, we exchange a small smile and the universal nod of acknowledgement. There is no gaze, but there is acknowledgement. It feels nice.
I am not sure how Hope would cope with this experience. I know she doesn’t like to be gazed upon. I know she sometimes struggles with finding her own beauty in her brown skin. Because she lives with me, understands what I do and is exposed to things designed to embrace her blackness, I think like me, she might be hyper aware of her being a novelty in this setting. In some ways, I am sad about that for both of us—It’s like James Baldwin suggested that to be black and to be conscious of your blackness is to be aware and reactive all the time.
It is exhausting. I kind of wish we were sometimes ignorant about what it is to wear this skin and to be this person. But that’s not even a realistic desire.
My mother, having grown up in a different era also is hyper aware of the gaze we have experienced on this trip. She seems to experience a wider range of emotions: disappointment, sadness, anger, frustration and fear. She chastised me about meeting the white gaze with a black one. She worried that it might trigger “them.” She doesn’t like it when they are triggered. She was raised in an era where knowing your place and choosing forms of resistance were the difference between literal life and death. I don’t pretend to know what that kind of emotional confinement feels like. But I see it in her; I hear her when she talks about how things are returning to how that period felt for her so many years ago.
I don’t mean to make this trip sound miserable. It is far from it. It has been a grand experience and experiment. Most of the people we have met are kind. We have shopped. We’ve ventured to places that weren’t even on our bucket list. We are wiser from our time here.
We have a day left in Helsinki before we head back to the states. After a week under the glare of this gaze, I will be happy to return to the gaze I know. It still sucks, but I know it. I’ve studied it. I get it. I know how to push back on it.
I know this because…it’s home.
August 30th, 2017 at 8:48 pm
Having been to Finland for academics, I have to admit I even felt the gaze as a Caucasian with brown hair!! To this day I still talk about the feeling of being an outsider when I was in Finland! If I recall correctly they have the lowest immigration rate of all the European countries which has helped keep the stereotypical Finish/Scandinavian appearance almost overwhelming. And yet, when I went to Sweden (stop 2 on my trip) I discovered they have one of the higher immigration rates and therefore a very diverse population. I was so surprised after my experience in Finland. Anyways, I know my experience would be nothing like yours, but I thought I’d share anyways.
August 31st, 2017 at 12:29 am
The people are very reserved, and yes hardly any immigration. I imagine it probably does feel like what I have experienced. Next year’s meeting is in Switzerland, hopefully a but more welcoming.