I feel very good in Finland in general. I love life and the friends I’ve made here. I’m grateful to all opportunities I’ve had. But living here has felt more like living in the house of relatives or friends than like my own home. However, this feeling has been changing since July, when I got to know more black people and people of color who were born or have long lived here.
This sense of not fully belonging is not exclusive to life in Finland. I used to feel like this in Brazil too.
As many of you know (because I talk about it a lot), I’ve been a privileged black person in Brazil. I had a secure home with both parents present and employed; I had an extended family of relatives and friends helping me shape my character; I had the opportunity to study without the duty to quit school to help the household budget; I wasn’t a teenage parent… the list of privileges goes on.
The negative consequence of being a privileged black person is that privileges tend to drag you into a white world. Consequently, you either ‘act white’ or, worse, ‘become white’. By ‘acting white’ or ‘becoming white’ I mean adopting types of behavior, social manners, habits and explanations of things that are considered normal.
Some examples I experienced include having to dress and cut my hair in ways that I did not look like a delinquent (white kids don’t have that rule); I got more points if I showed interest in rock music rather than in ‘funk carioca’ or ‘pagode’ (types of local black music); I was a better person for being Christian than a member of afro-Brazilian religions… I had all these white features, to mention a few of many, already in my childhood.
In other words, in Brazil, the more you climb socially as a black person, the whiter you must be if you want to be accepted and respected. I had privileges since I was born (compared to my black-black neighbors and relatives). So, it would be correct to say that my process of becoming white started when I went to the local private school. That’s where I felt the pressure to behave in whiteness terms – and gradually give up blackness – for the first time. It never ended.
The shitty thing is that blackness will always be in you. I don’t mean that blackness is shitty, of course not. What I mean is that it is shitty when blackness is a fact in your life when you MUST act or become white for social rise and survival.
Even Michael Jackson, if you think about it. Despite his bank accounts, he was never white, but the ‘weird whitened black guy’. Still a nig***, like Jay Z sings in one of his new songs. I mean blackness not only as a matter of pigmentation, but of culture, heritage, family ties and shared history.
For a long time, I had to deal with the endless and extremely painful conflict between the black and the white in me. Being black, for a long time, was a curse. Becoming white was an impossible hope.
What happens when this happens? Hate. Self-hate. Misery. Why was I born like this? I asked this question uncountable times in different ways as I grew up. Why isn’t my hair straight like the surfers? Why ain’t I as cute and desired as the popular guy at school? The list goes on as you probably know if you have also been a black person in Whiteland.
How do you deal with it when it happens? Talking to someone, in many cases, is not an option. The more you climb social ladders in Brazil, the whiter the environment and the people around you get. Have you ever heard of white people having to deal with their own processes of having to act or become black? So, no empathy there unless you meet other black people who are willing to talk about it (not all are or care).
Therefore, my anger-loaded solution was, since childhood, to be better. In my angry head, I was competing all the time. You may be white, but my grades are better than yours. You may be white, but I speak English better than you. At some point as a teenager, being better also included the sexist/machista perception of ‘advantage’ in the hypersexualization of black male bodies. You may be white, but behind closed doors, it’s my body that gives pleasure to the women you dream of (I will leave a deeper reflection on this complex issue for another time).
At the same time, while growing up, the relationship with other black kids was not easy either. The whiter you act or become, the less legitimacy and respect you have among other black people. ‘Wussie’, ‘crybaby’ and ‘soft’ were some things I was called on the predominantly black street as a child. ‘He is like a white kid’, I heard every now and then. This often came with some kind of harassment or abuse: jokes, pushes, punches… as if they told me ‘you may be whiter than us, but we are stronger, street-smarter and better – in what matters to us – than you’.
As I grew up, still an adolescent, I realized that not only becoming white is impossible, but it is also stupid.
After realizing my stupidity and embracing my blackness, I realized how much more comfortable I was on the street – even with the bullying – than with the school kids. I realized that going to the predominantly black baile funk gave me a kind of satisfaction I never got in Rock and Electronic parties. Interestingly, the more I spent time with black people around me and I showed respect to our shared roots, the more they respected me. My ‘brothers’, up to this date, are predominantly black. The guys of different social classes with whom I sat for nights on the sidewalk trying to figure out our blackness listening to rap and samba together. Those were my first meaningful sociology classes.
However, the world outside my home and the street was still white. So, I learned to act white. I created some rules to myself to follow in the white environments I lived: don’t raise race questions so people are not mad or uncomfortable; be better always; use the acquired white skills to be able to keep friendly conversation with everyone.
Spontaneous, mask-free LIFE (to refer to Frantz Fanon’s book) happens at home, on the street, at the samba or baile funk… At all places in which my blackness is a shared factor of sociability. At work, at the university and other predominantly white spaces: PERFORMANCE. Mask on (again talking with Fanon, but in a more deliberate tactical way than he describes in Black Skin, White Masks).
To be clear: I am not talking about performance as building fake relationships. Like I said, in Finland and Brazil, I have a huge amount of true white friends. My wife, the love of my life, is white. I am referring to the unfortunate fact that being black in a white world has forced my sociability into a constant tactical process being aware of what my blackness means and how to behave so that my blackness does not become a problem.
If you are white, I don’t expect you to understand this. This has never been a game you had to play. This game applies to Brazil. This game applies to Finland. See? There are similarities between living in the two countries, at least if you are black.
And here I think I can go back to my original idea: how Finland has become more of a home after July when I started being more in touch with Finnish and Finnish-based people of color.
In July, I attended a conference in Tampere where – for the first time in my life – there seemed to be more black people and people of color than white people. From there, I have met black and brown academics, artists and activists. Meeting them has felt like it felt to me when I decided to embrace my blackness in Brazil.
Since then I have been reading and talking about how much of the experiences of acting and becoming white is a shared experience among people from so different contexts. Since then these encounters have made me feel the kind of joy I feel when I go to my hometown with my black friends. It feels that, 10 years later, I have found in Finland the complexities that allow me to feel at home here at last.