Essay / 18 August 2021

Kick the Pretty

Meghan and Me

Authors of the Week: Finland

In March 2021, as the pandemic roared, I looked at Meghan Markle's tearful eyes on my computer screen and thought: I feel you, Meg.  

I understand Meghan. I understand all those who hope that racist discrimination would disappear from the world. Maybe it is utopia, but hey, let me and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, dream at least.

From my point of view, Meghan, a former actress and an American member of the British royal family, lives on the other side of the Atlantic, while I live on both sides of the Gulf of Finland. I do not know how it is to live in the States. I do not know what it is like to be black. I went to New York once, and it was a terrible trip. I cried during the whole holiday for my longing for a utopian place called Europe. I had either been dragged or seduced into a trip, even though I had not wanted to step outside Europe's borders. I missed the land, named after the Greek Queen called Europe, which has always appeared to me as a clearly bordered continent with a clear starting point.

According to a myth, and no one knows whether it is true or not, Zeus robbed Europe by transforming himself into a white tame bull. Europe caressed the bull, and got on his back. Zeus, who was bullish, then left at full gallop and thus snatched Europe away from her loved ones and the flower meadow, where she was collecting flowers with her friends. On the island of Crete, Zeus exposed himself in a Harvey Weinstein style, I guess. The legend tells that Zeus either seduced or raped Europe, resulting in Europe giving birth to three sons. The legend of Europe does not say whether it was a seduction or rape; in Greek mythology, these two are kind of the same thing. Anyway, that is where I come from, the continent where Europe was either seduced or raped. 

I am fond of the story of Europe. It is a part of me. I am a modern Saami woman who needs mythologies to keep her head together. All this flooded my mind as I watched the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. I stood in New York Harbor on a cloudy day, to see if my Europe was visible somewhere behind the statue. The defiant, goddam Statue of Liberty blocked my sight. Somewhere there, behind the polluted fog and clouds was a home called Finland. If only I would get there, I would be happy again.

I did get back, but my Finland bliss later got a crack. It was only in my adult life when I understood how my people and I are a thorn in Finland's flesh, even though I have caressed so much of that flesh.

It is difficult to believe that Finnish racism exists if one has not experienced it personally, seen it, felt it. It is also difficult to discuss it without being subjected to it. I have not yet found a way to discuss racist harassment with people – who personally do not believe in the existence of racism – without them getting offended. Paradoxical, right?

If I were wise, I would write some explanation for what racism is here, because sometimes I get the feeling that not everyone seems to know what it means. I could refer here to a well-known Latin American or French philosopher who has studied the essence of racism. I could write a very brief definition of what racism refers to. Just in one sentence.

Guess what: I could not bother. Firstly, do I always need to prove my formal qualifications and, secondly, does my testimony really need formal qualifications?

Most of the people I have gotten to know in my 35 years of existence are the sweetest in the world. It is only in my adult life that I have realised there are also those who are disturbed by my ethnicity alone. When Prince Harry and Meghan told Oprah Winfrey about their experience in the British court and tabloid, Meghan said that whatever she did, it had no impact on how she was treated. For mean people, it was enough for her to breathe.

I have learned that it is not about me: how thoughtful I am, how witty or gentle. And, oh girl, how much I have tried to be all of those things not to annoy anyone. Not to disturb anyone.

It is not about me, it is about something else I will never understand, but which I have learned to shun. I am glad I did not know about this unclear lump-whatever when I was younger. I do not know how confronting racist harassment would have affected my young psyche. Disastrously most likely.

When Meghan, obviously beautiful and fabulously rich and famous, revealed her tears in front of the whole world, cynics howled: How dare she and during the global pandemic? Is there no limit to her selfishness?

After Winfrey's interview, I felt uneasy watching reporter Sean Hannity and conservative activist Candace Owens talk about Meghan on Fox News. There Owens, a young black woman, sneered and convinced the viewer that Meghan is not black enough to be a true victim of racism. Instead, she described Meghan as a typical leftist narcissist. She assured that everything is as it should be, and there is no mistake in the world. To prove Owens's claim, Insider's online magazine had posted photos of both Meghan and Owens side by side in their article (11 March 2021) so that a viewer could compare the shades of their skin colour. This would allow the viewer to deduce the certainty of their (unequal?) experience of racism. 

Pinja Pieski, a Northern Saami art student, said poignantly in an interview at Yle (Finland’s national broadcasting company) on 5 February 2021 that the Saami do not stand out as a result of their skin colour, but the Saami costume reveals belonging to another group. That group is very dear to me. That group of people is also very vulnerable in many ways.

The Saami dress called gákti is my second skin, my first skin, my second skin. I have been told that when I am wearing my electric blue Saami dress, I look the most like myself – sexy and confident. The Saami costume empowers its carrier, but at the same time puts the carrier beneath the prying gaze.

It took me a long time to have the courage to show my true skin colour in my public profile pictures. One day I decided to update my social media profile pictures at once. I just filled the Internet with pictures of me wearing my Saami dress. My Facebook, Google, Instagram, Microsoft, Twitter, WhatsApp and WordPress accounts got a new look or should I say a grin. Why? Because I want people around me to get used to our colours, to get used to us – hey this is who we are (gorgeous). I want to normalise something that has always been exoticised.

I waited with curiosity for the Internet's reactions to my revolutionary profile picture update. Nothing happened. Nobody was interested. I was delighted. Until I got a comment on Twitter about my post on the worsening coronavirus situation in Estonia. A man wrote to me: “You do not seriously think that your ethnicity has something to do with Estonian politics.”

No, I do not think so. I had not even claimed so, but then I remembered my grinning Twitter profile picture with a red Ohcejohka Saami hat on my head.

Generally speaking: there are people for whom my Saami hat, that shabby power-over, nullifies everything I say, everything I do, and everything I am.     

There is also another story that has started to annoy me relating to the same unpleasant plot. Namely, the way in which my group of people, the Saami, have never been depicted in any other narrative than as something which soon gives way to development, first is endangered and eventually dies out.

Guess what – and now here is a real news bomb – we are still here.

We have always been here, yet we constantly get to see the news flow of ourselves and everywhere it says: the recovering, struggling Saami people. I wonder how anything as alive as my people could be withering. It is a tiring, Lappological lullaby. We need a different story, one that makes room for us, makes room for me.

Why do I have to worry about what kind of reactions my Saami profile picture can provoke in someone? I know exactly what kind of reaction it will generate in some people. It is called cognitive dissonance. It is a term of psychology that means experiencing two contradictory thoughts at the same time. Unpleasant cognitive dissonance occurs when a person's knowledge and attitude are in a contradicting relationship.

In order to reduce tension, people stuck in cognitive dissonance begin to change their behavior, which is, in general language, begin to mess around. This is what happened to the Twitter commentator for whom the Saami + Estonia + Covid combination was too much, a system error. There is something anti-intuitive about the combination. Also anti-systemic is Meghan, whose mother is African-American black and whose father is white. What a crazy combination!

Meghan is reported to have said that as an actress she had trouble getting roles because she was not white enough for the role of white people and not black enough for the role of black people. There is also a rumor that she would straighten her curly afro hair to get a shiny sleek hairdo for public events. I personally know people who do not appreciate Meghan’s alleged personal hair preference. Meghan is not allowed to be white, and neither black. Whether she does it this way or that way, she always does it the wrong way. Meghan causes aggravation because she creates conflicting thoughts without even doing anything. It is enough for her to breathe.    

The Saami people, too, cause cognitive dissonance in the societies in which they live. They do not need to do anything too spectacular either to cause that psychological state in other people. To cause it, it is enough for a Saami with blond hair, a Saami who does not live in Saamiland or a Saami who is vegan – to exist. The cognitive dissonance mess is already there when a Saami is just opening their morning sleepy eyes on their Futon mattress or in a lávvu (a traditional Saami hut). To calm the mess, the Saami must rush to television, on a morning show to answer a journalist's silly questions with a smile: "Yes, there are many kinds of Saami people, yes, we are not one kind."

We smile on morning television because we have learned epigenetically, that is, at the cellular level, that then we will be listened to better than if we do not smile (a grin is enough for males).

But are the Saami's explanations believable? I am not so sure. Are Meghan's explanations credible?

I am tired of "revealing truths", of clearing up misunderstandings, and being right. I am tired of hiding myself, sometimes it paralyses me. While Meghan reveals her tears, I reveal my face. I put on my woolly Saami hat from siessá (a father’s sister) and some two-euro-supermarket lipstick on my lips. It smells like freedom; it smells like cherry. Here I am, Oh Finland, the country of my birth. Look at me now, Europe! As a pop star, Madonna sings behind the ocean: Just watch me burn


Helga West

Helga West, also known as Biennaš-Jon Jovnna Piera Helga, is a theologian and poet from Deatnu river valley in the Finnish side of Sápmi. West is a doctoral candidate in the University of Helsinki, and in her theology dissertation, she examines topical Sámi issues connected to reconciliation. West also works in the literature field, and is particularly interested in the potential of art to give words to painful colonial experiences. In her most recent essays, she has combined elements of Sáminess and Western pop culture.