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'Finnishness is more than blonde hair and blue eyes'

Three women are using Instagram to highlight how it feels to be seen as an outsider in your own home country.

Priska Niemi-Sampan (etualalla), Alice Jäske (vas.), Janina Ojala(oik.).
Alice Jaske (left), Priska Niemi-Sampan (centre) and Janina Ojala (right) are the young women behind Mixed Finns, an Instagram account promoting a more diverse idea of what it means to be Finnish. Image: Ronnie Holmberg / Yle

Alice Jäske was sitting in the waiting room of her local health centre, waiting to get a plaster cast for her broken leg.

"I've got to ask, where are you from?" another patient asked her.

Jäske has lived in Finland all her life. All that time she has frequently had to prove that she really is Finnish, because she doesn't look like the traditional image of a Nordic person. The question came as a blow.

"It's frustrating. But to avoid an embarrassing situation and take the easy way out I once again told a complete stranger about my entire family background. My father is Finnish but my mother is from Taiwan," Jäske says.

After getting her leg put in plaster the nurse complemented Jäske on her surprisingly good Finnish. As she left the clinic, Jäske was offered help – in English – by a passerby.

"In a very short time, in a completely everyday situation, my "Finnishness" was questioned three times. I understand that these comments weren't meant to be offensive, but in my head it sounds as if there are "us Finns", and that I don't belong," says Jäske.

That series of events is just one example of the microaggressions that Jäske has encountered her whole life. Microaggressions – whether intentional or unintentional – are words or actions that communicate hostile, negative or derogatory attitudes towards a person or people.

Jäske says she is sharing her story to try and change the world.

"The concept of Finnishness should be expanded to accommodate more people who look different, and not just blonde-haired, blue-eyed Elovena girls," she says.

When praise isn't praise

This week is Anti-Racism and Discrimination Week. People tend to think of racism as being when someone does or says something racist to another person. But discrimination can take many forms.

Something that sounds innocent can mark someone out as different. If a person constantly hears that they are somehow wrong or anomalous, they gradually begin to believe it themselves.

That's what happened to Janina Ojala. As a girl, she felt a sense of shame and fear when her dad would tease her in Thai while they waited in line at the shop. Ojala hid from her friends the fact that her family ate with a fork and spoon at home, and not a knife and fork. She did her best to keep her Thai roots from attracting attention.

"Typically it's comments about how lovely and thick my hair is, or how quickly my skin tans. One comment is not a problem, but when you hear things like these on a daily basis they have a big impact on how you see yourself," Ojala explains.

Story continues after photo.

Janina Ojala
24-year-old Janina Ojala is now learning Thai from YouTube because she didn't dare speak it as a child. Image: Ronnie Holmberg / Yle
The kinds of comments Ojala describes are known as "exoticisation", comments that emphasise difference by attaching positive stereotypes to it. Ojala has lived in Finland her whole life, with her Finnish mother and Thai father.

"Although now I'm older I consider multiculturalism to be enriching, in certain situations I still feel the need to present myself a certain way to others," she says.

At university Ojala met others who had lived through similar experiences. With the support of her peers she finally felt able to embrace her Thai side. Now she wants to support others to do the same.

Together with Alice Jäske and Priska Niemi-Sampan, Ojala created "Mixed Finns", an Instagram account which aims to provide support and information about being a mixed-race Finn.

Does someone's appearance make them an immigrant?

As a child, Priska Niemi-Sampan felt just like the others, walking to school with her backpack on. Her family always spoke Finnish at home, even when they lived abroad due to her parent's job as an aid worker.

But Priska was an unusual name, and the looks she inherited from her Filipino father drew attention. Soon, she found herself constantly answering questions about her "homeland", about her language skills and her appearance. As far as society was concerned, the young girl was a foreigner.

"I felt for a long time that university wasn't a place for someone that looks like me. I wasn't encouraged to go by my school or my hobbies. The attitudes of the world around us have a huge impact on how a person sees their own potential," Niemi-Sampan says.

Priska Niemi-Sampan.
Priska Niemi-Sampan, 26, tried to avoid attention as a child, but now she wants to be a positive role model for others. Image: Ronnie Holmberg / Yle
A recent article in the journal Sosiologia (link in Finnish) by Anna Rastas, a researcher from Tampere University who specialises in studying racism and fellow researcher Sanna Poelman, says that the conversation about racism and racial identity in Finland still revolves around immigration.

This is despite the fact that more and more Finnish people belong to ethnic minority groups.

There has been a concerted effort to eradicate racism in Finnish society since the time Niemi-Sampan was at school, but there is a still a lot of work to be done. In 2019 researchers at Helsinki University found job applicants with foreign-sounding names were less likely to be invited for job interviews than applicants with typically Finnish names.

Niemi-Sampan came across similar discrimination after going to university. She helped found the organisation Students of Colour which aims to stamp out racism in higher education. Now she wants to extend the support outside the world of academia.

"As a child I would have longed for support from my peers and now I want to offer young people a community where they can talk about these thoughts and feelings. Social media is a natural environment for reaching young people and sharing their experiences," she says.

In the future, Mixed Finns also hopes to offer anti-racism training for various organisations.

A world where national identity is more than skin deep

Would Janina Ojala be able to speak Thai if she had dared practice it when she was a child? Would Priska Niemi-Sampan feel more self-confident if she hadn't spent her life trying to escape notice? Would Alice Jäske know more about her mother's culture if she hadn't felt pressured to hide her Taiwanese-ness when she was younger?

Mixed Finns's efforts may not change the world, but they represent a step towards a dream the three women share.

This dream is of a world where someone's Finnish identity isn't defined by the way they look, and where a person can belong to multiple cultures without being seen as an outsider to all of them.

The women also challenge Finns to think more carefully about what they say, because what seems like a compliment to one person might not always feel that way to another.

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