18m² Refuge

How COVID-19 helped me take cover from racism

Dionysia

anti-racism, gender, trauma

Positionality

I am a Southeast Asian heterosexual cis-woman. My position in racial privilege translates to class privilege through education and employment opportunities, taking me to where I am now; I have shelter and a scholarship funding my education in Finland.

Race and racism in Finland

My racialised experience in Finland is predominantly made up of sexualised racial microaggression and witnessing the racialised experiences of my non-white peers. I came mentally prepared for such an experience. I was well aware that I will become a racial minority, also likely to be fetishised because of my gender. However, no one will ever be prepared for prolonged trauma, and no one should feel responsible for preparing themselves for racialised trauma(s) in any form.

Receiving prolonged unwanted stares from white men is almost a default. I was urged to take up a generic English academic writing course, which my white Finnish and white-passing non-Finnish peers were able to opt out.

I managed to get out of it eventually. Teenagers yelled “sexy Asian lover’ at me, while white older women hissed at me at the mall. In a country where ‘personal space’ is said to be taken very seriously, my space was often invaded by white people walking into me on a wide pavement even when I was walking on the right side (pun intended). Cars do not always stop for me when I cross the road carefully, yet I see white people jaywalking all the time, and cars stopped without fail.

säänsuoja

Source: Finnish Nightmares (provided by author)

Many non-white peers share similar experiences of getting walked right into. Some internalised the microaggression, believing they are on the wrong side of the street, yet I observe white people walking on both sides all the time. A white Finnish friend told me that I can walk anywhere I wanted. An older white man lifted his hand up to my Latinx friend’s face as we walked. It was also flu season at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Japanese friend of a friend was yelled at in public to stay home because she sniffed. It was cold, many people were sniffing. But no one (white) gets yelled at. “Flu season, you know?”, they shrugged. During a bell hooks book club that I participated in, non-white participants shared passionately about spatial struggles here.  We satirically brainstormed ways to reclaim and negotiate our personal space, without being subjected to physical harm, i.e. getting walked into and crossing the road without the fear of getting knocked down.

The construct of “race” does not exist in Finland, at least not in official statistics. The closest alternative to see race in national statistics is based on whether one is foreign or not, commonly indicated by where they came from¹ and spoken language for instance. While race could not be seen in data, race is highly visible in daily life. One can neither reject their ascribed racial identity by strangers nor refrain from ascribing a race to others. The covert ascription of race is experienced and practised through institutionalised racism and microaggressions. According to a report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights,  perceived racial harassment in 5 years before the survey was most prevalent among African descent respondents in Finland. Knowing that my non-white peers are experiencing similar, if not crueller racial traumas made me feel less alone. However, it also gives me immense pain and anger being reminded that it is a matter of life and death for some of us in the world’s happiest country. Happiest for whom, I often challenge.

Comfort during COVID-19

In March, universities shut down and all classes shifted online. I was home all the time, except for weekly grocery shopping.

After the initial weeks of shock, helplessness and adjustments, I started liking the city more. That’s because I was home, a 18m2 studio, away from the aggression. I was home and I could rest.

A black woman who attended Ijeoma Oluo’s talk wrote that she “will heal at home in silence” resonated with me strongly. During this period, I unknowingly lost a significant amount of anger, I felt light. Even going out felt easier as public spaces were empty by then. Lesser people equals lower threats of microaggression. I needed to be home to enjoy the city.

On 4th April, I went to an uncrowded supermarket. A white male security guard followed me. The supermarket was so empty that I knew it was no coincidence that he was wherever I was. I knew it had to do with my race. I looked to see if there are other non-white shoppers. There were two central-Asian looking men. “Why did he think that I could be a thief?”, I thought. Aren’t men more likely to be profiled as criminals? I didn’t even have a bag, those men had bulky bag packs. Frustrated, I walked right up to him and stared at him angrily in his eyes, knowing I can get away with it because I looked the part of a fetishised ‘small docile Asian woman’. He turned away pretending to just be there coincidently, minding his own business. I left, but saw him at every opposite end of each aisle watching me pass. I laughed off this incident to my friends about the cliché textbook example of race and gender-based abuse of power.

As warm summer approaches and society opens up, the pressure and urge to go out increased towards the end of May. I found myself meeting people outside more frequently than pre-COVID-19 days. Yet I dreaded going out alone, something I enjoyed previously. I could not make sense of wanting to go out yet felt extremely unmotivated to do so. When I realised the fear underlying my dilemma, I broke down. I cried for days. I thought my knowledge of sociology and gender studies have made me invincible. A friend accurately and eloquently summed up my feelings, “There is no amount of rage that can quell your fears.”

Not once I blamed myself for what happened. It was not the security guard being attracted to me, as some of my east Asian friends rationalised and tried soothing me with. I experienced trauma, yet again. I am still scared of going out. I am hypervigilant when out alone. I want to punch every man I catch staring me down. I utilise the privilege from my proximity to whiteness when I go out. Every independent trip outside is a victory for me.

My 18m2 refuge provides me comfort and a hideout during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is not enough to heal, COVID-19 will no longer be an acceptable excuse to hide.

To heal is to allow others to care and fight for me when I am tired. It does not matter who and what is their race. It is not a failure when I did not get meaningful support from the community that looks like me. It is not treacherous to receive support from people who did not look like me. I can resist colonial hangover without resisting white people’s imperfect fight for me in times of injustice, as long as it does not stem from white saviourism or performative allyship.

Note

1. This consists of country of birth, origin, nationality and country departed from, of individuals and their spouses.