THE LONG INTERVIEW: Rebecka Holm, the adolescent who spoke out against racism, yesterday and today

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Rebecka Holm is the brave adolescent from Helsinki, who in 2012 spoke out against the racist harassment she regularly experienced on the way to school. She got fed up with the situation and wrote a letter to the Swedish daily, HBL, denouncing what she and her friends experienced too often.

“If Finland is now the most secure and stable country [in the world],” she said back then, “why do people of [different] ethnic backgrounds get attacked every day?”

For a while, the young adolescent was in the national spotlight. Apart from media attention, Holm was given an award by the Red Cross on the UN Day Against Racism.

Six years have elapsed since then and the brave young lady today lives and studies law in Uppsala, Sweden. I had to the opportunity to talk to her by phone and ask her about her plans and what she thought about what she did in 2012.

Read original story published in 2012 here.

Migrant Tales (MT): Tell me about your life in Sweden. How does it feel to live in that country?

Rebecka Holm (RH): I live in Uppsala which is a “white” city, and it’s not as diverse like Stockholm. But it is still much more diverse than if I would study in Turku and Finland. I must say that I blend in much better here even if most of the students that major in law are white upper-class students.

MT: What do you mean? 

RH: Racism is more subtle in Sweden. In Finland, you can sometimes get a lot of stares from people That does not happen here. I am an outsider in Sweden but in the same sense as in Finland even if I am a Finn and not accepted as one. In Sweden, I get fewer questions like “where are you from.” It is rude to start a conversation with a person in this country in such a way.

 In a way, people can say what they want in Finland but in Sweden that would not happen. If you say something racist, it would be political suicide. You would get kicked out of the party. That is not the case in Finland.

MT: What motivated you to speak out against racism in 2012? 

RH: When I was young, I was very sure about myself, and I was pretty sure that what I did was right. The letter I wrote to HBL took 30 minutes. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I just wrote it and sent it to the newspaper. The following morning my aunt text messaged me and wrote that they published a letter written by me.  I never thought what I wrote would attract so much attention.

Rebecka Holm graduated from high school in spring 2016.

MT: How has your perception of a social ill like racism changed from then? 

RH: My perception of racism today is different from when I wrote the letter. I don’t see it as many different incidents of overt racism but as a structural problem [in society].

MT: What would you change in Finland today if you had a chance?

 RH: That is a tough question to answer. When I was asked this same question when I was fourteen, I talked a lot about education and talking more about the issue. Another matter that is important was that kids at schools should know more about the countries where migrants come from.

The timing [of what happened to my friends and me when I was an adolescent in 2012] was unfortunate because immigration is a relatively new phenomenon in Finland as opposed to Sweden. There are also far-right winds blowing in Europe today. There are still a lot of people in Finland who are in denial about racism. People play down your experiences with racism.

Things are, however, changing in Finland like the banning of the neo-Nazi Suomen vastarintaliike. Koko Hubara started up a collective of young brown and black women and men; there are more diversity and voices in social media.

MT: Do you follow Finnish politics and what happens in your country?

RH: Honestly, when I moved to Finland, I distanced myself from Finnish politics. It was not a bad decision because I do not need to deal with it… Many times when I lived in Finland, I felt that there was no hope after reading what one politician or another person said [about migrants and minorities]. And you just felt hopeless as if nothing was going to change or get better.

Rebecka Holm in a pensive mood.

MT: What does being a Finn mean to you?

RH: My stepfather, who is a Muslim, lived there [Finland] for about 13 years and I’m not cynical by saying that society will never accept him. He feels like a Muslim man in Finland that doesn’t belong there and where the system is stacked against him. In a way, I feel a bit the same way but I have a different situation since my mother was born in Finland and because I am half Finnish.

I was a Finnish kid growing up without blonde hair and blue eyes, or looking like a Nordic kid in one of [writer of fiction and screenplays] Astrid Lindgren’s [characters of her books]. But that is now changing. More people in Finland are born to foreign parents who don’t speak Finnish.

MT: What about the definition of a Finn in this new century?

RH: Being a Finn cannot be tied to old-fashioned notions. It must become broader, and people must be able to decide for themselves who they are and what their identity is. People assume a lot of things about you if you are not a white Finn. Such a reality takes away your right to define who you are. So yes, I think Finnish identity must become much more inclusive, and broader. In other words, I decide who I am, not society.

The present [integration] model encourages to forget your roots and assimilate entirely into being a white Finn. And only then, maybe, that is still not enough because you will never be seen as a Finn.

MT: How was it like growing up as a black person in Finland?

RH: When I was 16 and 17, I had huge identity problems. I didn’t know at the time if I should be white and Finnish as possible and deny everything else about me. And then I went through another phase when I tried not to be Finnish at all and become a member of a culture I didn’t even know because I didn’t know my dad well. It is sad, but almost every black and non-white friend I have gone through the same phases as I.

Rebecka Holm.

MT: What do you think when white people speak of acceptance and tolerance?

RH: People always talk about acceptance and tolerance but me personally I don’t have any interest in being accepted or tolerated or anything like that. I only have an interest in being respected for who I am. I don’t know who said this, but it is something like this: “You tolerate a bad smell in the room, but you don’t tolerate or accept another human being.”

I want to exist and define who I am on my conditions without being constantly reminded and questioned about my identity. Activism and speaking out against racism are necessary. I admire a lot of people like Maryan Abdulkarim.

MT: What are some of the most prominent misperceptions that Finns have of blacks?

RH: The racism that black people experience continually is that they are only good for certain things like dancing and being an athlete. A reporter from Helsingin Sanomat came to interview me when I was an adolescent, and I was surprised when she said that she would like to be black so she could be a good dancer.

I’m not such a good dancer and why would the reporter assume such a  thing?

 MT: What do you want to do in the future?

RH: I have thought about returning to Finland, but I’m still not sure.