White playground

It’s the year of 1996 and I’m living in London, at Ladbroke Grove. I work as a professional model. I’ve been in the business for almost ten years. I live with my roommate Claire and her five year old daughter Ione. I’m dreaming of a new profession. Claire’s friend Lisa is visiting and says that she’s applying for drama school. Suddenly I fall into a memory. I’m fifteen year old, ninth grade student in the Lauttasaari co-educational school. I’m in a meeting with the school guidance counsellor and flicking through a little book, that is filled with schools, that lead to different carrier paths. When I’m finished with the book, she asks me “What would you be interested in?” There is only one school in the whole book, that feels exciting and is interesting to me. The others don’t create any feelings whatsoever. I reply “Theatre school”. She says, “It’s impossible to get in there, I suggest you think of another future”. I look at her confused and walk out. I become aware of the present moment. I look at Claire and her friend and suddenly say. “Im going to be a Moviestar”.

I am a professional actor and have been working in the Finnish tv-, movie-, and theatre arts industry for the past twenty years. During my studies in the Theatre Academy, I did a dubbing course and after that I got lots of voice work. I dubbed all kinds of characters. Lots of white little boys, white girls and moms. I can only remember one brown character. Then there were cars, creatures and animals. All sorts of things. I was phonetically gifted and dubbing was fun. I never stopped to think about the colour of my characters. Nine years went like this and I did a lot of voice work. Did the following have something to do with what happened next, I’m not sure, but after I did a leading role in a Finnish film, my situation suddenly changed. SDI-media, where I mainly worked at this point, started to offer me dubbing work for brown characters only. It took me a while to notice this. But after the third brown character in a row, I brought it up, expressed my confusion and asked what was going on? To my surprise, I was told that the tone of my voice was dark and suited best for characters that had dark skin tones and that this was the reason. I don’t remember exactly if I was told that “You have a voice of a dark skinned person”, but that’s how I heard it and was in shock. Nine years I had dubbed all kinds and all shades of characters and now suddenly, I had the voice of a dark skinned person.

I expressed my opinion on the matter, but the situation didn’t change. I talked about it almost every time I went to work, but no one reacted. One of the directors said to me, that this was really unfortunate and weird, but nothing happened. After my voice was “made brown” I have dubbed only brown characters with an exception of one black haired fairy and of course my work was cut down extensively. Before I dubbed many times a year and after this maybe once every second or third year. What happened here and what is this about on a deeper level? Of course I don’t know for sure. It can simply be that someone who casts voice workers got a liking for another actor. It’s not at all weird in my profession, that at one moment you work a lot and the next you don’t. They say that the tone of voice changes with age and this affects the roles you can do. Also I have understood that the big cartoon movie productions want the actor to look like the character they are dubbing. But only brown characters… What came up for me, was that I came to the point in my career where I became more recognizable. Cartoon character is white and Amira Khalifa is brown – problem. Problem for who? Problem why? The point here was the tone of my voice. But as I said, in the end I cannot know for sure what happened.

What I do know is that the structures of our society are whiter than white. This is of course understandable as the majority of Finns are white. But majority does not mean all. There has always been ethnic minorities in Finland, and black and brown people for a very long time. The white majority has gained lead into the decision making positions, where they look at the world through white reality. In the last thirty years the diversity in Finnish skin colour has grown enormously, because of the increased immigration. Even so, this change is still not properly seen in commercials, tv programs, theatres or movies. White structures have caused me great deal of confusion, pain and feelings of inequality and unworthiness all my life. I was born in Finland and raised into one culture – Finnish culture. I cannot be anything but Finnish even if I tried, except for when I go to work. You can detect in me all the sweet and also the not so sweet typical basic characteristics of a Finn.

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Me and Kaisla Löyttyjärvi in a play called The Duck Hunter at the Finnish National Theatre Willensauna stage 2006

In everyday life, people still have difficulty comprehending that I am Finnish, just like them. I still get continuously addressed in English in my home country. And let me say this, it doesn’t happen somewhere in the north, but in Helsinki where I live. People assume that I am a foreigner, so they make me the “Other” (Othering is a process of perceiving or portraying someone as different and as an outsider). My white friends don’t get asked after the first handshake “Where are you from?” And if I reply “From Lauttasaari” they are not satisfied with the answer, but start insisting “Yes, but where are you originally from?” Let me just say – this does not feel good, as this question reminds me of being an outsider and doubts that I am Finnish.

Today othering and racism still live strongly in the structures of our society. But is it really so that in Finland 2020, brown body is still something that makes a white viewer feel like an outsider? Is it so, that a white viewer still demands to be in the center and wants only to identify with white? I don’t believe this to be the case. So what is the reason, that we still don’t see black and brown actors in lead roles in movies and TV series?

My white friend’s opinion on the matter: “As a white person, I don’t think that the white viewer still demands to be in the center and wants to identify only with white. But it can be that the funders, producers, decision makers etc. think like this. Even more I believe that the people, that make the decisions don’t think of these things at all. It’s similar to the thing, that men’s stories have been in the center for a long time, because there is a presumption, that nobody is interested in women’s (especially older women’s) stories. So the decision makers and gate keepers are still white and therefore things stay the same, because of their lack of interest, understanding and courage to make the field more diverse. I believe that the viewer is more ready for diversity than we think. Think that Teräsleidit (Finnish film where the leading female characters were all +70) was a hit, just when we were told again and again, that nobody is interested in older women’s stories.

Decision makers, producers, directors, casting directors, funders and scriptwriters: Is this intentional or unaware, that you are not putting the white viewer in a situation, where they would identify with brown skin? What is the reason that we don’t see black and brown actors in the center of the stories as lead characters in Finnish films and TV series?

I’ve never experienced trouble in identifying with the white lead characters while watching movies. On the other hand, I’ve never been in a situation where I see only people that look like me in television. Also it’s not so that I would be more interested in black and brown characters because my skin colour is brown. A well written story well performed is an interesting story. I can identify, create connection and be interested in characters, regardless of the pigment in their skin. If I can do this the viewers and the decision makers who are still looking at the world from the point of view of the “white reality” (if they exist) will learn to identify with people that look like me. Without the need to wonder, analyse and explain the colour of the skin or its background. So that they won’t always feel that a black person is a foreigner or an outsider. If there is no need to explain the colour of the white skin, there is no need to explain the colour of the brown or the black. There is no justification for this. It is time to stop the use of these distorted norms. In reality Finland is not white. The world is not white. The world is colourful, diverse and multidimensional. Finland is a reflection of all the people living in Finland. I believe that when black and brown performers get more space and visibility in the art field and in TV and movies in lead roles without being racialized othering and inequality based on skin colour in its many forms will start to lessen. This is how people of colour will feel important, valuable and included.

In the spring of 2019, I did a small role in a children’s drama comedy series Lasten Tasavalta, that was produced by Yle. The idea of the series is absolutely delicious and it comes out October 2020. I was stoked, when I travelled to Tampere by train to see the director and the producer. In the meeting, they showed me pictures of the kids that they had casted, and there were many. At some point I started to feel uncomfortable and sad. All the kids I saw were white. I tried to smile and go over my body’s experience. But when nothing had changed even though I had seen the leads and many of the supporting roles, I had no choice, but to open my mouth and express my feelings on the matter.

We had a constructive conversation in good vibes. I expressed my opinion on how I felt, that this casting did not reflect the reality of what Finland looks like today. I talked about the importance of the experience, where all Finnish children could see people that look like them, in well made TV programs in lead roles and what it can it feel like when you don’t. What does this unfortunate situation create and reflect in a wider scale in this society? What does it transmit to the young viewer subconsciously and as an everyday life experience?

The makers of Lasten Tasavalta had in fact thought, that one of the lead actors could have been black or brown, but the two white kids that were chosen, won the roles with their skills. And I can tell you they were excellent! In the end from the twelve of the supporting roles, three were casted with other than white child actors. I think this is definitely better than nothing. The director and the producer were sincerely sorry for the situation and for the fact that they could not find more POC (Person/People Of Colour) child actors. There were not enough of them in the auditions. I said, “Unfortunately this is not enough, that it is your job to do more work in finding them. Because it is the structures of this society, that is creating this problem”. I suggested that they use more time, more resources and more imagination to find them. Go and knock on their door if need be. As it is possible that many of the POC kids don’t even play with the idea, that someone would want them in a TV series. Because when you don’t see people like you in programs, it has an effect in you.

Of course you can always think that let’s choose the one who is the most skilled. But what has made one skilled? Natural talent? Or practice and repetition? Given opportunities perhaps? I believe that natural talent is a part of the deal, but as you do the work you develop your skills. The one who gets more support and opportunities to practise and repeat, becomes skilful and relaxed in their profession. Even if an actor is brilliant, there is no guarantee to get work, as there are more of us in this profession, than there are available roles. But now I am not talking about the general unemployment that actors face. But instead, I am opening and talking about structural racism and the effects of the privileged position of the white body and the inequality that this brings to the field of acting. I have always hoped to get more work. Not only because it is my profession and it pays the bills, but also because the more I work the easier and more relaxed the working situation becomes. When I was working in front of the camera every week for year and a half in Yle’s Uusi Päivä tv-series, I reached a state where I was very relaxed and present.

It was great to have an experience, where after having the guts to call out the wrong that I saw, I became heard in a loving way. The makers of Lasten Tasavalta took what I said with seriousness and respect. Wonderful of people, that’s all I can say. This series was made with great love and I very much enjoyed working in the set. I believe its going to be awesome!

I have been told many times that I should write a tv-series or a movie myself, as some actors end up doing so. Like this I would have the opportunity to create change, see more diversity in the field and I would get to act in fuller roles. This has been problematic for me, as so far I haven’t been interested in movie, or TV scriptwriting. It has not been my passion. Is part of the reason, that we haven’t seen black and brown lead characters in Finnish film and TV industry, that we don’t have enough black and brown scriptwriters? Or is it so that these writers haven’t made it in to the writing positions? What ever the reason, it is time to move on. Because the truth is, that if there is will for change, the solutions and resources will appear. Todays Finland has POC writers and makers, that are for sure interested to help and influence and to be involved in the writing and creating process of the stories that are told in the mainstream. People that have passion and knowhow. All the production companies that produce stories to the art field in Finland: Hire these people. Look for them. Nock on their door if need be. Learn and find out about white privilege. It is not civilised, if you don’t understand what this conversation with skin colour and inequality is about. It is not ok to simply pass and move on, when the problem is not touching your body. This country has black and brown people that have worked with the models of structural racism for a long time. Order and buy courses from them for all your workers. Also there are lots of POC scriptwriters all over the world that Finnish white writers can co-write with.

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Pic from Ground Under Sea, a movie by Lenka Hellstedt 2009

Does a brown character require a black or a brown writer? I’m not completely sure, but it looks like that at this time it does require it. A setting where a team of all white writers tell a story of a black person is twisted. There can be exceptions off course. But anyhow, it is essential at this day of age to aim for diversity in writers’ positions. At the very least a white writer would have to recognise and understand what white privilege is about and also understand how the white structures affect the black body. Nobody knows what the future brings. All we know for sure, is that we are creating it together moment by moment. So let’s make it beautiful. Let’s walk together, listening each other carefully and we’ll see how things develop. I urge us to have open brave conversations, in respect for one another.

All my life I have felt that I don’t have the right to complain or demand. Things are the way they are, so just accept and move on. That everyone has the right to do the kind of art that looks and feels right for them. And with what ever kind of people they want. Mainstream art is made for the white privileged part of the society and the rest is left to their own ability, luck and strength. I should just do more myself, be more, try more and stretch more. But c’mon, this is not right. I cannot imagine that big productions are fully in private funding. I’m pretty sure, that they get public funding, witch is one more reason, that they ought to pay more attention to diversity.

Yle, TV and movie production companies, producers, scriptwriters, theatre,- and film directors, artistic directors in the field of arts, funders and decision makers: It is not enough that we see black and brown people in your TV series, movies and theatre productions in supporting roles or as extras flashing quickly in the scene. Your responsibility is much larger. You are doing highly important work, that has a straight and subconscious effect to all people that watch performance art in Finland and there are many of us. Even the ones that don’t watch, are affected by the advertisement, that is involved. So because of your position you need to be more aware and think in a larger scale outside of your own context. Take in consideration much more than now. Think outside of financial gain and profit. This is not your playground, even though you are in the decision making position. Mainstream art does not belong only to the majority. If you cannot think in a wider scale and be more inclusive and empathetic, you do not deserve your position. Throug out the ages the art field has acted as a teacher and as a way-shower. Structural change demands that we make way for people of colour to also be in the center, in lead roles, without racializing. The centerstage is not a place that is only for the white. If we are living in a society where we have skilful white child actors, but not enough skilled black and brown child actors it is your responsibility to create the structures, opportunities and the space, where they can start to develop their skills and thrive. Because the issue here is not just about talent and skills, but about equal and coequal opportunities. I am talking about a society where people regardless of their skin colour, have the same opportunities, space and support to dare to dream and to go after their dreams, and passions. Where they can actually live their purpose. The only reason white child actors thrive, is that they have gained lead through structural support that everyone deserves.

I already wrote this article few weeks back, but I didn’t have the guts to publish it. I have been afraid. I’ve gathered courage to share these words. Many days I thought, will someone else say these words If I chicken out? Can I go past this issue and continue my life as it is? That thought is a scary one as well. Is someone going to come to defend and help me. To take this issue forward, or is it my duty? Yesterday I sat back at my computer and started to look at this writing again. The next night I woke up to a nightmare, where a racist attacked me at a bus stop. There were four other people standing close. One black person and three white and no-one came to help, even when I screamed for it. I woke up anxiously calling for my mom. I don’t remember seeing a dream like this before. I laid in my bed feeling terrified. I looked at the clock, it was 02.45. There was no sense to wake up yet. For me dreams have always acted as teachers. Many times they come to show me the way. So I started to think what was the message with this one. Suddenly it was so clear: I must act in some way. I need to say these words and publish this article, no matter my uncertainty. No white or black person is going come for my help. It is time to be brave.

Laying there with this dream still echoing in my body, a distracting thought came to my mind about the reality where I have been working for these past twenty years. I understood that I have dreamt of something that was impossible. In Finland I have actually never had a chance to become a “star” (simply saying, becoming successful in my carrier and being well employed). To get to enjoy the kind of career that Krista Kosonen has. I’ve just imagined, that it could happen. To my white colleagues this dream has always been possible. They live in a situation where things can change in a heartbeat. Of course the idea of “making it” is always tiny, but possibility is still a possibility. Now I see that to that twenty-year old Amira living in London everything seemed possible, because there I saw black people doing all the same things as the white ones.

This society’s white structures have – confusing enough – forbidden this beautiful and fragile dream from happening to people that look like me. Crazy, right? I’m thinking that if I had known then what I know now, would I still have wanted to become an actor? If someone had said, that you cannot succeed, even if you walk on your head. That you don’t have the same starting point as your colleagues and class mates because of your skin colour. What would I have done? Maybe I would have just escaped into my own little bubble, like I’ve done all my life and continued to dream of the impossible. But now we are at the verge of something new, as the following predicts. January this year I had discussed with Yellow Film, that I would do a small role portraying a foreigner in one of their series. The series got postponed because of the COVID – 19 outbreak and we are back in action this fall. Few days ago the casting director called me and asked, “Regarding to this conversation about equality and skin colour, how do you feel about doing this role of a foreigner? If you feel uncomfortable in any way, we are willing to give you another role.” No one has ever treated me with such consideration, or asked how I feel. Something new is happening. Im thinking of the black and brown youth who feel passionate about performing arts. From the bottom of my heart in behalf of these kids and my inner child, I wish that the gate keepers of this white playground open the gates to all kinds of people, so a part of the whole is no longer left out. Together we’ll create a society where love is in the center and everyone has a possibility to thrive regardless of their skin colour. Now that would be richness, don’t you think? Equality and coequality is always for the highest good of everyone in the society.

With ❤️ Amira Susanna Khalifa

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1 Comment

  1. Lovely, intelligent and ultimately sad piece Amira. When I was in Helsinki and we became friends I never saw anything other than an amazing, energetic and soulful person. Colour didn’t even cross my mind.

    Like

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