The Motley News

Being Black in Finland



I lay on the hotel bed, laptop propped on my belly, grading student papers. Ru Paul’s Drag Race is on in the background, a queen tells us about her withholding mother. I’m in Estonia and it’s still hard to imagine why. My husband, who is out scouting Tallinn alone, is having the time of his life. I, on the other hand, am still stuck in the surreal daze of: “I’ve just been to Finland, I took a ferry across the Baltic Sea for Tallinn, Estonia. And here I am, in Estonia, grading papers.” I’m teaching an online English class for my university.

When my sister calls through Skype (invented in Estonia), she’s with her best friend, J. Through the jerky pixelated screen I can see their smiling faces. “How are you? What’s it like there? What are you eating? What’s the city called again?”

I pause the Drag Race and laugh at them. I answer all of the questions as fast as I can, trying to add meaningful details and pausing to remember what I’ve eaten. It probably sounded like: Cobblestone streets, fresh salmon, black bread and bicycles! I ended with a “I still can’t believe we’re here.”


My sister grins. I know she’s excited that I’m here. “Hey,” she starts. “Have you seen any black people yet?” It’s a loaded question. She’s my big sister and I know she’s concerned about my comfort and safety. “Have you seen any black people yet?” means, “How do they treat blacks over there?” “Have you been harassed yet?” “How do service workers interact with you?” and possibly, “Do you recommend it to other black people?” I think of all of these questions before going anywhere. Understanding a country’s history, geo-political atmosphere, and their class system is always helpful before you take a trip. Black people, especially, are always concerned about comfort and security while traveling abroad. But sometimes we’re so concerned about comfort and safety, that we stop ourselves from going off the beaten track. Did I ever see myself going to a Scandinavian country, then crossing the sea to a former Soviet state? Not at all. But I also happen to be married to mischief making man (our original plan was to go to Russia). I’ve learned to have a sense of adventure because of him.

But to answer my sister’s question: “Have you seen any black people yet?” I did see black people! While we were in Helsinki, I saw lots of Somalians in the suburbs and a few other Africans in the city center. They were all living a Finnish life, walking or cycling to their jobs or shops. Not a big deal.


I could have stay hung up on how many black people I saw while traveling to the whitest parts of the world, or I could have enjoyed myself. I chose the latter. Because coming back to America was truly slap in the face. When my husband and I returned to the states, we were once again confronted by the idea that the United States is not a safe or comforting place for black people to live, work, and play. Since we’ve been back, two more black men have been killed by policemen. Blacks have taken to the streets in anger and frustration and whites have made excuses for hundreds of years of oppression. This is where I come from. This is what my blue passport shows the world.

I hope the next time either I, or my sister, leave the country, we each skip the question of “have you seen any black people yet?” While we might get funny looks in foreign lands, we’re probably going to be safe. We’ll most likely learn something wonderful about another country, before returning to a home that treats us like second-class citizens.

I’ll leave you with a quick anecdote before signing off.

Finnish Customs in the Helsinki Airport: I lug my bag to the desk to see a large blonde viking man, named Lars or Gunter or whatever. He’s dressed in black and I assume he’s got a gun strapped to his thigh. He asks for my passport, he wants to know if this is a trip for business or pleasure. I give him the dates of my stay and he smiles before saying “Wonderful, have a nice stay.” Sure, there’s something eerily Bond-villain-like about him, but he’s polite and I keep it moving. My husband’s experience is nearly the same, as his customs agent has told him: “Two weeks? You should stay longer!”

American Customs in Chicago’s O’Hare: We’re quickly trying to catch our connecting St. Louis flight, but we have been corralled along with other harried travelers. I see that my husband has made it past customs ahead of me and when I lug my bags up to “Derek,” I’m sweaty and I have to pee. Derek looks at my passport and travel itinerary before asking where I’ve been. “Helsinki.” How long? “Two weeks.” Business or pleasure? “I was on vacation” He studies my face, while I’m about to pass out from the heat. Derek asks if I met friends while I was there? I told him I didn’t. He asks me why I went to Helsinki if I didn’t have friends there. I was at a lost for words. I don’t know, to experience Finland? He wanted to know where else I’d been. “Estonia.” The smirk on his face as he watched sweat roll down my temple, made me want to scream at him. He said in a snide voice that he assumed I didn’t have any friends there either. That’s when he asked me for another form of identification. I looked over to where my husband stood, he was frowning and mouthing “what’s wrong?” While I dug through my unorganized travel bag to find another ID that was better than a US passport, I watched Derek show my passport to the agent next to him and whisper something in his ear. I angrily slapped all of my ID on the counter. “Here, I’m from Ohio, I’m a university professor, and I have a Capital One credit card. Does that help?” He gives me a slight nod and tells I can go. No explanation for the extra scrutiny and certainly no, “Welcome back home!”

All of this is to say, Black folks: Don’t let fear keep you from exploring the world. You will be pleasantly surprised by who you’ll meet and what you’ll learn. Other countries have an idea about us that will quickly be refuted once you open your mouth and speak to them. I can’t say the same about America. I’ve been talking, bargaining, and trying to appease white people since I was a child and at age thirty-one, I still haven’t gotten anywhere new.




Author: Charish Halliburton

Writer and Editor for The Motley News

26 thoughts on “Being Black in Finland

  1. I’ve been researching the population of people of color in various parts of the world and I came across this article… Thanks for posting this, you were straight forward and it makes me feel better about one day visiting Australia, that’s my dream vacation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yay! I’m glad this helped! Of course, always check on what’s going on (race related) in another country, but don’t forget to just have fun. I do hope that you get to go to Australia. I’ll be honest with you, I’ll never go there and it’s not because of race issues. . . it’s the wildlife. Sharks, spiders, scorpions, dingoes, snakes, and koalas that you think are placid but actually freak out on people when they haven’t gotten enough eucalyptus. But I encourage you to get it girl! GET IT!


      • Haha…while talking to my husband about our next adventure abroad, I said no way to Australia as well…the bugs are too darn big for me. I can’t every handle a small spider in Jersey.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hello Sistar!!! Yes I said sistar!!! THank you for encouraging and promoting us to travel abroad, experience other cultures, foods etc we certainly speak the same language, lol lol. Now about Australia….girrrrl it’s beautiful and interacting with some of the Aboriginal people was a major icing on the cake!!! I saw some GORGEOUS men 🙂 🙂 Australia, Uganda and Hawaii in my personally opinion have the best tasting pineapple. The beaches are so serene and the Great Barrier Reef…omg!!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, Charish! As another African American woman, I was pleased to come across your article because I have found out I’m 6% Finnish (who knew)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for your article I am looking to travel international soon Im actually even considering be an expat somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for this article. I will be living abroad in Finland and this article helped wash away some of my doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so jealous! Can I ask what’s taking you there?


      • Playing professional volleyball in Hämeenlinna! I’m stil determining if Finland is best for me.


      • Excellent! I wish you luck with your decision. I’m not familiar with the town you named, since I was only in Helsinki. But I still think you might like the country as a whole.


    • Hello

      Will you please enlighten me on the paperwork and authorization process required in preparation for living in finland. What what’s the process for employment permit, apartment location, transportation, livable wage. Thanks in advance


      • Oh jeez, I’m afraid I have no idea how that works since we were only there for a week. I would imagine that being sponsored by a company or organization would be extremely helpful before moving out there. The cost of living is high! It’s very expensive and even tho we were traveling as cheap as we could, we did have to go to Estonia for our booze, lol! Public transportation is actually reasonable however. I get the sense that they really want people to use it. It’s easy to navigate as well. Soooo efficient.


  5. Thanks for sharing. My husband and I are planning on moving there with our three children. I was a bit worry about the lack of color and the treatment of blacks.


    • That’s amazing! I have often wondered what Finland would be like. Hope you and your family have a great experience. I have read that the education system is empowering and encourages children to think for themselves.


    • That’s amazing! I have often wondered what Finland would be like. Hope you and your family have a great experience. I have read that the education system is empowering and encourages children to think for themselves. Would love to hear about your experience.


    • Hey Kenia,
      So did you and your family make the move to Finland? I’m a nurse and would love to receive information on the relocation/resettling process…I’m so excited for you guys!!! What’s the reason behind your choosing Finland? Thanks in advance


  6. Thank you so much for your article. I was curious about black people in Finland. I am a 65 year old black woman who will be going to Helsinki for a week. My daughter has been invited to speak at a conference and she’s taking me with her. We will be leaving the latter part of August. I had my fears but now look forward to the trip.


  7. I really enjoyed reading your article, thanks for sharing your experience.


  8. Very informative. My curiousity started from the Snapple cap. It said “Finland has the most saunas” lol. I may try it out sometime. Thanks for the read.


  9. I was researching tuition-free universities in Finland, Germany, and France when I came across your article. Thanks for your insight. Well done.


  10. This was a great read! I’m watching the Olympics and saw Finland being announced and wondered, if any blacks are in finland so I googled it and read this article…


  11. Thank you for sharing! My fiance and I are planning to go to Santorini for our honeymoon and we have a layover in Findland and I was scared to stay.


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