Why were we not outraged? #ProtectBlackGirlsToo

Plan International Finland’s campaign against childhood pregnancy which portrayed a 12-year-old black Zambian girl in maternity clothes reveals just how problematically black and brown bodies are displayed in Finland and the West.

Dr. Faith Mkwesha, Executive Director of
the non-profit organization SahWira Africa International and researcher in gender studies at Åbo Akademi University, argues that there is,
in fact, nothing new in these types of representations.

 

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I urge you to ask yourselves these questions: Why was I not immediately outraged when I saw the 12-year-old black African, heavily pregnant girl-child, Fridah, posing in pastel-coloured maternity clothes, in quite a sensual manner, in the Plan International Finland campaign advertisements meant to raise awareness about child pregnancies, placed on billboards, streets and public transport spaces all over Finland?

 

Why was I not outraged when I found out that two white women, the Finnish fashion designer and film director Paola Suhonen, and renowned photographer and photojournalist Meeri Koutaniemi went to Zambia, Africa, to shoot photos and videos of the traumatized black girl-child meant to cater to the white European gaze?

 

Why was I not outraged when hasan & partners, the ad agency (one of the largest in Finland) that created the campaign was awarded with three separate awards at the Vuoden Huiput competition in Finland on 1 March 2018? Vuoden Huiput is organised by Grafia Trade Union Organisation for Visual Media once a year, and it is the most important competition in the field of advertising in Finland. Furthermore, the campaign received an international accolade from the Art Directors Club of Europe for creativity that considered the campaign to have profound social and cultural impact. The campaign’s creative team that was awarded with these prizes, comprises of white men and women. The campaign was considered successful, as monthly donors to Plan International Finland were increased by 40 per cent.

 

But the campaign also failed. It failed in ways that a white person, living under the protection of global white supremacy and white privilege, will never know nor fully understand. See, race continues to function in painful ways for us, black and brown people. This pain that was caused by this campaign in our Afro-Finn, African, diasporic communities is the pain of systemic and institutional racism.

 

Fridah’s case follows in the path of her African ancestors:
the “Hottentot Venus”,
and Rosa Emilia Clay.

 

Europe has a history of eroticizing and displaying black female bodies at street carnivals, museums and churches in 19th century Europe. For example, Sarah Baartman (branded as the Hottentot Venus), was brought from her home in South Africa and exhibited at freak shows and museums in France and Britain. Finland is complicit too: in 1888 Rosa Emilia Clay was 14 years old, when Finnish missionaries brought her to Finland from Namibia to parade her at church gatherings and to make her sing to raise money. Fridah’s case follows in the path of her African ancestors, as she has been exhibited in the streets and bus stops of Finland in 2017–18.

 

And then there is also the habit of white women building careers on the traumatized bodies of black women and girls, which is not anything new, but very much evident in photographer Meeri Koutaniemi’s work. She launched her career by photographing of female genital surgery in Kenya. The photographs exposing the Maasai girls’ faces and identities were displayed in Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat in 2014, as well as other media platforms. The debate that ensued with the publication of Koutaniemi’s photographs was captioned well in Teivo Teivainen’s, Professor of World Politics at the University of Helsinki blog post. This display of African girls’ most private parts forced organizations such as UNICEF to publicly condemn Koutaniemi’s work. Meeri Koutaniemi has since been feeding the Finnish white gaze for years by bringing images of these different African rituals and customs to public exhibition spaces in Finland.

 

Like western feminists, who have sensationalised female genital surgeries by naming it genital mutilation, Koutaniemi represented the female circumcision through what researcher Chandra Mohanty calls the western gaze. African feminists have condemned this western gaze which materializes the western saviour mentality. In the Journal of Opinion titled African women in an age of transformation”, African feminists argue that the debate on female circumcision should be placed within African feminist discourse.

 

On the other hand, the name that appears on all the Plan campaign advertisements is that of fashion designer Paola Suhonen. She is advertising her own work, clothing, by using the body of a black girl. Suhonen has explained in the campaign making-of video that she chose as the mood of the collection the Hamptons look, which is a white upper-class New York style, because the clothes are “cheerful” and “have a romantic feel”.

 

There is no institutional racism without individual racism. These two white women are participating in sustaining the white supremacist global structure.  Koutaniemi and Suhonen, have faithful defenders, particularly in social media comment sections. In these conversations they are portrayed as naïve, innocent and well-meaning women with good intentions to save African black girls. They are also said to  be repeating colonialist practices ignorantly, not willingly.

 

This white saviour mentality
based on the historical
idea of white being
civilized, progressive
and, therefore, exceptional.

 

I beg to disagree. Their comments in the videos of Plan International Finland can be read as those of arrogant white women who weaponize their white privilege to paint themselves as saviours, while building their careers on the marginalized and traumatized bodies of black and brown people, especially girls and women. This white saviour mentality based on the historical idea of white being civilized, progressive and, therefore, exceptional.  

 

In addition to asking ourselves, why were we not outraged sooner, we should also ask: would we ever see white children portrayed in this same manner?  Have we lost our conscience of protecting children? Was it because she does not look like most of us, does not speak like most of us, does not walk like most of us, does not dance like most of us, does not play the games our children play, has different hair texture than most of us?

 

The failure to see African black girls as children who deserve protection is evident and seems to become a habit. This can be seen as dehumanizing the traumatized girl. It is racist because it perpetuates prejudices and negative stereotypes of black girls and women as hypersexualized and promiscuous. While, there are men who do bad things universally, in this case, the father of the baby, is a 15-year-old boy. Not giving the context creates demonisation of black men and boys based on the stereotype that they are beasts and potential rapists. 

 

I pointed the problematics of the “Maternity wear for a 12-year-old” campaign initially in a lecture that I gave at the European Sociological Association conference in April 2018. After the Vuoden Huiput prizes were announced on April 19th, I raised the issue again on SahWira Africa International organisation’s Facebook page and @sahwiraAfrica Twitter account. Soon after, YLE contacted me asking or an interview and then to take part in a  discussion in an All Points North podcast. Since then, the matter has been discussed in articles by Turun Sanomat and the Migrant Tales blog, as well as the RASTER antiracist research network’s blog.

 

While I applaud the Finnish Children’s Ombudsman Tuomas Kurttila who weighed in on the issue of children’s rights in Plan International maternity wear campaign in the YLE news article in the beginning of May, one wonders why he did not make his views public when the campaign was going on.

 

In both the YLE All Points North Podcast and a written article on the same topic by YLE, Kurttila rightly noted that Finnish NGOs should play by the rules and the law in Finland and pointed out it may not even be necessary to use human models for some types of advertising. He added:

 

“We are [in] a global world and we have to think about those children that might be used as campaign figures on a global scale… We cannot use these children even if they are not living in Finland -- even if they are not Finns, we are responsible for their privacy.”

 

He ultimately placed all responsibility for protecting the child’s rights on the adults behind the campaign and organization.

 

Finally, I organised A Silent Protest at the Plan International Finland offices in Helsinki on May 7 attended by about twenty people. At the protest, we handed Plan a petition in which we demanded a  public apology and the returning of all the awards they have been given, in addition to Fridah the model getting paid a normal modelling fee.

 

Plan International Finland released a statement regarding the matter following the petition. In it, Ossi Heinänen, Secretary General of Plan International Finland says they have zero tolerance for racism and sexualisation of pregnant girls, and emphasizes that the prizes have no monetary value. He says Fridah was not paid because she was doing this with other children and they were doing this for the community. No apology was to be found in the statement. Plan authorities say they paid for maternal care for her before and after the birth and that Plan International will pay fees when she goes back to school.

 

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The arrogance Plan International Finland exhibits forces, SahWira Africa, to keep on demonstrating. I find the justifications and whitesplaining a problem. I say the awards have symbolic value that what Plan and its partners did is ok, and can and must be done again. Returning the awards would make it clear to Plan, hasan & partners and those who gave the prizes, as well as the poc community, that such a culture is untolerable. I say that Fridah raised a lot of money for Plan and thus must be paid.

 

Therefore, what we need now is a public apology from Plan International Finland, return of the prizes awarded to them for this campaign and a clear plan on how they plan to improve the representation of black African and poc children in general. Black African girl-children deserve protection too. Their rights need to be respected in Finland, Europe and the whole global village.

 

And we, we need to be outraged.

 

 

Text: Dr. Faith Mkwesha
Photos: Heikki Kauhanen, from the demonstration at the Plan offices