The Truth About Racism in Spain: Tips for Visiting Spain While Black
Studying abroad in the picturesque Basque Country in the spring of 2012 has been one of the highlights of my young life. Bilbao was my first encounter with Spain outside of textbooks and audio tapes in my Spanish classes. The city ignited my long-term love affair with Spain, a fondness that is still going strong. But being black in Spain came with its own challenges. As a black expat, I couldn’t escape the racist attitudes and prejudices of Spaniards, who need extensive schooling on cultural sensitivity, tolerance, and just plain decency.
Not too long after I arrived at Universidad de Deusto, I learned that black soccer players were regularly subjected to racist chants at games against Athletic Bilbao. I looked into this phenomenon and discovered that racist chants were actually common at soccer matches in Spain. A fan once threw a banana at Dani Alves, a Brazilian soccer star who used to play for Barcelona. In another incident, the referee had to stop a match because the monkey noises aimed at Athletic Bilbao’s Iñaki Williams, who is of Ghanaian-Liberian descent, were getting out of hand. When I went to a Barcelona-Rayo Vallecano game in Madrid two years ago, fans seated not too far from me hurled racist insults at Neymar Jr. Racism in Spain definitely extends far beyond the soccer stadium, but is it something black travelers should be concerned about?
In addition to studying in Bilbao, I also spent 10 months teaching English in Madrid. I moved to Madrid in 2015 because all I could think about after leaving Bilbao was going back to Spain. I could go on and on about the wonders of Spain – the festivals, the lifestyle, the Moorish architecture, Tinto de Verano, Rabo de Toro...But I also think it’s important to examine the glaringly obvious yet unacknowledged race issue there. Beneath the colorful images of Flamenco dancers and valiant matadors, there is hostility, intolerance, and discrimination.
My goal with this post isn’t to attack Spaniards or play the victim card. It is to address the concerns of black travelers who are skeptical about visiting Spain because they’ve heard countless stories about racism. I want to paint a complete picture of my experience in Spain to hopefully put those concerned travelers at ease.
Everyone experiences racism differently
Your perception of how racist Spain depends on your country of origin and your upbringing. Context matters a great deal. I’m a Nigerian-born, American citizen. Before moving to America at age 9, I had no concept of racism. Race is irrelevant in a black nation like Nigeria. What matters is your ethnic group or tribe.
Upon moving to America, my parents kept me focused on practical matters, such as getting straight As so I could get into college and go to medical school. I never paid attention to debates around race in America, and my experiences with white Americans in the suburbs of Los Angeles were overwhelmingly positive. That’s why I’ve normally dismissed microaggressions as a mere annoyance. What really irks me is blatant discrimination.
During my 15+ months in Spain, I rarely experienced blatant discrimination. Most of the racism I experienced was in the form of annoying microaggressions, which I initially ignored. But after experiencing unwarranted hatred day after day, it began to take a toll on my self-esteem. I’ll focus on incidents that occurred during my second move to Spain because they are fresher in my mind. I want you to take this with a grain of salt. My experience is just that – my experience. It’s not necessarily representative of the black experience in Spain.
The incident in Valencia
I was denied service at a tapas bar in the city of Valencia, in the eastern part of Spain.
My twin sister, Kosiso, our Chinese friend, Zulian, and I walked into the bar and sat down. We waited for the camarero (waiter) to take our order. He never did.
Some elderly Spanish people walked into the bar and the waiter served them immediately. I thought maybe he did that as an act of deference. But after close to 10 minutes of chatting and waiting, I looked up and made eye contact with him. He gave me the mother of all dirty stares as if he was disgusted by my mere presence. Then he continued what he was doing.
I was taken aback because I had frequented tapas bars around Spain without problems. Occasionally, I would get snarky comments, but I was never flat out refused service. That was the moment when I felt most unwelcome in Spain. First, I was livid. Then I felt sorry for that lowly piece of trash. You have to be miserable to go around filled with hatred for those who’ve done nothing to you. I wanted to rip that fool to shreds but took the higher ground. I wouldn’t stoop to his level. Instead, I graciously left the bar with my two companions.
Co-workers were rude and unfriendly
At the elementary school in Madrid where I taught English, there was a group of 40-something female teachers who made it quite clear that they didn’t like black people. One time, I was sitting at the lunch table with staff and heard them openly mocking my Senegalese twists. They didn’t even bother to hide their disparaging remarks. I was sitting right across the table! I wanted to fight them so badly, but I also needed a job. Pretending I didn’t hear them, I continued eating. Looking back, I regret not speaking up for myself. At the same time, I wonder if doing so would have made a difference. And what could have said anyway?
At the school, I really tried to get along with my co-workers, greeting teachers or staff in the hallways and playgrounds. Some of them would just ignore me. Others went as far as to roll their eyes and walk off. After experiencing this many times, I developed a new policy: as long as I was getting my paycheck on time (Spanish schools are notorious for paying teachers late) I couldn’t care less about those charlatans. Deep down, though, I did care a little. It was hurtful to be treated like garbage in a country that I thought so highly of.
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There appears to be a preference for white English teachers
Language assistants in Spain often supplement their income by offering private classes to the children of teachers at their school.
Two of my fellow assistants, Fola and James, were respectable black men with college degrees. The third, Jonah, was a white man not much different in temperament to the other two. However, the teachers clamored to work with Jonah. When he was all booked up, Jonah referred the teachers to Fola and James. They were simply not interested. It was Jonah or bust.
I brought up this issue with Fola, who had also worked at the school the previous year. Apparently, this was a pattern: the teachers always fought over the white language assistants. To them, minority language assistants were not fit to teach their precious kids. An alarming number of black and minority language assistants I spoke to told me similar stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if these incidents were part of a bigger trend.
There is a condescending attitude towards Latinos
At my school, there was a biracial Cuban teacher, the only non-Spaniard among the permanent staff. A kind and jovial man, he invited all the language assistants to his home for a Cuban dinner with his wife. He also took us on a day trip one weekend. Simply put: he was the only one among the older teachers who gave us the time of day.
The other teachers ostracized him for one reason: his Latino heritage. It was clear from their condescending attitude. They made fun of his accent and his mannerisms. They excluded him from teacher functions, like Friday lunches at a nearby bar. I guess it should come as no surprise that some Spaniards think they are superior to those from their former colonies. Especially those with melanin in their skin.
Bus rides made me feel like an alien
A considerable number of people, both young and old, would not sit next to me on the bus. You’d think I had two heads! Here’s a typical scenario: the bus is packed to the brim. Someone walks in, sees the seat next to me, looks me up and down, and then scurries to the back of the bus. If I got a dollar each time this happened, I would be a thousandaire!
In another bus incident, Fola and I boarded a shuttle to drive up to El Escorial, a monastery right outside of Madrid. When we got on, Fola asked the driver if he was going to the monastery just to be sure. The driver ignored him, pretending he hadn’t heard the question. I then repeated the question, but he just frowned, shrugged his shoulders, and murmured something under his breath. This is a hallmark of racism in Spain: being as rude and unhelpful as possible!
Blackface is a tradition
Spaniards don’t see anything wrong with blackface. During Christmas, Los Reyes Magos (the three wise men) are the star of the show. Forget Papa Noel (Santa Claus). Balthazar, one of the three wise men, is black. Every Christmas, Spanish men in every corner of the country put on blackface to portray Balthazar.
On a popular TV show, Tu Cara Me Suena (Your Face Looks Familiar), Spanish celebrities regularly dress up as black artists and perform their hit songs in front of judges. It’s like The Voice, Blackface style. I watched impersonations of Ne-Yo, Stevie Wonder, and Celia Cruz. They were beyond cringe-worthy!
The reasons Spaniards often give for using Blackface are:
1) It’s a harmless tradition that is not meant to be racist.
Their intentions may be harmless, but blackface is deeply offensive and racist. Period. Full stop. End of story.
2) They can’t find black people to portray Balthazar.
This may be the case in some small towns where there are no black people. What about in bigger cities like Sevilla, Madrid, and Barcelona? They can’t find a single black man in those places?
3) Spain doesn’t have a historical connection to Africa like America does – slavery and all that.
Really? Hmm…I wonder why there are black people in countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia. Did the Spanish not enslave Africans in their former colonies? Under the order of the Spanish Crown, African slaves were shipped to the Americas, via the Iberian Peninsula, in the early 16th century. The Spanish didn’t abolish slavery in their colonies until the end of the 19th century, behind other colonial powers. Just a little recap of history for those with historical amnesia.
And let’s not forget that the Moors ruled Spain for nearly 800 years. They built Spain’s most famous landmarks, like La Alhambra and La Mesquita de Córdoba. Spaniards seem to want to forget that part of their history. It must be a source of shame to acknowledge the irreversible influence that Africans have had on their culture and language. Case in point: sixth-grade history books at my school in Madrid briefly mention the Moors in a couple of pages and then expound on the glorious reconquest of Spain by the Catholic kings. The fact of the matter is that Spain has had centuries of relations with Africans, both as the rulers and the ruled. To claim innocence due to ignorance just doesn’t work. Next excuse…
African immigrants and Afro-Latinos have it even worse
Remember I said that your country of origin matters? It makes a big difference the type of black person you are. If you’re from America, Canada, or the UK, your passport affords you many privileges. People may be unfriendly, but they normally won’t go beyond that. If you’re an immigrant from Africa or Latin America, you’re far more vulnerable to discrimination because you have no safety net. It’s not like you can just pack up and go back to your country.
As a volunteer at a nonprofit in Madrid, I taught English to adult, black immigrants from countries like Senegal, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. A recurring theme in their stories was that securing a well-paying job in Spain was a Herculean task for immigrants of African descent. An Afro-Dominican woman told me that her job interview was cut short when she revealed her country of origin. These sorts of incidents can happen because Spain doesn’t have any laws against discrimination. The government has yet to acknowledge that racism is a problem. In fact, there is no dialogue about race in Spain, whatsoever.
On the streets and metro stations of major cities around Spain, you will almost always see African immigrants selling toys, bags, and jewelry, and other cheap goods. Those are basically the only jobs they do. There appears to be little social mobility for these immigrants, partly due to a lack of educational opportunities. But let’s say they did have a college education. Do you really think a Spanish firm would hire a Senegalese immigrant over one of their own? According to my Spanish friends, there’s an unspoken rule among Spaniards not to associate with ‘those people.’ African immigrants are not welcome in Spanish society, and that’s the unfortunate truth.
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Why You Should Visit Spain
Based on what I’ve written, you may be scratching your head wondering why I would still recommend you visit Spain. Here’s why I wholeheartedly recommend you book a flight to Spain.
The people are mostly amazing
For every racist pig I encountered, there were three extraordinary human beings. My landlady, Pilar, treated me as if I were her own daughter! She checked on me when I went out at night. Occasionally, she would cook me cocido madrileno, an assortment of meats. She went out of her way to make me feel at home. I cried my eyes out when I moved out because I was so touched by her kindness.
During my first week in Spain, I stayed with a family in the center of Madrid while I searched for an apartment. The couple was in their mid-forties and had a teenage son. The family invited me to breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them every day – for free! They told me stories about Cuenca, their hometown, and inquired about my experiences living in Nigeria and America. They showed me the best spots to eat in Madrid. I helped their son practice his English while he helped me practice my Spanish. This was a family of normal, decent human beings, like most Spaniards I met. I won’t make excuses for the racists, but I also won’t let their ignorance overshadow the good people.
Also, I should note that I mainly experienced racism from middle-aged and elderly Spaniards. Younger Spaniards didn’t seem to care about race at all. I became good friends with the 20-something teachers at my school. On the weekends, we went bar hopping and clubbing together. I met other young Spaniards at language exchanges, bars, clubs, and hostels. They were mostly curious about life in California. ‘Oh, Ca-lee-forrr-nya! Quiero ir (I want to go)’ was a common reaction.
Every region is unique
Every autonomous community has something different to offer, from the wine country in La Rioja to the pristine beaches of El Pais Vasco. Galicia, the last stop of the famous Camino de Santiago, has some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. Segovia is home to a real-life Cinderella castle; the Alcazar of Segovia was a source of inspiration for Walt Disney.
My favorite part of Spain is undoubtedly Andalusia, the southernmost autonomous community. This Morocco-esque region truly embodies the spirit of Spain and its traditions: the devotion to family, zeal for life, and fidelity to enjoying the little things. Andalusia is also the birthplace of Flamenco and, unlike in Barcelona, tapas come free with your drink! (That’s how it’s supposed to be.) Make sure you visit La Alhambra in Granada, La Mesquita de Cordoba, and El Alcazar de Sevilla. Those are some of the most beautiful architecture I’ve seen in all my 26 years.
After Andalusia, I would recommend El Pais Vasco, the Basque Country. San Sebastian is hands down the best city for food in Spain. The pintxos (tapas) bars there are on another league. The main beach, La Concha, is easily one of the best in Spain. Bilbao, where I studied abroad, is another favorite. It’s much quieter than San Sebastian but is great for art lovers.
The lifestyle will make you never want to leave
I love the fact that Spaniards work to live and make enjoying life a priority. Remember that I returned to Spain because I was so happy with my first experience? I was happy because of the carefree lifestyle that living in Spain afforded me. I could actually relax, have a drink, be fully present, and appreciate the little things. Back home I worked non-stop and rarely took a moment to breathe.
In the end, the unpleasant parts of living in Spain pale in comparison to the amazing experiences and incredible people I met. Some of my happiest memories are from Spain: visiting La Alhambra at night, watching a Flamenco show in Sevilla, going to the out-of-this-world Las Fallas festival in Valencia (yes, Valencia), feasting on seafood in A Coruña, lounging the beaches of Mallorca…the list goes on. I love Spain despite its flaws much like I love America and Nigeria despite their flaws. In fact, I consider it my third home.
Yes, racism in Spain is an issue, but if you’re visiting for a week or two you may not even notice. On the other hand, if you plan to live in Spain for some time, prepare to deal with some unpleasant treatment. That’s just the reality.
On my recent trip to Colombia, I met a young, adventurous African American woman. She said she didn’t want to visit Spain because of the racism. I replied with a condensed version of this post. If you’re in the same boat as her, I want you to hop out of it right now. Go to Spain! I guarantee you’ll have at least one experience that will make you go “Wowwwwwwww!” Don’t let the fear of racism stop you from exploring this beautiful world.
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