I’ve unfortunately only had the occasion to travel to Spain once. A major international pharmaceutical company hired me to conduct two 1-day workshops for them in Madrid. That meant I flew down the day before my first workshop and flew home the day following my last one with only a couple of hours to spare for sightseeing and people-watching.
I had always heard conflicting stories about Spain and the Spanish where race issues are concerned. Their “racially insensitive” welcome of black British Formula 1 race car driver, Lewis Hamilton has been widely reported.
One of my biggest reservations was that – for the 1st time in a very long time – I would be on territory where I didn’t really speak the language. At all! (Funny, though, how those little bits of Spanish learned during childhood actually did kick in once I hit the ground…) Although I know I how to hold my own in English, I know from experience that it’s sometimes necessary to be glib in someone else’s native language to let them know you don’t suffer fools gladly.
On my 2nd evening in Madrid I grabbed a book and wandered over to a little snack shop around the corner from my hotel for a quick meal. While I was there, I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between one of the shop’s Spanish owners and an African man, who was apparently a regular. Both of them had spent time in German, so they spoke to one another in Germany (otherwise I wouldn’t have known what the heck they were talking about).
Their topic: Racism in Spain.
The Spanish shop owner professed his own openness to all peoples. While living in Germany he has experienced first-hand what it feels like to sometimes be treated with disrespect and disdain simply because you – obviously – aren’t a member of the majority. However, he also readily admitted that not all of his Spanish compatriots had the same openness of attitude to non-Spaniards.
The African gentleman gave a very nuanced account of his own experiences in both countries. He was obviously still a little ill at ease with some of the very overt racism he’d encountered in Spain. Racism that was triggered by the color of his skin and magnified by his (perceived) class, as well as his lack of total fluency in Spanish.
I had to remember this overheard conversation today when I surfed over to one of my favorite blogs, Afro-Europe. Written by a black Belgian, yesterday’s post recounts a conversation with another black Belgian who now lives in Spain:
“…My friend’s perspective on racism is that it is a universal thing. People just express it in very different ways. According to him, while there is racism in Belgium, people hide it more than in Spain. In Spain people who don’t like you for your appearance will show you their contempt. In Spain, they rather see you leave their shop than sell you something…”
You can read the rest of this post – which goes on to contract his experience with Northern versus Southern European racism – here.
One very enlightening aspect of one of my workshops was the conversation between its participants on the subject of acceptance. Although some of the ladies were Madrileñas, others were from Spanish-speaking countries in South and Central America, and one was from Japan. This wasn’t a conversation about race, per se, though it showed very clearly that even small things – like a very different accent or different vocabulary – can mark you as an outsider. And, unfortunately, that’s enough for some people to view you as “other” and treat you accordingly.
Interested in knowing more about what it’s like to be “living in Spain while black”? Check out Ieishah’s blog, Fat Juicy Oyster!
And for more info about Spain and Lewis Hamilton, have a look at this post over on My American Meltingpot.