Hey everyone! I really liked the response I got to Erin’s interview. (Well, except for one, but when you bring up anything even semi-controversial, I suppose you can expect some of that!) So I decided to reach out to another woman of color in Spain, Sarah. Again, we “met” on Twitter, and she has lived in Valladolid for the past year. Now she’s coming to Madrid! But I’ll let her do the introducing.
Just as an aside to any Spaniards reading: With these interviews, I aim to highlight a different side of Spain and blogging about Spain. In no way am I saying racism here is worse than in the U.S.; it’s just different. And, yes, it exists in Spain as well as the U.S.! The women I have interviewed here like Spain, even love it.
Describe how you first got interested in Spain.
When I was in elementary school, my hometown was predominantly white. However, by the time I got into high school, the school was 70% Hispanic. The huge influx of immigrants into my town made me really interested in learning about Hispanic culture and of course the Spanish language!
Going into college, I was most excited about studying abroad. During my junior year, I studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain. I chose Spain because it was a semester long program versus the other countries that were only short four week programs during the Summer months. I had no idea what to expect upon arriving. It was by far my favorite semester of school. Within four short months, I had fallen in love with the laid back lifestyle, kind people, rich culture, and delicious food–set a plate of croquetas in front of me and I’m basically in heaven. Since that semester, I was aching to go back to Spain and live la vida española again!
How good was your Spanish when you first got to Spain? Do you feel like your level of Spanish affected how people treated you?
When I first arrived to Spain, I could not speak Spanish at all even though I had studied it for YEARS. I remember getting in the car with my host family for the first time and barely being able to form sentences correctly! Haha.
I definitely had occurrences where people would treat me poorly or rudely because my Spanish was subpar. For example, going into the supermarket or a shop in general and asking for something but you can’t remember how to say it in Spanish, you get a lot of eye rolling or general attitude. This constantly happens in my bank! Ugh.
However, my personal favorite experience happened this past year in Pamplona, I was in a shop with a friend talking to the shopkeeper. He had asked us where we were living in Spain. I dread getting this question because it’s quite difficult to properly pronounce “Valladolid”. Anyway, he asked us and then didn’t understand us. We repeated it multiple times. My friend even tried spelling it. We said it slowly, we said it quickly, we articulated it, but he just did not get it. Finally, when he understood us (after about 10 million tries) he yelled at us pretty intensely saying that we need to properly learn how to speak Castellano and that we were an embarrassment. He yelled so intensely we dropped everything we were looking at and just ran out of the store. That’s probably the worst I’ve been treated here in Spain.
What did you know about Spain’s diversity and treatment of POC before going there? Did you read anything specific to help prepare yourself?
I didn’t know much about Spain’s diversity in general before arriving. I had never read anything or even looked anything up. I guess you could say it wasn’t even on my radar to look into any of that kind of stuff. I’ve never lived in an area where I have felt aware or been treated differently because I’m a POC. So, I never even considered that I would have to prepare myself to be a POC in Spain at all.
What’s different about racism in Spain vs. the US?
This question was particularly difficult for me to answer. I think this is particularly because I haven’t been personally attacked for being a POC in Spain. However, I’ve had conversations with Spaniards about the racism in Spain versus in the US. I had a friend in particular defend Spain by saying that what Americans would view as racist and unacceptable is viewed as acceptable and normal in Spain. Take for example when the Spanish basketball players posed in a picture during the 2008 Beijing Olympics with their eyelids pulled back portraying a Chinese person. Many Spaniards didn’t see the issue with that picture at all. I’m not saying that all Spaniards are blind to what’s racist and not. I would just say that this is a clear difference between what is considered racist in the US versus in Spain.
Did any aspect of your experience surprise you?
At first, it greatly surprised me that there are some racist things that occur in Spain that Spaniards don’t realize could be even the slightest bit offensive to POC. I’ve heard people say that Spaniards are just ignorant to racism. I don’t think this is ignorance. However, I think it is just the difference between how the US views racism versus what Spain views. In America we have such an intense history of racial maltreatment that we are much more sensitive to racism. I constantly have to remind myself that Spaniards weren’t brought up with the same racial sensitivity that Americans are. It doesn’t make it okay, but it’s just something to think about.
What have been some positive experiences you’ve had? Negative?
I wouldn’t say this is necessarily positive, but it’s quite funny that this happened. I worked in a small pueblo of Valladolid called Medina de Rioseco. Let me first say, I love this town with all my heart and now refer to it as my own pueblo. I stick out in the town for a multitude of different reasons. One of the main ones is that I was the first auxiliar de conversación to ever come to the town. During my first month as an auxiliar, I was walking down the street to my school. An elderly lady stopped me on the street to say hello and welcome me. I thought it was so nice and kind of her! Then at the end of our conversation, she said to me “You’re the first black woman I’ve ever met in my life!” I ended up just laughing the comment off and saying it was lovely to meet her. It wasn’t an offensive comment at all. Just something I’ve never come across in my life!
This is probably one of the more significant racial issues that occur in Spain. “Blackface” is when a person who is not black paints their face black in order to portray a black person. This is common in Spain particularly during the Christmas holidays as people start portraying the Three Wise Men. It can also be seen during the holidays of Carnival in February. At my school during Carnival, there is a great festival where all the different grade levels (teachers included!) dress up and do a musical number in front of the whole town. The cafeteria staff portrayed the classic Sister Act nuns. It was hilarious to see them all dressed up until one of them came out with a painted face and black afro to portray Whoopi Goldberg. At the time, I felt quite uncomfortable because no one else had reacted to the apparent racist nature of the costume. It was obvious that I was the only one who wasn’t comfortable with what was occurring. Everyone just assumed I would think it was hilarious as well. The worst part was that I didn’t know how to react, I didn’t know where to go, who to talk to, or what to say. I felt that if I had spoken up about how I thought the costume was inappropriate, it would be just me against the entire school and community in general. It took another occurrence of “Blackface” for me to realize how I should have handled this situation.
I worked at a summer camp this past year. Each night there were different activities for the kids to partake in. One specific night was a celebrity night. A group of the Spanish monitors dressed up as the Spice Girls. One of the monitors painted their face black to portray Scary Spice. Again, it didn’t occur to them that this was an inappropriate costume–especially at an English summer camp. However, two of the American teachers took it upon themselves to appropriately speak up about the situation. By speaking to our immediate boss who then spoke to his higher up, the situation was resolved. The monitor removed the face paint was explained to why “Blackface” is racist and inappropriate.
I wish I had had the courage to speak up about my hurt feelings during carnival, but I’m grateful I now know how to handle this type of awkward situation. I believe that by educating people (in an appropriate way) on the racist aspect of “Blackface”, it hopefully won’t occur as much.
Did any of your coworkers treat you differently because you weren’t what they expected?
Apart from the Carnival incident, I never had any wrongful experiences with my school. My coworkers were all extremely welcoming from day one. I’m grateful they never treated me differently in any way. They were all very supportive of everything I did at school. Additionally, the entire town welcomed me with open arms. It’s nice to know that even though racism is a very real problem in Spain, it’s clearly not an innate trait of all Spaniards.
What have you learned this year?
I’ve learned that it’s definitely okay to voice your opinion if you see something that you believe to be racist or inappropriate in any manner. Sometimes Spaniards (as well as people in general) don’t realize that what they are doing can be hurtful. Education is how people learn, grow, and change. Stand up for yourself, speak your feelings, and help others realize that racism is a real issue here in Spain.
Any advice for future WOC (and/or POC) who come to Spain?
Don’t be afraid to turn an offensive, uncomfortable, or awkward situation into a learning experience. If you’re feeling personally attacked, make it known–don’t just let it go and move on. Sometimes the racism in Spain occurs because Spaniards are unaware that what they are doing or saying can be offensive. If the racism isn’t directly targeted at you, but you still find it offensive, it’s okay to find an appropriate way to voice your concern.
Finally, remember that what’s seen as inappropriate and racist in America could be viewed differently here in Spain. I’m not saying that makes it okay, it’s just something to think about.