This post is aimed towards addressing concerns of black travelers who are planning to visit Spain but have their concerns due to countless infamous stories they heard about racism in Spain. Disclaimer: This isn’t an attack on Spain or Spaniards, it’s just the personal opinion of guest author Roubens Chadrack, an expat who has been living in Spain for more than 10 years. The goal of this article is, through his personal experiences, to paint a complete and neutral picture of Roubens’ experience in Spain, and hopefully help a lot of travelers answer the question “how does it feel like to travel as a black in Spain?”
You may not know this but there are roughly 1.3 million black people living in Spain. This accounts for 2% of the total population. This number is a lot lower than, for example, the United States, and hence, the chances of seeing racism are far lower but unfortunately, racism in Spain is still alive and should not be disregarded. Supporting the anti-racist cause in Spain and calling out racism when you witness it first-hand is important because, without this, racism in Spain, and in the world for that matter, will not be over anytime soon.
But before diving in deeper, let’s start with…
A quick history
Spain and North Africa have a long history filled with twists and turns. The first interaction between the two dates back to the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula of the 8th century led by Tariq-ibn-Ziyad (who by the way, Gibraltar is named after). Additionally, Spain and North Africa are only 14 kilometers away and parts of Spain were under Moorish rule for close to 8 centuries. This left strong marks on Spanish culture, cuisine, architecture, and even the language, especially in the southern parts.
Additionally, Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony until 1968 (also, Western Sahara was occupied until 1975) and many Guineans today live in Spain. Also, Spain technically has two towns on the North African coast that are a part of its territory (as we mentioned in our post about the strangest borders in the world). As you can see, Spain has strong historical, cultural, and to a descent, genetic ties with Africa. So, when you meet a black in Spain that speaks fluent Catalan or has a strong Andalucian accent, before complimenting them on their language skills, remember that the African presence in Spain goes way back.
Not-so known History
When the painful topic of slavery is brought up, most people associate it with the United States while Spain is often thought of as a liberal paradise with sunny beaches and sangria but in truth, things are not so simple. For starters, the USA didn’t even have a serious naval power until 1794 and the slave-trading began as early as 1526 with the first slaves being transported from Western Africa to Brazil (at the time, a part of Portugal).
The Atlantic slave trade in these few centuries was huge and in this era, Spain was arguably the world’s leading maritime power. There are indisputable historical evidence that Spanish ships were transporting African slaves to Cuba until 1867 even though the Council of Vienna banned slave trading in 1815. A rough estimate is that only between 1800 and 1866, there were 1,500 Spanish slave ships that transported close to 500,000 slaves from Africa to the Americas.
Yes, these things happened more than 150 years ago but unfortunately, instances of racism in Spain can still be noted…
Instances of racism in Spain
The most common instances of racism in Spain probably happen at the football fields. I was at the Villareal-Barcelona match when a banana was thrown at Dani Alves. In case you’re not familiar with this practice, football fans do it to draw a parallel between black players and monkeys. If it could happen to one of the world’s best footballers at the time, it could happen to anyone. But unfortunately, racism in Spain isn’t limited to the football fields, and being black in Spain isn’t that easy even today.
Furthermore, in 2016, the Spanish NGO, SOS Racismo conducted an experiment that showcased aspects of Spain’s systematic racism, specifically in the real estate market. The organization made close to 500 calls to different real estate agencies and visited some of them across Spain’s major cities. Most of the people who conducted the phone calls and visits were black and out of all the prospective tenants who were not offered any apartments or rooms, 70% of them were black with Sub-Saharan Africans being the most discriminated group.
Another incident that was heavily covered by the media was a black British stage actor being refused entry into a club in Malaga back in 2017. Tarinn Callender and his (also black) friend Caleb Roberts were denied entry at the club because “their tops were inappropriate” even though their outfits were not all that different from the people inside. One of the employees later told the Olive Press that the event had a “no-blacks policy” and unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident.
Black travelers often report incidents where they’re denied service in a restaurant, ignored by waiters, or even straight-up being told to leave. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t very common but the mere fact that it’s still happening today in one of the most visited countries in the world is disturbing.
Being black in Spain isn’t as easy as one might think. This leads us to the next point…
Common challenges of being black in Spain
As a black expat in Spain, I have personally experienced situations that made me think that being black in Spain isn’t easy. I won’t share my personal experiences in this article because I don’t want to play the victim card but I can write about some of the common challenges of being a black expat in Spain.
For starters, it’s surprisingly difficult to find shops that cater to Africans and African-Americans, having in mind that close to 2% of Spain’s population is black. There aren’t that many clubs that play hip-hop or RnB music, and black people are rarely portrayed in TV culture. So, from this point, Spain is very different from the United States but let’s note that this doesn’t have as much to do with racism as it does with cultural differences.
However, there are some things that might surprise you as a black traveler in Spain. For example, when black characters are showcased in TV culture, more often than not, they are portrayed in stereotypical roles. And in some parts of Spain, especially the north where there aren’t many black people, I feel that locals don’t have much experience with black people and tend to be more ignorant towards racist issues. Having in mind that the local TV is catered to such or similar groups, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
This is also why racial slurs like “negrito” or “negrita” aren’t labeled the same way they are in the states. In fact, these terms are quite common and many people don’t even consider them to be a racial slur but a word used to describe black people. I’ll refrain from commenting and let you be the judge about whether this excuse justifies the use of these words.
But don’t get me wrong, this post isn’t about criticizing Spain. If I didn’t like it here, I would have left years ago. Spain is a beautiful country and this article is not meant to discourage African or African-American people from visiting. I just want to address certain aspects of life in Spain and racism in Spain that need to be addressed. Nothing more, nothing less.
Everyone experiences racism differently
Needless to say, one’s perception of how racist Spain (and any other country) is has a lot to do with one’s country of origin and upbringing. For example, if you come from an African country where 99% of the population is black, you might have experienced ethnic or tribal discrimination but the concept of racism might be something new to you, at least when experiencing it first-hand. If you come from the US, it would be a completely different story.
In my first year in Spain, I rarely experienced blatant discrimination. There were a few isolated microaggressions that I ignored but after some time, things start piling up and affect one’s self-esteem. But this aside, I noticed division between races from the beginning. For example, the little corner stores that sell snacks and drinks are usually owned by people who emigrated from Asia or have Asian descent but are commonly referred to as “chino” (Chinese) stores while shops owned by Moroccans are called “tiendas de los moros” (the Arabs stores). Even though this isn’t necessarily racist on its own, it’s a fact that Spanish society feels a need to differentiate between different races and ethnicities.
Interestingly, the first major blatant discrimination I witnessed first-hand (fortunately not on my own skin) was in the school where I taught English. One of the teachers literally told a parent to improve their Spanish before coming to ask questions (the parent was black). And I would brush it off as an isolated incident if I haven’t heard so many similar stories from other English teachers, exchange students, and even volunteers.
One fellow English teacher was even insulted by a group of teachers who made it very clear that they don’t appreciate the fact that he’s there. Not only that, they made some remarks along the lines that the kids are too precious to be taught by a colored person. If teachers are capable of such open, blatant racism, it’s no surprise that racism is often not taken seriously in Spain, even in instances when it should be.
Now, if you’re from the US and you’re hearing these things, you might be shocked but the truth is, in Spain, people generally don’t care. Spaniards don’t pride themselves on being politically correct. They’re franker and a lot more straightforward than Americans, they differentiate between people and are not afraid to point out the (obvious) differences as a means of identifying people. It’s a cultural thing and after some time, you learn not to take it personally. Or is it?
Ignorance, collective amnesia, or both?
In most other countries, painting your face black to portray a black person is considered offensive or at least untasteful. However, in Spain, that’s completely normal. In a popular TV show, Tu Cara Me Suena (Your Face Looks Familiar), Spanish celebrities often put a blackface and try to copy African American artists. Also, during Christmas, people (especially teenagers) color their faces for the Three Kings Parade. It’s one of the longest Spanish traditions and most Spanish people don’t see anything harmful in it. Some even proceed to claim that Spain doesn’t have historical ties with Africa and slavery the way America does.
But if that’s the case, why are there black people in Latin American countries? Did the Spanish people not colonize all these countries and forcefully brought African slaves to use as workforce for their new expansions? And let’s also not forget that large chunks of Spain’s territory were under Moorish rule for centuries.
Centuries in which some of the most grandiose architectural achievements (i.e. La Alhambra, La Mesquite de Cordoba, etc.) in Southern Spain were built. I’m under the impression that this part of history is covered a lot less in history books compared to the glorious Reconquista and the medieval conquests and expansions that followed. Spain has had centuries of relations with Africa and Africans and claiming innocence because of ignorance is not an excuse.
But it doesn’t end there…
African and Afro-Latinos
Another interesting thing about racism in Spain is that apparently, there’s a difference between black African-Americans (and/or Europeans) and black Africans or Afro-Latinos. If you’re a black in Spain with an American/Canadian/European citizenship, your passport allows you some privileges. You might experience some inconveniences or people being unfriendly but that’s pretty much it.
However, immigrants from Africa or Latin America are far more vulnerable to systematic racial discrimination because they don’t have a safety net. Most of them are economic immigrants and for them, it’s hard to just pack up their bags and go back to their country. I’ve met many African and Afro-Latino immigrants and most of them claim that getting a well-paying job as a black immigrant in Spain is an extremely difficult task.
And many of these things happen because Spain doesn’t have a proper legal foundation against racial discrimination and there’s reluctance towards opening a debate regarding racial discrimination. Even if you try to talk to an average Spaniard about racial discrimination in Spain, they’ll brush it off by saying that everything is fine and that race is not a problem.
However, the facts tell a different story. On the streets and metro stations in most major cities in Spain, you’ll often see African immigrants selling toys, bags, and other cheap goods. For most black people in Spain, these are the only jobs they can get.
This is mainly because of their limited education and the limited education opportunities they have but the chances of a Spanish firm hiring a well-educated African immigrant (or even a native dark-skinned Spanish person) over a native person are not very realistic. The painful truth is African immigrants (and to an extent, Afro-Latinos) are just not welcome in Spanish society.
But what’s the reason for that? Here’s my honest take on this…
A country in transition
Despite Spain’s complex and intertwined history with Africa (especially the northern coast), the truth is that the phenomenon of immigrants was relatively unknown to Spain until the early 1990s. For a large part of the 20th century, Spain was considered a poor country by EU standards and many Spaniards were leaving their country to seek better opportunities abroad.
But in 1976, Spain started transitioning to parliamentary democracy after close to 40 years of dictatorship. Simultaneously, during the late 1970s, most European countries began to decline economically and the gap between Spain and the rest of the EU started decreasing and many Spaniards working abroad came back home.
But as Spain’s living standard increased, more immigrants started to come. In the 1990s, Spain’s net migration rate was positive for the first time in history (at least, since this statistic has been officially tracked by the authorities). The number of foreigners living in Spain increased from 360,655 in 1991 to 5,015,263 (7,231,195 if we count foreign-born residents from other European countries) which represents around 10% of the total population. That’s an increase of an astounding 13,000% in only 30 years.
The numbers suggest that Spain is a country in a social transition. Many Spaniards agree that dictatorship left strong effects on their society and that it still hurdles growth, especially when it comes to social changes. And that’s completely understandable; years of despotism and thinking inside the box can’t be erased overnight.
Some might say that I’m trying to oversimplify things but as in any transition, growing pains are inevitable. The incidents that I experienced and the negative experience I heard from other blacks in Spain doesn’t change the fact that I love Spain and living here has been an amazing experience. But we have to understand that Spain is a relatively new multi-racial society and a certain amount of friction towards change is present. That’s why I try not to take anything personally and use any opportunity I get to try to break all stereotypes and barriers that exist about being black in Spain when I get the chance.
Looking for some more inspiration about traveling in Spain? Make sure you check out some of our other posts.
How did you like this post? Did you like this guide to traveling/living as a black in Spain? What are your thoughts on racism in Spain? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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