Think twice before calling Madrid a “racist” city.

So I thought it’d be important to preface this post with the definition of two words that are often misused, overused, incorrectly interchanged and rarely understood. After reading my thoughts on this topic that is hardly ever talked about (but I am constantly asked about in private), I ask that you scroll back up and re-read these definitions, THEN form your own opinions on race relations in Madrid…if you have any.

Prej·u·dice

noun

  1. preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.
  2. an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
  3. any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.
  4. unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group.

Rac·ism

noun

  1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
  2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
  3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

Ok, so where to begin? I guess I should issue a few disclaimers. First, I’m only here to share my personal experience in Madrid and the reported experiences of my friends, yet even those are hearsay. Second, if you haven’t noticed already, I am an African-American woman who is living abroad for the first time in Madrid, and I have been here for just about eight months. I think that’s enough to start, I’m sure other defenses of my opinion will come up later.

I’m just going to jump right in and say that I believe that America is one of the most, if not the most fundamentally racist countries in the world as it relates to the definition above (racist doctrine, racist systems of government, institutionalized racism, etc.). That’s not to say that I don’t love America or that I think that everyone in America is racist (come on)…it’s basically just fact. The country was stolen from native people that were then cast aside to only live in designated regions of the land, America was literally built by a completely different race that was stolen from their home continent and then enslaved, then decades later, the two main races in the country (although all of the people were natural born citizens) were kept segregated for decades and integration came at the cost of lives of regular folks as well as governmental leaders, human dignity, entire cities as a result of riots and fires and so much more. Please, don’t fight me on this…just open a history book.

All of that said, living abroad has taught me that these days, America has some amazing things going for her when it comes to race relations and the main aspect isssss…race relations actually exists! The different races in America know how to relate to each other! America has never been a homogeneous society. Even if we didn’t all have the same quality of products and oh…human rights, Americans of different races still knew how to function around each other, for the most part. Sure, there are pockets of the rural US where a Black, Mexican or Asian person might get a second glance in an all-white town, but chances are you won’t get openly gawked at or have comments directed at you that could be seen as “rude” or “uncouth”.

Which brings me to Madrid.  Please keep in mind that I am only basing my opinions on Madrid and not SPAIN. I have not lived all over Spain therefore I do not know how every single person in this entire country thinks.  So in my opinion, Madrid is pretty diverse. There are people living here from all over Europe, Africa, South America, Australia and of course my fellow Americans.  I personally find it exciting to hear different languages on the street and be able to meet people from different cultures that I would probably not find in America. I’m not sure that Madrilenians (people from Madrid) feel the same way.  Spain, as a whole, is very new to this concept of immigration (especially from Africa) and their past history with immigration hasn’t been the best.  For hundreds of years, Spain has been a fairly homogeneous society, so I have noticed that when a Spanish person sees someone that looks drastically different than they do (usually with darker skin), they may stare or make politically incorrect comments. Do I think they are racist? Not necessarily. Do I think they might be prejudice? Sure. But who isn’t? Do I think they are simply curious and have no “am I being rude?” filter? Absolutely.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I felt that the brashness of Madrilenians/Spaniards was offensive.  I was asked everything from “what are you?” to “how many guys have you slept with since you’ve been here?” by people I barely knew at all.  Of course my natural response was “none of your damn business” and oddly enough, I was seen as the strange, defensive newcomer.  Luckily, Madrilenians are pretty patient so just as easily as they were able to explain that they were just curious, I was able to explain why those questions were rude.  “What are you?,” has to be my favorite question of all time. Ironically, the first time I was asked this question was in America and I was thoroughly confused. Now I just like to screw with people and respond by saying “a tree” or something stupid just so I can shame them muahahaha.

I think there are a lot of factors that make African-Americans feel like Madrid is a racist city. One issue that I can personally attest to is showing up to Madrid with my own concepts of “appropriate” ways to manage race relations (based on things learned in America) and my over-sensitivity to what kind of actions or comments could be perceived as racism (again, based on things I learned/saw in America). One concept that I hauled over here from America is that of “double consciousness,” a term coined by W.E.B. Du Bios to describe the feeling that African-Americans must always look at themselves through the eyes of other people. I can 100% relate to the idea that in America, I constantly thought about how I would be perceived or interpreted before speaking or acting because I felt like I was acting on behalf of my entire race.  *Disclaimer: I’ve always been proud of that responsibility because breaking notions about what black women “should/shouldn’t” or “can/can’t” do is one of my favorite activities.* I have found that the concept of double consciousness doesn’t really apply to Spain, but it was a really hard notion to shake once I got here. As a result and in hindsight, I can see that I was oversensitive to comments from Madrilenians that would be deemed as extremely politically incorrect in America, but I constantly had to remind myself that this ain’t America.

Now for some politically incorrect examples.

In my opinion, the most jarring, politically incorrect practice that is very common in Madrid is that of using race as a means of identification.  As I mentioned, most Spaniards have a very clear perception of what a Spanish person looks like because well, there’s not much variation regarding the skin color/features of Spaniards or Europeans for that matter.  If you don’t look like a white European, many Spaniards will assume that you are in fact not from Spain (and they are probably right) and then try to figure out a way to identify you…often by your race or background instead of say…your name. Here are two examples.  Corner stores in Madrid where you can find anything from kitchen utensils to birthday cards are commonly referred to by Madrilenians as “Chinos” because they are often run by people of Asian descent. It is completely unclear as to whether the owners of these stores (that should actually be called an “alimentacion” according to their signs) are actually from China, but apparently that’s besides the point.

I also had the experience today where an admin at my school was speaking to a class of students and while describing a student of African descent, he used the term “el Negrito”.  Of course my eyes popped and I’m sure the expression on my face said “what the hell did he just say?” but everyone else in the class either didn’t react or just had a light bulb moment of recognition where they realized who the teacher was referring to. Obviously my American perspective caused racism bells to go off in my head when in reality, this admin was simply using race as a way to easily differentiate this student from all of the other Spanish kids at the school.  I’m fairly certain that using the students name would have been enough, but maybe not.  I don’t think this practice should be accepted, but I also don’t think that there was any maliciousness behind his lack of cultural awareness.

Example number 3. I have a friend who is African-American and has natural hair, meaning she usually wears it in a curly afro.  As mentioned before, Madrid/Spain has been a fairly homogeneous society since like, forever, so you can bet that my friend is unlike anyone that most Spaniards have ever seen before.  Does my friend get stared at? Yes (granted that could also be because she’s very pretty). Do people try to touch her hair without asking? Of course. Could this also happen in America?…mmm probably.  In fact, there’s a documentary about the fascination around touching natural African-American hair here.

I have some African-American friends who live here that think that what my girlfriend goes through is racism. I disagree. People staring at you because you look different than them, or being confused because you have a name that they’ve never heard before (unique Spanish names are few and far between, trust me) isn’t racist, it’s just rude.  I don’t think that Madrilenians intend to be rude or ignorant, they are just upfront when they want to know the answer to something and they don’t think twice about whether or not a statement or question is polite.  Usually, Americans have more of a filter. We can tell when a question is going to be taken the wrong way, but is it really better to not ask a question and remain ignorant or just ask and be humble enough to explain to someone that you truly don’t understand something?

Either way, it all goes back to Madrid/Spain just getting their footing when it comes to race relations. I believe that their concept of people with darker skin is just African, period. When they see an African-American they don’t know what to think. I’ve been asked if I’m Brazilian, Cuban, Dominican and when I respond that I’m “just black (lol)” they seem so disappointed! Oh well, not my problem. Either way, I’m not going to let someone’s cultural ignorance anger me because frankly, I’m honest enough to know that there are times when they could call me culturally unaware as well. I’d rather take the stand that if they didn’t know that an African-American person could look like myself, well then I’m damn happy to enlighten them. I’m not going to get all sensitive and brush them off as racist simply because they don’t have a broader concept of what people of the world look like. I’d rather shine some clarity.

Now that I’ve clearly stated my case (I hope) regarding my American interpretation of political incorrectness in Spain as it relates to race, I will share a personal story of racial profiling that happened to me in Madrid BUT this situation is obviously not limited to just this city. One day I was in the Atocha train station on the way home from school and I was waiting on the platform for the metro. A metro security lady approached me and asked to see my abono (my monthly transportation pass that has my photo on it), and I was the only person on the platform that she asked for documentation. She looked at it for about 15 seconds, said gracias, patted me on the arm and then walked away. Naturally, my mental reaction was “what the entire fuck was that?”. She asked to see my documents because I’m clearly not Spanish so she pre-judged me by assuming that I was either illegal or had stolen someone else’s pass. Was I unfairly pre-judged based on my race? Yes. Does this kind of thing happen in America to people of color all the time? Yes. Does it make either situation acceptable? No. Basically I tell that story to say that Madrid is no more “racist” that anywhere else, especially if you’re an African-American comparing it to life in the states.

This next paragraph is going to get me hate mail, but I guess what annoys me is that I don’t think it’s fair for African-Americans to come to Madrid and deem it racist and use that as a reason to go back home…when they’ve just come from America. Living abroad has taught me that every country has its shit. There is no perfect place.  You either adapt and conform to your surroundings, or you actively try to change the issues of inequality and abuse of human rights that are taking place in your homeland or new home country (I recommend the second option). I believe that everyone has their own choice to make when it comes to this issue in Madrid but personally, there are like 800 other things that are way more appalling to me, like how hardly anyone picks up their mounds of dog poop or how it’s socially acceptable for people to pee in the street. Gah-ross.

I’m not going to lie, living abroad as an African-American isn’t easy, but I’ve realized I have a role to play in terms of making a smooth transition here.  I think before leaving America, it’s easy to assume that race relations in other countries are going to be much better than they are in the states, but that simply isn’t true. Racism and prejudice is so multi-faceted and it’s not fair to try to compare one country’s race issues with another because everywhere is different.  I also think that racism doesn’t have the same look as it did 60 years ago, indicated by this thought-provoking article and study from New York Magazine that presents the argument that racism is less about oppressing or harming those that are a different race than you, but instead more about increasing segregation by only helping those that are the same as you. Hmmmmmm! Read it here.

So, I want to hear from you. Are you getting ready to move to Madrid or anywhere else in Spain and are you worried about racism? Have you lived here for a while and had some of your own experiences? Got any other examples of political-incorrectness that you want to share? Let me know below!

**GOD I hope this goes without saying but I can already feel the anti-American comments coming my way so I just want to say that I love me some good ol’ US of A and can’t wait to be back**

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