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.



  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.



  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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15 Responses

  1. Nicole says:

    Hi Shayla! This is my first time reading your blog and just want to start by saying this is a great post 🙂 I am obviously not a woman of color so my experiences and my comment will be coming from the angle of a white Hispanic who has now lived in two large Spanish cities (Sevilla and Madrid). My school is primarily composed of students who are immigrants or minorities, including kids with Gypsy backgrounds. I definitely feel like one’s race/background is used as an identifier, something that would never happen in America without some serious backlash. I like you think it has to do to a certain extent with political incorrectness. Spaniards in my experience have been notoriously blunt, and America is, in my opinion, polite and politically correct almost to a fault. I am fully bilingual from birth but I still get called out on my “South American accent.” My [Spanish] boyfriend’s grandmother has even made some snide comments on how my Spanish is not pure or how I’m not really Spanish even though my mother is of full European background. And she (for the most part) likes me! There’s no qualms about calling people out on their identity, just as there are no qualms about calling people out on gaining weight to their face (yes, sadly, I’ve seen it happen).
    The one thing I would disagree on you with is the idea that Spaniards don’t have much variation physically. Many Spaniards I’ve spoken to have commented on how northerners look different from southerners or what have you. The general consensus seems to be that those of the north (particularly in Galicia) look more “Celtic” (not my word) whereas those in the south, especially Andalucía look more like the stereotypical Spanish woman: dark hair, dark eyes, curves. Of course this might be an opinion that’s not as common in Madrid (although I’ve gotten in from some of my private students) but living in Sevilla, some people talked about the north like it was essentially a different country.
    Again, great post and thanks for sharing your perspective!

    • Shayla says:

      I’m glad you brought up the gypsy term because I STILL don’t really know what that means. I’ve had some Spanish friends try to explain it to me but I think I just ended up more confused than before. That “not really Spanish” comment had to have been so annoying! Also I agree about the weight comments. The director at my school tells me I’m too skinny all. the. time. I guess when I mentioned physical variations I meant more so skin color and striking physical attributes but you’re probably more accurate. Thanks for reading!

      • Nicole says:

        I’m a bit unclear on gypsy as well, but my general understanding is that it is an ethnicity as well as a culture. They trace their original back to India but a lot of the ones who live in Spain now have either been here for centuries or migrated from Eastern Europe. I know some people assume they are from Romania because the technical term is “Rumani” but it appears that that’s more coincidental. It’s a but difficult to explain but they have their own culture and way of doing things. One of my gypsy students has not bothered to hide the fact that when she is 15 she is expected to marry, stop school, and basically dedicate herself to her family. As a group they face huge stigma all over Europe and even in other countries people use the term gypsy in public and to people’s faces. I think out of all my kids they’re probably the ones that face the largest pile of stereotypes and in my experience they as a people face more dislike from the Spanish than any other group. It’s to the point where if I’m complaining about a student and mention that he/she is gypsy, people will actually say “oh, that explains everything.”

  2. courtney says:

    incredibly insightful post! interesting to see you break down the difference between racism and just plain name rude. because as an African American I would automatically go into defense mode and would probably 90% of the time deem rudeness from a non black automatic racism.

    people all over the world have some growing up to do when it comes to race relations. your presence is informing and enlightening those around you which is causing them to be more politically correct and less ignorant. cheers to you for changing the world one person at a time.

    • Shayla says:

      Thank you! Trust me, I had to constantly catch myself over what was just typical Spanish bluntness vs. actual racist comments. It was a learned process!

  3. Elle says:

    I’m glad someone is putting another point of view forward because I’ve read some Facebook posts online recently ‘preparing’ people of colour for the racism of Spain and setting up groups for people of colour only etc. and I have to say, that really bugs me. I do understand (mainly from media and posts like yours) that the USA and Britain have very different levels of race issues but it speaks volumes that in a British group I’m a part of, no-one would ever, and I do mean ever, set up a private non-whites side group and yet when this happened in the USA group I was in, no-one blinked! I find it interesting that while we criticise people for their ignorance (e.g. asking personal questions and touching hair etc.), we seem to be forgetting that maybe that’s ignorant of us? i.e. who says it’s rude to ask people questions or to stare? We do. In our societies. That doesn’t make it true. I get stared at all the time in foreign countries and I’m white. It’s probably because strangers and foreigners easily stand out, typically because of what they’re wearing and the language they are speaking. I get personal questions and I have actually had kids trying to touch my hair or clothes before so I know this isn’t racism, it’s like your post said: ignorance. Or instead of rudeness, maybe it’s just normal inquisitive behaviour for them? What’s actually wrong with quickly establishing who you’re referring to by saying ‘the black person’ when you know they are the only one in a particular group or class (assuming you and/or the people you’re talking to don’t know their name of course). It’s almost as though our societies decided a while ago that it is impolite to point out someone’s race or colour…why?! There’s nothing wrong with being black or white and if you don’t know someone’s name and a person’s race easily identifies them, what would be better? ‘The person with the dark eyes, dark hair, slim build and lovely smile’? I do think political correctness is great because it helps overcome a lot of social injustice but there are limits and times when common sense applies.

    • Shayla says:

      Your point about the facebook group totallyyyyy supports that article I posted from NY Mag about the “new look of racism”, if you will. Did you read it?? As an African-American I can say that the need to create groups like that on Facebook stems from a learned need to self-segregate based on things we learn in the states. Personally, I knew that I had questions about moving abroad that had to do with strictly being a black woman like where to get my hair done, where to get certain products, if I could find shades of make up in my skin color in Spain, etc. Most African-Americans simply feel more comfortable posting these sorts of questions in an environment where everyone else may have the same sorts of questions or concerns. Now that you’ve brought it up, it is a bit odd but I do understand the need/want for comfort that those specific groups provide. Thanks so much for reading/commenting!

  4. Pocero says:

    Hi Shayla,

    I would sincerely like to thank you for writing this and sharing your candid opinion as it’s a topic that is unfortunately swept under the rug more often than not.. Also, I appreciate you taking time to highlight the differences between the terms. People misuse those words ****way too often, *** which irks me since sociology is one of my favorite subjects. Please know that there are plenty of us out there who do not label you as someone who hates USA. I will be a new auxiliar in northern Spain and naturally have had some concerns about race and how Spaniards will receive me. I think it’s so important to realize that these types of experiences can/will occur regardless of geographic location and are inherent with living/traveling abroad, particularly for African Americans. I also fully agree that we have one of two options: label the host country as a bunch of ignorant folks and return home or use their lack of cultural awareness as an opportunity to challenge assumptions, educate through honest dialogue and promote better race relations.

  5. Shayla says:

    Hi! I think there is much truth to your point and I base that opinion off what I see some of my immigrant students going through, but I believe that I can only comment/write about my own personal experience. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Gracie says:

    I am a black woman who lived in madrid, I actually read this article around the time it was first published and did not comment, but know I feel compelled to. you can’t discount colonialism with talking about racism in Spain. the colonial project was innately steeped in racisim. it may not be useful to compare american and european racism “apples to apples” but you can’t ignore it. that said, i loved many things about Spain. Immigration may be new to Spain, but colonialsim is not. The idea of racial differentiation and eurocentrism is not new.

    • An says:

      Actually I disagree that colonialism was racist. Colonialism was economically motivated. European colonization was not based on race, in fact they would colonise other European countries too given the chance. Of course there was racism during the process as well, this is more like a byproduct, like rich people looking down on poor people.

      Spanish colonization was actually the least racist. The Spanish mixed with local populations and African slaves creating mixed race societies and vibrant mixed cultures, cuisines and music. There was a caste system to keep Spanish people at the top but this was more economically motivated than race motivated.

  7. An says:

    I’m Vietnamese and I would say that in Vietnamese culture it is the same thing. We identify people by their appearance so that can include long hair, short hair, fat, thin, black, white, tall, short etc. So when calling someone we might say hey short hair! Or hey skinny girl etc Also it is common to call family members nicknames like Fat Uncle or dark aunty based on their physical appearance. If a black person goes to Vietnam, chances are people will call them black. It doesn’t have any racist or negative connotation but more like a friendly and casual way of referring to people. I believe this is the same way in Spain, and in many other cultures. I think Anglo Saxon cultures are way too sensitive with this issue and also English is quite a stiff language and doesn’t lend itself to a lot of playfulness like in other languages. When I first learnt Spanish I really liked this common feature of Spanish and a Vietnamese.

    In our cultures this is not considered rude. In fact if you are black and you go to Vietnam and someone calls you Chi Den which literally translates as black sister, you should be flattered because this is a very friendly way of referring to someone and the person who said it must have a lot of affection for you, not hate or ignorance. We will also tell you if you’ve gained weight or if a dress look ugly on you. This is not rude in our culture but overt friendliness and you should thank them for their honest opinion rather than being offended!

    Unfortunately the race experience in America was amongst the worst and Americans have become overly sensitive to skin colours.

  8. East Bay, Northern California says:

    Cool article. Thanks for sharing. Peace from the States.

  9. Erik Granum says:

    Shayla, thanks for writing this article! I’m teaching an advanced class in English to a group of Spanish college students. Based on some of the things I’ve seen in Spain I thought it would be interesting to teach a portion of the course through the lense of racism in America … mostly as a selfish excuse to explore perceptions of racism in Spain! The overarching response I’ve had from my students is that there is basically no racism in Spain. I’ve had so much difficulty trying to rationalize that perspective when the same students show me photos of themselves dressed in black face for carnaval.

    But you’re absolutely right. It isn’t racism, it’s just rude. And not mean spirited, but maybe just a kind of mindless insensitivity that comes from never being on the losing end of marginalization — or knowing someone who has. In any case, I’m excited to continue the conversation with them after the helpful shift in perspective that your article has given me.

    Thank you!

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