Racism in Spain

All of my life I’ve come up against racism, from receiving racial slurs and comments, to stares, to persistent questioning about my racial background from complete strangers. Race is something that I have always been and will always be aware of.

Last year in Andalucia, in my small town of Linares, race was not as much of an issue. While people would do double takes on seeing me, no one was ever rude about it. People were more fascinated with the fact that I’m from New York and would strike up conversations about my hometown and how I ended up in Linares of all places. And other than a couple of my kids asking me one day why my skin was brown and another smart ass kid who would bow when he saw me at the academy, I didn’t come across many issues.

Here in Gijon, it’s a bit different, and I’m actually quite in shock. I’ve already received comments from several children, some of whom are as young as six. Even walking down the street is enough to make my blood boil depending on the mood I’m in. There are no double takes here. There is only outright, bold staring until the person finally walks past you. Again depending on the mood I’m in I throw a dirty look their way or I smile and wink.

When one of my students asked me last night if I sell stuff in a chino (the name that they have for stores similar to dollar stores that are only ever run by Chinese people, thus the name), I couldn’t believe my ears.  It reminds me of my 1st graders last year who said they didn’t like Black people when they saw me coloring in a character with a brown crayon and the Gypsy girl who said that all Gypsy people are bad. I don’t take offense from the comments themselves as they come from children, but it is the larger problem that they represents about the education of the children and of the parents in Spain that makes me incredibly upset.

The segregation of the races here is quite apparent. The Africans sell things illegally in the streets and the Chinese sell cheap products in the chinos. There are also a scattering of young Chinese children, the majority of whom are adopted by Spanish parents. All other foreigners are mainly Europeans, so while there may be employees of other nationalities they are not as much in the minority as I am- an Oriental looking, brown skinned teacher. I am quite literally a minority of a minority.

I lost my temper last night after experiencing that class. Sometimes I just get fed up with it. Sometimes it’d be nice to just be Nina. Not la china, not the multiracial girl, not the person on showcase when people find out my different races. But 95% of the time race is on my mind because 95% of the time it is on other people’s minds.

As upset as I am, I am also extremely grateful for these experiences. They are motivating me in a way like never before to continue on my path as an educator. As I delve into issues of diversity and multiculturalism with my bachillerato classes, I realize more and more that this is my mission. After being on the verge of starting a second Master’s degree in Multicultural Education and realizing that I needed to gain more experience before embarking on the road of research, I can’t help but smile at how apt that decision was paired with what I’m experiencing here.

I know that the road ahead is going to be even more difficult, but I’m happy to be learning the lessons I am now so that I can help to turn this tide of racism.


6 thoughts on “Racism in Spain

  1. beenamazing says:

    I can definitely relate to this on certain levels! I’m also here in Spain, I’m teaching English at a school in Vitoria Gasteiz (the capital of Pais Vasco). I get the stares, the whispers, and the ridiculous comments. I’ve gotten a few hateful comments from one little girl, but I put that behind me as she is just a child, and actually what irritates me more now is the pure ignorance. For example, I had one student who thought I was from Senegal because of course all dark skinned people are from Senegal, another who asked me how I learned to speak English so well, one who was desperate to touch my hair, a little boy who thought I was married to the other black teacher in the school, and my principal who asked if I could sing gospel music. I know that none of these comments were ill-intentioned, but it certainly gets old not being able to just “blend in” and always being treated as a commodity. Still waiting for this city to feel a bit more like “home”…..

    • BuddhistTravels says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s a challenge to go through, for sure. I hope that it’ll get better for you as time goes on and you settle in. At the end of the day, I suppose it really is just a lack of knowledge and experience on other people’s parts, and it’s up to us to educate and hopefully their perspectives will broaden.

  2. Alice says:

    Thank you for your post–very insightful. Conversely, I was in Malawi and had plenty of stares but nothing malicious (although to be fair my Chichewa wasn’t good enough to catch anything that might have been said but most people in the city I was living in spoke English). There were many times when children wanted to touch my skin or would shout out azungu to me in the streets. I was a novelty to them, especially in the small villages, so I tried not to take offense.

    My family hails from Bulgaria but I’ve only lived in the states (and in pretty diverse cities) so it was a shock to me when my family in Bulgaria told me how surprised they were that so many “black people live in America” after they saw the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the TV. It was a major lesson to me in their ignorance (many of my family have never seen someone outside of their race in person) and also led me to the realization that for many people what they see on TV is what they think life/people are like outside of their country/race so stereotypes might even be further exacerbated that way. Quite a sad thing to think of when you reflect on what is on television today. In the end I try and educate my family members but ignorance and racism sometimes runs strong in a culture–I’ve gotten in countless heated debates on the gypsy racism that is unchecked and rampant in parts of Europe (and def strong in Bulgaria).

    I think you have it right and what a positive way to attack the issue “I’m happy to be learning the lessons I am now so that I can help to turn this tide of racism.” Educating and being a positive influence can only help dispel misconceptions.

    • BuddhistTravels says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. That’s great that you are trying to educate your family members. I hope you make strides there. And yes, you’re absolutely right, the media influences us in ways that we’re not even cognizant of. It’s pretty frightening. But if we can educate people to be critical thinkers who analyze the information they receive, we can hopefully get one step closer to solving the issue of racism amongst others.

  3. elissium says:

    Hi! I read your post a while ago and I was really interested to see someone discussing their experiences with this. I have experienced similar feelings (and frustrations) since starting work as an auxiliar in Spain.

    You mentioned Multicultural Education, and I was wondering if you have had a chance to incorporate any of this into your classes yet here in Spain? I have had some… difficult (to say the least) situations come up in class and in the staff-room regarding race, particularly racist attitudes and comments. For example, I was giving a presentation about a festival in my city that celebrates the different cultural groups that live there. One image in my slideshow was of a group of indigenous Australians, and when it appeared on the screen a group of boys up the back yelled out “simios”. Consequently I was beyond furious and sent the one I saw yell, out of the class and reported this to his teacher (who unfortunately was out of class at that moment). I have also heard similarly shocking comments, often masked as “jokes”, from teachers – presumably university educated people! – about “chinos”, as you have mentioned.

    These experiences are having a really detrimental effect on my experience of Spain, and I was wondering if you had any advice or thoughts on how to deal with these kinds of situations?

    • BuddhistTravels says:

      Hi. I’m sorry to hear about that. It seems to be an issue all over Spain. I’ve spoken to some natives here about it and they’ve stressed to me that the important thing to realize is that these comments don’t come out of a place of malice or intentional harm. It stems from the culture, language and history of Spain. For example, when I was teaching my kids about physical descriptions they describe the shape of Chinese people’s eyes as ojos chinos. Which of course is such a misconception and also pretty racist. They call those moments teachable in the sense that you can turn it into a teachable moment. So whenever things like that come up, whether with my 5 year olds or my 14 year olds, I pause what it is I’m doing and I explore the topic further with them. In that case I spoke about how in English it’s not appropriate to describe someone’s eyes as Chinese nor make the insulting gesture of pulling the corners of one’s eyes down. With my 5 year olds when it comes up, we talk about how at the end of the day we’re all human beings and we’re all equal.

      I think that the most important thing to do is the hardest thing to do: not get angry and have a conversation about it. At best they don’t know what they’ve said to upset you, or why what they say (which they’re most likely repeating from what they’ve heard around them) is not OK. I think opening it up to dialogue is the most important thing, because really all of the people that I’ve come across here in Spain have never tried to intentionally hurt my feelings or insult me, so when I explain to them why what they say is hurtful they really listen and try to understand where I’m coming from.

      Stay strong! I know it’s hard, trust me. I have my moments where I just don’t have the patience for it. But it’s up to us to spread these messages and initiate some dialogue.

      Keep me posted on how it goes. Would love to hear about your experiences.


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