Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Report: A Black Belgian in Spain
King Juan Carlos of Spain welcoming Michele Obama and her daughter Sasha
Following the many reactions on the ‘Black people in Spain’ post I decided to interview one of my friends who is black and has been living in Spain and the Canary Islands for more than 6 years. He speaks perfectly Spanish and could (based on language skills) be considered a local. Although we talk about race and identity I never explicitly asked him if he felt Spain was a more racist country than Belgium. I expected it was the same kind of situation.
I was in Spain a few times and as a tourist I always had positive experiences. I visited Barcelona, Bilbao, San Sebastian, the Costa Blanca, Tenerife and Lanzarote. Each time I felt welcome and considered that I could live In that country if I wanted. I didn’t feel more racism there than in Belgium. My friend who grew up in Belgium lived and worked there in the tourist industry. Therefore I thought he might have a more nuanced view on the issue.
Apparently many black people have had very negative experiences in Spain. I wanted to check what his experience was and if he could confirm this. Below I will give you a short report of our interesting conversation.
My friends perspective on racism is that it is a universal thing. People just express it in very different ways. According to him, while there is racism in Belgium, people hide it more than in Spain. In Spain people who don’t like you for your appearance will show you their contempt. In Spain, they rather see you leave their shop than sell you something.
As a tourist (who doesn’t speak very well Spanish) I never experienced such an attitude. But he assured me it could be like that once you were off the tourist track and went in a typical Spanish place, not all of course, but some. He learned not to go to those places where he felt resentment.
Although he assured me that he didn’t experience any police harassment in the first 4 years of his stay in Spain, in the last 2 years he repeatedly got stopped and annoyed by the police. The police treated him as a second rate citizen and even threatened him.
Still, the reason he moved away from Spain has nothing to do with these awful experiences. He actually enjoyed living there and having fine weather all year round. He met friendly and hospital Spanish people too, he met many Northern Europeans who also worked in the tourist industry. So, the negative experiences were never so bad that he couldn’t have a decent living there. He says he was more often treated with respect than not. And he kind of appreciated the honesty of Spanish people. Furthermore, he never really experienced physical threats or physical aggression.
In contrast he says that people in Northern Europe are just as racist but keep it for themselves. There is more shame towards racist thoughts than in Southern Europe. This means that you will experience less negative reactions in the north but that people think the same way, they just express it differently, through the ballot box for instance.
In conclusion he said that being black in Spain is not easy. It is hard for black people all over the world. But most certainly for immigrants who just arrived, Africans who are working at the lowest levels of society and who are often illegal residents. These people live in some kind of hiding, trying to make a living while trying to be invisible for the authorities. There is a lot of hate towards these fortune seekers, and when he experienced bad things he said “they treated me as if I was an African who came just off the boat”. And while he may not be born in Belgium, he grew up here and he considers himself Flemish, Belgian, African, Sudanese, black and European. All these labels of ethnic and cultural identity are not exclusive, they do not contradict each other, he says, they make him complete.
For more info I refer to this nuanced post by the author of Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain (2008), a book about being Black in Spain and Spain's peculiar attitude and history with Black people.