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.


  1. Brilliant article. I'm a black man who used to live in Madrid and am moving back there in two weeks for a year. I found the place racist, but none more than the UK. I would have trouble getting taxis, would get stopped by Police where they would look at me in disbelief when I said I was from London, one policeman kept saying to me African, Latin Amercians even when I said London 4 times. It's the way the people look at you, you can see it in their faces, they have a look of what are you doing here, you're below me, even when you go into the centre of Madrid you rarely see a black or hispanic face working in the shops and it's still very segregated as in hispanics stay in this area and blacks in this area, but to be honest alot of the racism is from the older generation and my experience was different because as soon as the people knew I was English they would treat me different from the blacks and hispanics in the city, which showed me that it's still an issue.

  2. Great post Sibo, interesting comment Chico-Rei!

  3. spain is racist as hell, i was born here a mulatto kid, dad's ghanian and my mom is spaniard and I didn't feel the racism until I was in my early teens, but from there on it's been a reality ever since. I don't know if its because I'm aware of it, but I notice it every single day, like the commenter above said, it's in the way they look at you (and I'm spanish), talk to you, etc... police??? just forget, see a kid like me drivin they stop me, late on the streets, stopped me; I even when to school and teachers would say dumb racist stuff, in front of me and some other immigrants (who of course weren't white...) it's just their mentality and you think the youth will change? nah they may look like they will evolve from their older family members but once they reach their 20's they start actin like the old people. If you saw what I saw during my 24 years of life....
    btw. all this that I said doesn't mean there's no good people here. it's just Spain

  4. I have family members that have been to Spain. One loved it, albeit she doesn't look black. The others though thought it was a racist country. They attributed Spain's backwardness to it be a poor European country. No air conditioning? I live in the desert in America. I have air conditioning AND a HEATER, for the TWO DAYS in a year that it's cold here,

  5. I have to say. I am back living in Madrid and as a black man from London it is very hard. To be honest with you I love Spain but see it as a very backward country, the reason being the people are so ignorant, the don't seem to have no world view. People I speak to still can't believe black people live in England, come on man England is in Europe, it's only 2 hours away on a plane, you have T.V newspapers, you dance to music by black british music artists, if you speak to a random English person no matter what race, on the street they know black people live in France, in Holland, in Spain etc but here it's crazy. The place is racist as hell, not openly, but subtly, like security guards following you around the shop, getting asked to open your bag when you leave the shop. All they see is the colour of your skin, not the clothes you are wearing, they don't seem to think that there are black people with money.

    I give you an example I went to do a language exchange, one woman I spoke to looked at me with a shocked exppression on her face and said you're from England!!!!! and forget about trying to get a job here, even getting a job teaching English is hard if you don't look European. I now realise why Spain is having so many money problems, it's 2011 and they are stuck in the 1960s and very happy about it too, saying that I have met many nice people here mainly Africans who are so friendly and welcoming and black Dominicans. The white people only seem to talk to you once they know you are English.

  6. As a African student raised and educated in Northen Spain, I have to say that I am more or less okay with you, Rico. I grew listening to older people complaining sometimes about Spaniards's racism. I always thought that there surely exagerating,overdramatizing things... but, step by step I grew up, and hanged my teen city to another one, specially Bilbao.
    I studied Communications, so started to analyse society I was living in, by reading newspapers, by seeing tv news, and then by looking more carefully around... and Yes, Racism is there. It's a subtle bigotry a bit hard to notice on a daily life. I mean, there is no often violence or offensive words against you. But when statistics said that Inmigrants were one of the mayor problems Spanish people cared about, not once, but several years, I becames to feel worried and insecure in a country I grew up. I couldn't believe it! Where are those people around me, I only have good experiences and friends everywhere? They must exist, but they do not show publicly their feelings. Several cases of badly injured people(Africans mostly) have reached the media in late years. I have myself being called at least twice "Negro de mierda"( Fucking Nigger) in the night by young stupid people, and I have been recently denied to enter into a club because I was of African nationality. I did not make a big issue of it, it was too late in the night and lot of Africans were in the same situation. I just recorded all the scene inside my mind and wrote a complaining letter to the Local Newspapers, which was published, and also complaing before TV. Authorities did nothing, despite I publicly tell the story and had a friend as a withness. It was a big issue in my Faculty. I don't think that Spanish society is completely racist, but there is mixture of paternalism from hollywood movies and ignorance struggling in between. Much of these people are also encouraged by newcomers extreme-right parties showing their faces little by little; and specially for political figures from the Right who uses the immigration issue for political interests. The ignorance is obvious when they often admire Black American movies and "lifestyle" shown on tv, and music, etc, but do not know who was Rosa Parks, or when its still hard to them to assimilate the idea of Spanish people from African or others origings. But this will change, I'm sure.
    I like this blog, but I thing along with discussions and debate about racism anywhere, we should also use this tool to solve problems, to promote things together as African descents living here, to make this society more comfortable for future, not for us, but maybe for our children. I think of a kind of Afro-european Association throughout Europe, to make us more possitively visible, I don't know...

  7. Sorry for the English, by the way! And, Hello Negroamor4u, I did recognised you, but I don't share your views according to which there is a contradiction with being African and European at the same time. It's not a need for assimilating, it's and Identity that emerges from years of contact with two culture. I do feel proud of being African, but can't just delete the fact that I grew up in a mostly Spanish culture and share most of the opinions and feelings that can not be called typically African. No need to be simpplistic, its a bit more complex than that. Mixed-race marriage its not a refusal of your own backgroung and identity, sometimes it part of your circumstances: living in Spain is not like living in France or in UK, I've been living there, and saw the difference. Its a matter of time, but also of collective effort, I guess.

  8. Spain, not too long ago, probably 50 years ago, was like a third world country. It had a dictatorship and wealth far below its European neighbors.

    The Spanish act like a primitive society. Don't be fooled because the country is in Europe. It isn't a good place to live if you're not Spanish.

    My brother's girlfriend is Jamaican. She asked her host family why people stared at her everywhere. And the mother told her that people were trying to figure out what race she is... As if it matters.

  9. OMG! When i went to spain. People spoke to me in spanish smiled at me or stared and boy do i mean they STARED! I walked into a store in Valencia and this man who walked straight passed me stopped walked backwards, took off his glasses and looked at me dumbstruck. I was frozen before i turned around and ignored him but when i turned back he still looked at me shocked before being hauled away by his wife. I don't know if it was because i was a brown girl with a group of white kids and he found the scene comical or if he had never seen a girl of pacific islander/french/English descent. Then there were the trains i caught with friends in Barcelona..Dear god. Worse experience EVER! People both Young and Old stared at me in an inquisitive manner but did not nonetheless say anything. WHAT IS WITH THE STARING?! They didn't stare at my friends they just chose to BLATANTLY stare at ME! Oh, and i'm not exaggerating cause my friends were the ones who pointed the stares out...I didn't believe them till my ONE of MANY experience in Valencia.

  10. My brother and I visited Barcelona a couple of weeks ago. As African Americans, the undertones of racism were obvious and to be honest quite familiar. For there is no racism like that you would experience in America. So on a scale, America being a 8 with 10 being the worse, I would rate my experience in Spain a 5. I felt quite comfortable and that may be because I'm use to a certain amount of racial bias, however, the staring did take some getting use to. It was hard to decipher. In some cases if felt it was pure curiosity in others I felt it was resentment. I will admit I had a wonderful time in the city and have a deep appreciation for what it has to offer and would visit again. Blackness is a complex thing as are the perceptions of it. Ignorance is what stifles humanity and I have come to realize that many humans are inherently ignorant or have just accepted jaded or limited perspectives as cultural norms.

  11. As an african-american woman, and hearing the horror stories of the spanish culture and the rude, racism of the spanish people, I have no interest of ever going to that country. Ever.

  12. I am a white Belgian and relocated last year to Spain.
    I speak dutch, french, english, german and learning spanish now.
    First thing to know is that most of the Spanish people only speak Spanish, even police or administors of the government.
    Second thing is that specially the older Spanish people are very nationalistic and seems to be still under the influence of the former dictatorship regime.
    You can say that they are not very "open" for unspanish cultures.
    The economic crisis has made that many spanish people are poor and looking for jobs.
    If you cannot spend money in their country you are hardly welcome.
    And yes they are open in giving their opinion even when they are completely wrong.
    Don't think too much about racism, Spain and Portugal were occupied for generations by the African Moors, so there is a mix of black and white around these countries.

  13. I was planning on visiting Lanzarote. After reading all the posts here I'll pass. I don't want to spend my money in a racist country.


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