Race and Racism: USA vs Spain

Race and Racism: USA vs Spain

Now onto the meat and potatoes. As I’ve said before, I wanted to give people who are black and/or gay a perspective of Spain so if they decide to live here for any amount of time they will know what is in store.

For me, overall, Spain is a much safer and enjoyable place to live while black. No one here has been outwardly racist to me. To most Spaniards I am just black. At first I thought people were staring at me because I was black but as I have discussed in this post, staring is just part of Spanish culture. Now, that isn’t to say that no one is racist in Spain. I have met people, and read about others, who have lived in Spain for decades and dealt with racism. However, this has not been my experience in Spain and I categorize the treatment by some traditional Spaniards as simply ignorance.

One has to keep in mind that Spain was under dictatorship rule until 1975 and for many decades Spain was populated almost solely by ethnically Spanish people. Not seeing other ethnic groups until for almost their entire lifetimes, today’s Spaniards have practically zero racial awareness or sensitivity.

The best example of this is the portrayal of Balthazar during Tres Magos (Three Wise Men) festivities around Christmas. In the Bible, one of the wise men that presented gifts to Joseph and Mary at the time of Jesus’ birth was a very charismatic man of color named Balthazar. In Spain, they do a reenactment of this scene at all Tres Magos festivities throughout the country. The problem is that not many ethnically Spanish people are black so they usually have someone perform the role in black face.

Yes, the same black face that summons the history of minstrel shows in the United States from the mid 1800’s well into the twentieth century. It was a form of entertainment used to mock black people and perpetuate stereotypes. It was such a destructive form of racism in America that many of the stereotypes portrayed in minstrel shows (black people are lazy, eat a lot, care about nothing but dancing and singing) still permeate in American society to this day. It is something that every black person in America deals with on a daily basis; whether it be modifying our responses to harmless jokes (jeez, it was just a joke that black people are porch monkeys, why can’t black people take a joke) or black people judging each other based on how much one of us adheres to a stereotype (‘I’m not like other black people, I believe in hard work’). It is a burden that comes with being black in America.

Spaniards don’t know this history or the negative connotations that come with black face. They genuinely don’t see it as disrespectful and aren’t laughing at the “craziness” of black people. In fact, for most, Balthazar is a revered biblical character.

During my time in Spain I have read many a discussion on Facebook expat pages about the black face portrayal of Balthazar here. For me, it does come across as insensitive but I do know they didn’t learn this practice from watching old minstrel shows in America. They just honestly don’t know.

I will even say that Spaniards are more willing than white Americans to acknowledge their insensitivity and make efforts to change. This was the first year that they had a black Spaniard play the role of Balthazar and no one complained that “it just wasn’t the same.” There’s hope!

Spain still has a way to go with recognizing cultural and racial sensitivities, which is especially important now that their own ethnic makeup is changing with a more globally integrated Spain. I still don’t know how to explain the importance of NOT saying the N-Word to my ten-year-old students without making a non-Texan US History textbook compulsory reading. (Though I must say hearing ‘NEEGA” is quite comical when they don’t even know where it’s from or to whom it is referring), but I have more hope for Spain recognizing racism than America.

by Justin Hughes-Coleman

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