Does Spain have a problem with racism?

Last Thursday, 27th September 2018, Pedro Sanchez, Prime Minister of Spain, addressed the UN in New York. The main message of his speech was encouraging regular migration policy and he also addressed the rise of xenophobic parties in other countries in Europe and around the world.

I agree with what he is supporting regarding regular migration and he is correct that there has been limited rise in xenophobic parties in Spain when compared to other countries such as France, the UK and Italy. Yet the way he describes it feels as if he is giving an alternative version of key issues in Spain: Racism and Sexism.

Sexism has come far…

Sexism has been tackled in Spain a lot over the past two years. It has been tackled head on and it is a common topic in the public arena. Spain has progressed on this issue more than other countries in recent years. However many feel let down by the legal system, La Manda, a group of rapists that got away with group rape in Pamplona have proven that the institutions in the country still favour Spanish males in certain situations. I have discussed this issue here further.

The Prime Minster also mentioned the fact that over 60% of his cabinet was made up of females. This was well received around the western world and seen as a step in the correct direction for the largest country on the Iberian peninsula. Yet all of the ministerial cabinet is made up of Caucasian Spaniards. Is this a problem or just a sign that Spanish society hasn’t reached a level where they have more people with mixed ethnicity?

Racism in Spain

Pedro Sánchez claimed that Spain does not have xenophobic political party as “ the vast majority of Spanish society has never turned its back on the dramatic reality of immigration,”. Whilst this maybe true of his government and the welcoming of refugees in the country. I would argue that Spanish society has a different attitude towards immigrants. It has a problem with racism that many deny and it has not been addressed by the government or discussed as part of the nations wider conversation.

Obviously, there are different classes of people who all have different political leanings as in any country. However, racism is low on the agenda for many groups. It is not mainstream and when it is talked about it is brushed aside or denied strongly.

Many say Spain is not as up to date, with issues like rights and social justice, when compared with the UK, Germany, the USA and many other western countries. I see this as an excuse for complacency. Yes, Franco expelled many people and held the country back in terms of social justice. Many say Spain is still catching its breath. Well maybe it should breathe a little deeper.

Evidence of racism is every where but it’s not overt and so in your face as many expect racism to be. It is subtle, part of society and built into mentalities and institutions. The laws are in place they are use not enforced. Evidence of this is clear in this El País article. Several experiments took place over Spain and people were refused rooms and flats due to their ethnicity.

Racism come in all forms

Moroccans have been on the receiving end of it recently. Many have been unfairly labelled as people selling things illegally on the streets on giant blankets and as living in over crowded flats in multi cultural areas such as Lavapies. Yet, there are good causes fighting the stereotypes and barriers that they face. This shop in Barcelona is a good example.

Unfortunately, things such as black face are still a thing in Spain. At Christmas they have the three kings instead of Santa. One of them was black and in Spain painting one of the three kings faces black is still seen as normal across Spain. It has been famous footballers or Mayors with the painted faces in the past.

I’ve seen pictures on facebook of school children with faces painted black to look like a Gospel choir for carnival.

It’s not just cultural its also institutional. As I mentioned before the laws are in place but they are not enforced. Take a look at my trip to the south coast of Spain where I saw the enormous green houses that produce 60% of Europes fruit and vegetables. Most people who work here are immigrants.

I have also met English teachers from India, Singapore, the UK and the USA and they have been turned down by academies and students because they do not fit the stereotype of a Caucasian English speaking native. They just weren’t white enough. Thankfully this practice is becoming less so I have been told.

‘I’m just popping to the Chino’ this is what people say when they are going to the corner shop in Spain, even thought the shop may be run by people from South America it is still referred to the ‘Chino’ or the Chinese shop. It is something that is not even blinked at and I myself have referred to it as the ‘Chino’. The stereotype that all corner shops are run by Chinese people has led to further stereotypes being concreted and fixed in societies collective mind.

There was a similar epidemic in the UK over 20 years ago. Corner shops were referred to as ‘ Paki shops’ under the stereotype that all shops were run by people from Pakistan. When I was much younger I asked why the ‘man over the shop’ had a Scotland rugby shirt on. I after learnt from him that he was from Glasgow. My young brain was confused: how could he be Indian and Scottish?

As I got older if I used the words ‘Paki shop’ I would have been seen as ungrateful, uneducated and an ignorant moron. And rightly so.

My first job was in a corner shop and I was grateful for it as I couldn’t ride a bike. I wasn’t discriminated against. Unfortunately xenophobia is on the rise in the UK again hopefully language like this wont be common place as it was in the past.

Discussing the name of the shops, such as ‘Chino’, is seen as too politically correct and I have heard responses such as ‘ but they like it’ or ‘even they call their shops ‘El Chino’. But does this make it OK? No it does not.

Quan Zhou discussed in this El País article that racism is difficult for Chinese people in Spain and that this is negatively impacting on second and third generation Chinese-Spanish citizens. The old stereotypes of being from a dirty culture and not paying taxes are difficult to shed, but things are changing. Possibly too slow.

As a white Northern European male I have limited experience in being the victim of discrimination and racism. But, I have been privey to conversations that not all may have in front of people who are not Caucasian. Racism shows its true ugliness when it thinks it’s comfortable. Ive heard the stereotypes and put down of the Chinese, Muslim and African communities. However the worst and most surprising must be the way that some people look down upon South Americans.

Many people from South America come to Spain as it it the natural place for them to come if coming to Europe. For reasons such as bilateral immigration agreements and the obvious issue of the Spanish language. Having this in place you would think that they were more accepted than the Chinese and Moroccans. Unfortunately this is not true in my opinion.

The stereotype the Spanish have of people from South Americans is overly exaggerated and shows a very insecure and strange relationship they have with their former colonies. I have heard the stereotype from some Spaniards: that they think South Americans are lazy, drink to much alcohol and are under educated. This was always said in a ‘I’m not jealous’ (but feel threatened) sort of way.

But, never mention the stereotype in Europe of Spaniards being lazy or you may get some nasty responses like I did from this tongue and cheek piece.

There is also the nickname of ‘Panchito’ which is discriminatory towards South Americans. Many South Americans come here to work and live just like people from the UK, Poland, Romania, China and some countries in Africa. The friendliness of Spaniards is seen as a good nationality trait but I have not seen this towards South Americans, if anything it has been the opposite. It is also the most common place racism I have seen. This needs tackling as well as the more obvious racism.

Thankfully since the financial crisis many Spaniards are moving abroad to work and they are being exposed more to different multicultural societies such as those in London and in Berlin. This is opening minds and as they return they are challenging everyday common place language and behaviour.

Furthermore, groups of migrants and Spaniards are fighting to combat racism in todays spanish society. There are cultural centres and fiestas in neighbourhoods that are supporting and promoting diversity. There is the resistance book group that has had readings on books regarding racism. There was also an open debate held regarding the use of blackface in modern day Spain. Hopefully these engaging events will help set the agenda for the nations conversation in the future.

Even here in the suburbs of Madrid I see second generation migrants walking along side by side with young Spaniards. The future is opening up for this country and the younger generations will help shape its future. It’s not just a question of wanting to modernise and progress of society but it’s also the necessity as the stereotype and national image of a Spaniard with olive coloured skin and dark hair will change in the future. The country is becoming more multicultural. At the moment if you watch Spanish television you will see hardly any black or Chinese presenters this is something that will change in the future and the country needs to be ready for this. Otherwise it may see many second and third generation Spanish citizens becoming victims of discrimination and racism in their home country.

I said at the beginning, Spain has come a long way addressing sexism in society and it is now part of everyday conversation. There is still a lot of work to do but it is on a better path than it was. Racism on the other had does not have a direction to follow in the mainstream. This is what it needs. The organisations and people are there with the expertise but the government and main stream media need to do more to bring it into the public eye. At the moment it is being pushed aside.

If Spain can emulate what it has done with sexism for racism then society will change faster for everyone. Only then can the government boast that xenophobia is being tackled in Spain. Racism exists in all countries but many countries also have people in the public eye fighting back against the racists.

Spain’s activists and challengers of xenophobia should be given the credit and time they deserve to change public perception and the acceptability of racism in society. Only then will Future generations will look back on the language and stereotypes of the past and wonder what the hell was going on.

Update: Many people have pointed out that racism and class are interwoven into Spanish society. I have observed this myself and agree with this conclusion; yet is that an excuse?

Society is changing, faster in Spain that a lot of places, and social mobility is for everyone as it’s not just for Spaniards. As society changes so must social standards for what is acceptable and expected in modern society. 1970s complacent racism has no place in any modern society.

Making excuses and reasoning for racism adds to the problem it doesn’t take away from it. There is no room for racism in humane debate or modern society.

One response to “Does Spain have a problem with racism?”

  1. I think people in Spain have a different concept of racism compared to more historically multicultural societies. Yes, of course there is a problem of racism in Spain. However, to date, there are fewer public policies being built on racist principles like, say, the UK. In that respect, Sanchez is correct. On balance, my general experience is that the middle class in Spain has a much more tolerant attitude to immigration, perhaps based on Spanish experiences of emigration to Latin America in the early 20th century. On the other hand, people seem to be far less socially aware or sensitive to ‘identity politics,’ as a friend from the UK once noted. I only hope that Sanchez is right and Spain doesn’t go down the same sort of path as the UK or other countries with regards to ‘outsiders’ – there is a danger of that happening, especially with political parties like ‘Vox’ on the scene.


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