Sangria, Tapas, and Blackface...Oh My…

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I groaned loudly, rolling my eyes at the TV. “Wait, what’s going on?” my roommate asked. She walked into the living room and was suddenly taken aback, staring at the screen with her mouth agape. We were watching a nationally televised Spanish singing competition in which there was a male contestant in full Blackface, trying to impersonate MC Hammer while singing “U Can’t Touch This” in baggy 80s pants and an artificial flattop. Disappointed but not surprised, I left the sala and went to our shared bedroom.

Ice is cold, water is wet, and Spain is racist – these are simply the facts.

The sad thing is that this was not the first time I had seen Blackface in Spain. In fact, there were products in el Supermercado MÁS, our local grocery store, that unabashedly placed some variation of it on the packaging (ex. Conguitos, a popular chocolate brand) and whole parades dedicated to it. I can’t say I didn’t know this was going to happen. A dear friend of mine who had worked as an au pair in the Canary Islands after her first year of college warned me about the casual portrayal of Blackface here and proceeded to write a dissertation covering anti-Blackness in Spain once she finished. In a country that has such a strong Moorish influence and previously consisted of more than 7.5% African inhabitants, one would think that there would be an amplified Black presence, but alas, that is not the case.

According to an article written on El País, out of the estimated 47 million people who reside in Spain, approximately one million are of African descent. That number is less than 1.5% of the population, a statistic I stumbled across while researching different study abroad programs. Unfazed by this, I still clicked “Yes!” on my Heels Abroad portal, and committed to the UNC in Sevilla program. Now, I’m here until May, motivated to become fluent in Spanish (minus the lisp, of course) and most importantly, take advantage of the global experiences that Black college students deserve but aren’t always afforded.

That being said, I had to laugh when one of my professors tried to say that 1) Charlize Theron, a white actress who was born and raised in South Africa and is a naturalized American citizen, is African-American and 2) Spain is one of the most liberal countries in the world. Entirely in Spanish, I had to break down the fact that there are different types of Black Americans (ex. I’m Nigerian-American) and the term “African American” pertains to a very specific ethnic group. While this only touches the surface, it is defined as “those who are descendants of enslaved of Black people who are from the United States, with total or partial ancestry from any of the Black racial groups in Africa.” I told him:

“En los Estados Unidos, no es racista decir que una persona es negra o negro. Se depende en el tono y la manera que lo dices. También, hay tipos diferentes de personas negras, llamada ‘Black Americans,’ en nuestro país. Por ejemplo, soy Africana porque mis padres son de Nigeria. Algunos de mis amigos son Afro-Americanos porque su familia viene de descendientes de esclavitud. Sin embargo, porque yo crecí en los Estados Unidas, muchas personas me llaman Afro-Americana, cual no es un problema a mi. Pero, esto no es el caso por Charlize Theron. Una de los razones que personas blancas están en África es porque de apartheid.”

Furthermore, Spain is only liberal in theory. Yes, it is a predominantly Catholic country (yet not a theocracy) where divorce, abortion, and gay marriage are legal. However, my professor proceeded to say that discrimination is merely interpersonal (i.e. inferring that it stems from group exclusion or when someone rejects you) and seems to have this impression that because the law says that all Spaniards are endowed equal rights, then everyone is treated equally. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Once again, I respectfully disagreed and inquired about representation in government and tangible support that is provided for various minority groups, implying that racism is indeed systemic. Spain elected their one and only Black parliamentarian in December 2015 and this past year, Spain sent their first transgender beauty pageant contestant to the Miss Universe competition. However, Carla Antonelli is the only transgender politician in the country.

While my professor’s opinion is not indicative of that of all Spaniards, the manner in which I have seen people in Sevilla collectively refuse to acknowledge Christopher Columbus as a genocidal mass murderer and only as “an explorer who did not come with the intent to kill” contributes to this systemic ideology. After a long exchange, my professor finally recognized the fissure in this false Andalusian paradise he was describing to students. “Well, of course, I can’t control every situation!” he said. “There are some people who say and do racist or sexist things here.”

So, what does this mean for me and my Blackness?

For me, it means that my favorite pastime has become staring back at old white Spaniards when they stare at me. For me, it means plugging into organizations that focus on integrating diversity into Spain and teaching the children of African migrants to be confident in their identity, despite the pervasive racism here. For me, it means that I’ll continue to argue, continue to explain, and continue to educate, even if it’s exhausting. For me, it means consciously committing to and being prouder of my Blackness in spite of global anti-Blackness.

My Blackness has never been something I can take off, nor have I ever desired to. It is not something that I can choose bits and pieces of; it is who I am. My Blackness is the fufu I eat at home, it is what shapes pop culture, and it is what motivates me to use my voice. This is not only for the benefit of those around me — ensuring they’re not being fed false information and are aware of the prejudices that exist in this “liberal” country — but it is so I remember who I am and why my identity is so important and valuable, no matter where I go.

Ruth Samuel