My first experience with race in Spain actually happened in high school. As a sophomore, I got the chance to study abroad there for two weeks in the northern coastal region of Asturias. I couldn’t wait to practice my Spanish in a homestay and visit the country for the first time. But among the memories of visiting the beach and walking through the streets of Gijón, two memories stick out to me in particular.
A group of random boys came up to me and my friends, and unprompted, joked that no one could see me in the dark because I “blended into the night.” Another day, when we visited a nursing home, the older women tutted at me, confused that I could speak Spanish, because I don’t look like I should be able to.
It may seem a little unfair to have based my expectations for Spain off one high school visit, but those two small interactions stayed with me for a while — so long that when I was considering studying abroad, the thought of going through more racist moments almost deterred me from choosing a European country at all. However, I wanted the opportunity to travel across a new continent for the first time, so I picked Madrid and braced myself.
My reality didn’t totally mirror my expectations of rude glances and commentary — most of the uncomfortable moments seemed to come from the other party being, well, rude, or my being American, rather than my race. There was one incident where a man spat at me while on the street, but for the most part, my months here have been filled with more well-meaning questions rather than hardened racism.
But it hasn’t been a utopia either.
For one thing, many people in Madrid insist that it is a diverse city. Numerically, there are a good amount of Chinese, South Asian, Latin American and North African immigrants in both Madrid and the wider country. There are also smaller enclaves within the city, like in many Western countries. For example, the neighborhood Lavapiés is home to a variety of cuisines from around the world. An estimated 10 to 12 percent of the country is foreign-born.
Despite the presence of other cultures, political correctness isn’t always present: markets owned by Chinese people or East Asians are called chinos (the Spanish word for Chinese), for example. When I got back from a beach trip noticeably tanner, my host family made jokes about how dark I got. During dinner one night, they complimented my “black lips” and said they could tell my mother is part Korean because of my slanted eyes. Relatively light and manageable comments; nothing I couldn’t handle.
Where I felt the most isolated wasn’t at the dinner table, though. In fact, my host mother turned out to be more racially aware than I originally thought, and she often engaged me in discussions about Latin immigration to Spain and the state of race in America. “No,” I found myself saying multiple times, “racism is not over in the US, even though we had Obama as a president. Yes, we do have rampant discrimination in the healthcare system.” These conversations not only forced me to explain complicated histories in a simple way, but also helped me compare two very different social and economic structures. We both came out learning a lot about our respective societies in very productive, casual talks.
The times I felt the most alone? In bigger spaces, like sitting in class, and walking through the streets of Madrid. It wasn’t due to aggressive racist commentary or violent interactions, although I don’t doubt other study abroad students have faced such things in Spain.
Attending school in PWIs my whole life has prepared me to be the only one well enough. But it’s a different situation where you don’t see anyone… at all… that looks like you. Whether it was my classes in a predominantly white Boston University program, where I was the only visibly black person in every single one, or taking the Metro Madrid home from school, it was a stark difference from riding the train in Chicago or passing friendly faces on Northwestern’s campus. I realized that beyond building solidarity with other black people in one-on-one interactions, the mere presence of faces that looked like mine is something I desperately need.
Some of this absence is easy to laugh about. I’ve joked that I don’t have to lay my edges here, because no one I met in Madrid would ever notice. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has a sizeable following here, which is odd, considering a good portion of the jokes are based on American black culture from the ‘90s. Some parts were not so easy to brush off — like when one of the few Black people in our program wasn’t allowed into an exclusive club because of his hairstyle one night.
Beyond these small things, the presence of other Black people in cities like Paris or London was a jolt to my system, but much appreciated. It was a culture shock, but a comforting one — seeing Black people from around the world felt almost magical. Did it overwhelmingly change my experience? Not particularly, but I felt less on edge somehow. Returning to Madrid and having madrileños insist, “Well, this city is very diverse, too,” was like coming down from a high I didn’t realize existed.
Coupled with the fact that my fluent Spanish is constantly met with surprise, my identity always seemed to be in question. When Americans and Spaniards asks (in a somewhat accusatory manner) how I know Spanish, it feels easier to just say, “My dad is Black and Mexican,” rather than delve into a whole story. Because of the sizeable Latin American populations in Madrid and general world knowledge of Afro-Latinos, it frustrates me that it’s a question I have to even answer. This trip has made me realize more than anything that the way I understand blackness in America is simply not applicable to the way other countries work, and this is a phenomenon I will face no matter where I travel.
Race factored into my experience both more and less than I expected. While I’ve never felt more on edge because of what I look like (partially, I’m sure, because of my privilege as someone with more globally accepted Black features), I do miss Northwestern. If you thought that diversity was bad there, just try the American satellite school I attend in Spain: I can count the number of black students I see regularly in the building’s halls on two hands. Being “the only one” in class often means I feel a pressure to mention certain things about the black or Mexican experience in America, which is an uncomfortable position to take.
I am glad I came to Madrid in the end. My formal Spanish has improved, I’ve learned a lot about local politics, and have gotten some amazing opportunities. Equally, it has made me proud of the diversity I often take for granted in the United States, and excited to return home to my heterogenous city.