Racism in Spain: A Case Study.
“No soy racista,” says Luis Aragonés, head coach of the Spanish National Soccer team.
“I have black, gypsy, yellow friends…” he goes on. We’ve heard it all before, right?
In light of France’s trip to the World Cup Final, in which they trod heavily upon a young Spanish squad, I found myself rooting for the French side against my home-for-a-year because of a well-publicized racist epithet Aragonés used in October 2004 to motivate his squad against French striker Thierry Henry, who is black.
“Show that black piece of shit,” Aragonés is captured on international television saying, “you are better than him!” Even Henry didn’t believe it until he saw it for himself.
And while it’s easy to dismiss Aragonés as a bigot, and the Spanish Football Association as accomplices for the paltry fine of 3000€ and allowing him to keep his job, there’s more than meets the eye here. In a stroke of irony, Samuel Eto’o, a high profile Cameroonian striker who plays for FC Barcelona, has come to Aragonés’s defense, saying the old codger is not a racist, he just said something he shouldn’t have. So really. Is he, or isn’t he?
Not long ago, Eto’o himself was the subject of many front pages when during a match in the Spanish town of Zaragoza, he was unable to bear the relentless monkey noises and banana peels thrown onto the pitch and decided to pick up the ball and walk off in the middle of the match. While he was ultimately persuaded to return by his coach, teammates, and referees, his subsequent angry and frustrated press conferences have opened an unfamiliar can of worms for Spanish society: the question of racism in Spain. An article in Time magazine about the incident focused not on the existence of racism in Spain (for surely such a thing exists in every country), but rather the lack of Spanish society’s ability and inclination to address it, stating that many Spaniards “don’t know how to identify racism when they see it.”
Immigration is a recent phenomenon in Spain, but one that is catching on. Although immigrants count for only 8.5% of the total population, Spain now swells with the highest growth rate of immigrants in the European Union, with 700,000 alone entering in 2005, mostly from Africa (via Morocco), and South America. The side effects of this are wide and varying. And while Spaniards generally object to the idea of becoming a nation of immigrants, they choose to embrace those who have already made the journey. According to the Time article , after the terrorist bombing by Islamic radicals of commuter trains in Madrid that killed 191, a study showed that 60% of Spaniards believed there were “too many immigrants” in Spain. But surprisingly, more than 70% believed that those same immigrants be offered the same rights as all Spaniards!
So what about first hand discrimination, or even violence against minorities? Last year, when I decided to move to Madrid to teach English, I was first intrigued to hear that there are very few Asians living in this bustling European capital (approximately 100,000 out of a total population of 5 million). I was next discomfited by the reading of a post by an Asian-American teacher in Madrid detailing his violent assault and mugging by two men in broad daylight in Sol, the busiest and most heavily-touristed area of the city. Finally, I was downright alarmed to read in the US State Department’s Consular Information sheet on Spain “although crimes occur at all times of day and night and to people of all ages, older tourists and Asian Americans seem to be particularly at risk.”
Apart from safety, my primary worry was that people were expecting a 6 ft tall blonde haired, blue eyed American to show up at their door to teach them English. Instead, they were getting me. But for the record, I’m proud to report that not one person ever betrayed a hint of mistrust or skepticism, and treated me nothing less than perfectly well, and in many cases, exceptionally. Yes, while apartment-hunting, many people opened their doors to me and asked, “Where is the American?” And yes, while I was once profiled (racially, I thought) by two Metro employees who demanded to see my pass without asking anyone else on the train, I have many Spanish friends whom I consider amongst the most tolerant and welcoming people I know (and Madrid is far safer than New York!). Yet to say that racism is confined to the ‘Ultras’, those crazed football fan hooligans (and coaches), is simply untrue.
The fact is that in my experience, the Spanish display a rather young and naïve view of racial identity and awareness. Using Time magazine’s broad-sounding generalization that “Spaniards don’t know how to identify racism when they see it” as a litmus test, I went around asking my English classes if Samuel Eto’o was wrong to storm off the field in Zaragoza, if making monkey noises is an acceptable practice at a soccer stadium and he should just deal with it. At BG&S, a computer consulting company in northern Madrid, my two younger students, Luis and Inés, both 25, disagreed, perhaps being more engendered to 21st century political correctness. Emilio, however, a gregarious project manager in his late 40’s immediately answered ‘yes’. “Calling someone ‘black’ or making monkey noises at a fútbol match is the same as calling somebody short or stupid, anything to try to break their concentration,” he said, eerily echoing the identical sentiment from a Spanish man interviewed in the Time magazine article, nearly verbatim. “It doesn’t mean I really believe it if I call the referee an asshole, I’m just saying it because I’m angry.”
Since I consider Emilio a friend, and not a racist, this begs the question whether or not simple ignorance can be considered equivalent to racism. One morning, while watching a popular television game-show in which the contestants must watch or listen to clips of other shows and sitcoms and identify them by name or sing theme songs, etc. A clip of “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge” was described by the host as “a popular Chinese game show”. As I turned to explain to my flatmate Laura that this show was clearly, indeed, famously Japanese, in that crazy way that only Japanese game shows can be, she simply took a drag of her cigarette, patted me on the knee and said, “Yeah, well, people here think they’re the same thing.” (The contestant answered the question correctly).
Raquel, a 32 year-old marketing manager at The Phone House revealed an interesting thought process when speaking about the differences between Colombian, Moroccan, and Chinese immigrants by classifying the latter as the ‘best’ immigrant group, and ‘generally speaking, the most violent and delinquent’ being the Colombians and Moroccans (Arabs, she calls them; unlike Americans, when most Spaniards say “Arab”, they mean North Africans, not Middle Easterners). Yet I see the gleam in her eye when describing the two African students in her primary school class, who were prized as “exotic” for their rich obsidian skin.
And this to me seems the greatest difference between ‘racial awareness’ in Spain and the US: this American has been conditioned to regard even the simple term “exotic” in a negative light, as it seems to connote the imperialism, colonization, and objectification associated with famously “exotic” races like East or South Asians, or more commonly, women who have fallen under heavy, lighter-skinned hands, from Pocahontas to Madame Butterfly. But to Raquel, the word “exotic”, like “black” or “negro” to Emilio, is simply just that: a word, and nothing more. However, while I only knew no more than 2 or 3 African-American teachers, I have heard persistent rumors of black people being discriminated against in restaurants, cafés, and the workplace. Even Martha, a Colombian coworker of Raquel’s, confided in me on the bus ride home that while her current colleagues are “very good people”, she’s suffered her share of discrimination in Spain.
Which then brings us back to my original question: Is Aragonés, a racist? Can you make a racist remark and not be considered a racist if you don’t really believe it (although he said it with a lot of enthusiasm, for sure)?
Is the Spanish game show a racist show because of its ignorance (not knowing the difference between a Chinese and Japanese TV program)?
Is Frédéric Rouzaud, the managing-director of Cristal, whose champagne is being very publicly boycotted by rapper Jay-Z a racist? In an article in a special summer issue of The Economist, “when asked if an association between Cristal and the bling lifestyle could actually hurt the brand, he replies: “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it.”
“Anything other than thank you is racist,” replied Mr. Beyonce Knowles.
What do you think he would say about this?
Most people would probably agree that a lot depends on one’s intention. It’s much easier to call Aragonés a racist than the game show, as their intents were very different. Rouzaud is a more special case.
Merriam-Webster defines racism as, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Clearly, Aragonés’s comment falls under this definition, and the ignorance of the game show does not.
One could offer the argument that the willful ignorance to not care about the difference between Japanese and Chinese is inherently racist, as it implies that the only cultures not worth learning about are inferior cultures. But you have to make a leap of logic (albeit small) to get there, and that leap is what separates Americans from the rest of the world on the political correctness spectrum.
Living in the most hyper-politically correct culture in the world, it is a leap that Jay-Z and many of us (myself included) make without a second thought. If the Spanish problem is not identifying racism, ours is the opposite. Like a huge Rorschach test, we could find it in everything. Rouzaud’s comment, while ridiculously bad for business, does not implicitly specify that race is the reason behind his remarks. Perhaps in a bizarro-world scenario, if all white-trash NASCAR fans were Cristal’s largest purchasing demographic, he would say the same thing. Perhaps he’s just a snooty, disdainful dude; after all, he’s French.
What? I’m not a racist! I have French, Black, Jewish friends…