On December 14th, 2014, I attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Puerta del Sol, Madrid. The protest was in response to the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men who had been murdered by US police officers in July and August of that year respectively, and the failure of American grand juries to indict the officers involved.
Over 150 of us hailing from Spain, the United States, and various countries in Europe and Africa gathered in the square in Madrid, which has become a key gathering area for demonstrations, to rage against police brutality and the abuses of the criminal justice system in the United States.
Image Elvert Barnes via Flickr
Though the Garner and Brown cases were the focal point of our protest, several African men and women who attended voiced their concerns about injustices and abuses of power in Spain. They talked about the police officers who had stopped and harassed them for resident documents, their homes which had been unexpectedly raided, and the day to day struggle of living in a country where there is a great mistrust and misunderstanding of African people.
Image John Perivolaris via Flickr.
While their stories slightly reminded me of ones I had experienced and heard of back home in the US, I realised then that I was living quite a different reality from these men and women precisely because of a certain blue document… my American passport.
Though racial marginality and oppression are commonplace in the lives of black Americans in the United States, I have found that I and other black Americans do not experience the same gravity of racial intolerance here in Spain.
In my two years of living here, I have never been stopped by the police or harassed. The home that I share with my white Spanish boyfriend has never been raided nor have I had to struggle for my daily subsistence by taking on low-paying and unskilled jobs like some of the African people I have seen here.
I came here as an American citizen with a contract to teach English as a second language at a time when there was and still is an insatiable need for English native teachers in Spain. Even when English is the official language for several African nations including Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon; it is the American and British accent that the Spanish desire along with personal insights into all things pop and USA. For this very reason, I have enjoyed a set of advantages here that my African counterparts have not.
Image NYC. Holly Northrop via Flickr
Once I have identified myself as an American, I am usually fawned over by white Spaniards and bombarded by questions about Sex in the City, American clothing brands, as well as the merits of President Barack Obama. Seemingly black American expressions like Hip Hop and twerking are also attributed to my identity and have consequently added to my allure as an unusual, but desirable foreign entity.
While there have been occasions where I have had to deal with insensitive comments about my hair and skin tone, I would not liken these incidents to the kind of antagonism and oppression experienced by Africans and Afro-Spaniards in Spain on a daily basis. I will say however that Spanish people have treated me differently and dare I say better than my African counterparts, especially once my American identity is made known.
Image Seville Spain. Kristoffer Trolle via Flickr.
But how would my experience as a black American teacher compare to others in the same situation? I spoke to J.T, an African American teacher working in Seville, Spain about his own experience. He spoke about how he realized that until he made it abundantly clear to the Spanish people in his community that he was American and not African, their attitude was chilly towards him:
“Some of the Spanish men and women were very standoffish until they found out I was from the States and spoke broken Spanish, then it was all good”.
J.T’s comment reveals that there is a degree of resentment reserved for Africans as well as a degree of national privilege that black Americans experience that inadvertently saves us from the ill-treatment that is routinely doled out to our African counterparts; especially those who have immigrated here in the last two decades.
In the past twenty years, Spain has experienced what many have called a “surge” in its immigrant population. From 1990 to 2010, Spain’s immigrant numbers have gone from 829,000 to 6.4 million and according to Daniel Gonzalez of The Arizona Republic:
“no modern country on Earth [has] experienced such a massive increase in its immigrant population as Spain”.
In 2011, 1,078,899 African people ( 18.8% ) made up the population of Spain and though that number is ranked third and appears lower than other immigrant populations i.e. EU-27 and South America, there has been significant media focus on African immigration to Spain, namely because of the risky methods by which some Africans have gained entry.
While some obtained legal documents to live and work here, others have entered through the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the coast of Morocco or overland from their home countries to makeshift boats traveling to the Canary Islands.
Images (top) Ceuta, Spain. Víctor Fernández Salinas via Wikipedia Creative Commons.
(bottom) Melilla, Spain. Miguel González Novo via Wikipedia Creative Commons.
Thousands of North and Sub-Saharan Africans have made the treacherous trip from Africa to Spain often risking death to escape poverty and instability brought on by war in their home countries. For those who survive the trip, they face detention, unlawful deportation, or the use of excessive force by border police officers eager to deter them.
Even for those who manage to make it here, life is hard as an African immigrant in Spain. Africans, whether they have legal documents or not are targets for discrimination, they are subject to police checks, sometimes several times a day, and the threat of detention and deportation is always looming.
Many believe that Africans are treated this way because of the threat they pose to the Spanish economy and job market. As of March 2015, Spain is dealing with a 23 percent unemployment rate and more than 50 percent of its young people are jobless.
Because of the high unemployment rate, the increased competition for unskilled jobs, as well as the influx of African migrants looking for work, there has been an increase in racism towards Africans. In both 2012 and 2015, Amnesty International admonished Spanish police for instituting checks based on skin colour and deporting African and South American people unlawfully.
While there have been cases where black Americans have been stopped by Spanish officials based on their skin colour, the most notable example being Rosalind Williams in 1992, once American identity is detected, commonly through accent, black Americans are left alone.
In response to police checks, B.M, an African American woman in Barcelona, confirmed that she had never been stopped. She also learned from a friend dating a Barcelona police officer that Spanish police were specifically instructed to check South Americans and Africans, not Americans. Similarly, a few months ago,
I was living in Spain with questionable documentation and was assured by numerous Spaniards including my boyfriend, who also happens to be a local police officer, that I should not be worried about the threat of police harassment and detention because I am after all, American.
I feel that as a black foreigner living in Spain I am able to offer a personal perspective into the treatment, attitude and perception towards other foreigners who are sometimes not afforded the same courtesies and privileges; especially when the colour of my skin and matters of race and ethnicity are more acceptable due to my American passport.
Though I do not think I am advancing the discrimination of Africans nor contributing to the system of ethnic and national advantages in Spain, I do benefit and since my arrival, I felt the pressing need to speak up. I think recognizing national privilege can be useful to understand the ways in which we live our lives abroad and create a deeper awareness of how oppression works in various global contexts.
Perhaps with this knowledge, we can work to ensure that we do not replicate the conditions of oppression abroad and stand alongside our African counterparts to proclaim that their lives matter too.
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