I've Spent Enough Time In Spain to Know Racism Is A Real Problem There

What was strange about the racism in Spain was that it came from progressives.

May 7, 2014 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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Me when I lived in Spain.

 
When I heard about the Spanish soccer fan that recently threw a banana at the Brazilian soccer player, Dani Alves, I actually wasn’t surprised. And when, even more recently, after weeks of media and social media discussion about Spanish racism toward athletes, Senegalese midfielder for Levante, Papakouly Diop, complained about Spanish fans (yet again) making monkey noises during a game, I still wasn’t surprised. 
 
I mean, I had certainly hoped that Spain could go two weeks without a monkey-based sports-related racist incident, but I wasn’t holding my breath.  
 
I do have to admit, though, to being taken aback by the rally in support of David Campayo, the man who threw the banana. According to Campayo’s relatives and the nearly 800 people who have rallied to support him, Campayo is the real victim. His father says that the banana toss had nothing to do with racism. 
 
Campayo senior claims David’s mother had given her son the banana to eat. David’s girlfriend was annoying him. David threw the banana onto the field in anger at his girlfriend. Meanwhile, David’s aunt says that what they’ve done to David “is really bad… He´s a good person and he´s working.” Other supporters carried signs saying, “Turn off your television. Turn on your mind.” For his own part, Campayo has described the whole response as, wait for it … “a public media lynching.” 
 
I am neither a sports fan, nor Brazilian, nor Senegalese, nor Spanish. But I have spent enough time in Spain and engaged in enough conversations to know that this was not an atypical instance of Spanish racism, which is simultaneously overt and denied. 
 
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Showing my film in Spain.

 
I studied abroad in Madrid and went back to make a documentary about Spanish historical memory, which I would later tour around Spain with. So my personal observation is not a social science study, it is purely anecdotal. And though some may accuse me of generalizing or of generally talking out of my ass, given that I’m going to be writing as a white person from the U.S. about white people from Spain, I’m OK with that.
 
The recent stadium-based racism reminded me of conversations I'd had with Spaniards who I otherwise liked. What was so strange about the racism I encountered there was that it wasn’t from conservatives or even the fascists I met while working on my documentary (who were racist, but that wasn’t as shocking to me) –- it was from educated, cosmopolitan, socialists and progressives, the type of people who, for the most part, in the States are more sensitive to racism, or at least more strategic at hiding it. 
 
These were Spaniards who confided in me about “the Jews” after learning that I was Jewish. Manuel, for example, one of my favorite people I met in Spain, was a sociology graduate student at the time. He was a critical, generally brilliant, militant atheist. So, when he asked me if I was Catholic or Protestant and I explained that I was technically an agnostic from an equally secular Jewish family, his response stunned me: “Oh! You guys are really good at classical music. You guys run the classical music scene in New York City.” 
 
Manuel went on to explain that his friend’s brother, a talented musician in his own right, but sadly, not Jewish, had applied for a scholarship in New York. Knowing about the infamous Jewish control of the musical genre, he tried to sneak under the radar by adding a “Vitch” to his last name. I thought Vitch was Russian and that Perezvitch would sound suspect. 
 
But, Manuel insisted, it worked and the Jewish classical music mafia accepted him. Once the gentile musician arrived in New York, however, the Jews realized he wasn’t Jewish, they rescinded the offer. I couldn’t believe that someone as sharp as Manuel would believe such an elaborate story concocted, it seemed obvious to me, as a way to explain away an unsuccessful music career. 
 
This story paled in comparison to the things Spaniards said to me about other groups of which I was not a member. I remember, for example, being at a party and remarking to Raquel, a punk, anarchist, neuroscientist, that I had just seen the story about the Spanish basketball players who pulled back the corners of their eyes while posing for a team picture during the 2008 summer Olympics held in Beijing. “Oh yeah,” said Raquel. “That! That’s not a big deal.” Her friend Rosa chimed in to explain to me, “You people make such a big deal about it. That is because of your racist history. It’s different in Spain. You don’t get it.”
 
Probably the most unexpected response came when I related this exchange and more to my friend Pablo, a mathematician with whom I saw eye to eye on all issues relating to gender, sexuality, class and humor. When I told him that at a party of around 30 people, all but one had insisted that the Spanish basketball team was misinterpreted, I expected at least an eye roll of solidarity. 
 
Instead, Pablo explained: “It’s true. They were misunderstood. You don’t get it because of your own racist history. In Spain, it is fine for people to go to race car competitions and show up in black face.” (This actually happened.) “Racist is when you walk onto the field with black athletes and make monkey noises.” (This also happened and happens.) “Because monkeys aren’t even human. So I’ll give you that.” So that was our point of consensus. 
 
I’m not writing this to congratulate the U.S. or claim some kind of American exceptionalism. As Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling recently proved, in the U.S. you can be an undeniable racist and still deny your racism, too. 
 
Anyone who lives anywhere outside of a bubble of denial, oblivion and/or privilege knows that racism is a thriving practice and industry, and an intrinsic part -- whether de facto or de jure -- of our criminal justice system. 
 
The Spanish tradition of racism, replete with its own history of mass genocide and exploitation, not to mention caste and an entire genre of caste paintings, is no longer fed by empire or a fascist-dictatorship-backed official ideology of racial superiority. But, thanks, in part, to the fact that Spain only emerged from forty years of dictatorship and closed borders in 1975, Spanish racism remains shockingly out in the open. 
 
Countless towns are still named Matamoros (Moor-killer). Although, in a sign of progress, a town called Matajudios (Jew-killer) is voting on a potential name change. Only 500 years later! I’ll be watching to see how that turns out, just as I will be watching to see the fate of the allegedly maligned David Campayo.