Before moving to Barcelona, I'd seen videos and articles that described its racial tension - I just didn't take them seriously because I was reluctant to feed into the boy-who-cried-racist hysteria that can sometimes overtake the internet.
Over the course of two months, I was repeatedly reminded how naive I'd been. The most striking incident I faced was one in which I was out shopping after a morning of brunch and bottomless mimosas. I had to use the bathroom...URGENTLY...but being out and about, I had no idea where to go. I entered a Zara store and spotted a security guard just inside who seemed like the perfect person to ask for directions. It looked like he may have been avoiding eye contact with me, but I chalked that up to my own imagination; only when he saw me approaching him more closely, he turned his back towards me and made himself look busy!
Just short of twiddling his thumbs and starting to whistle, it was truly like something out of a cartoon! There were barely any other people around. No one was trying to steal a crop top. He quite literally went from standing idly by to actively ignoring me - only thing worse would have been if he'd just completely walked away.
I scoffed and directed myself to leave the store. Needless to say he made no attempts to address me even then.
Between that kind of flagrant rejection, constant dirty looks on the street 👁, and being asked repeatedly where I was going by a woman who saw me enter my apartment complex, I drew my own conclusion that Barcelona was far from an ideal place for me.
I'll have to address the impact of micro-aggressions more thoughtfully in a separate piece, but what can be called minutiae by some accumulates to a general sentiment of resentment and discomfort. The surprise factor, too. This kind of thing happens in America all the time, it's just that you would hope not to encounter it in a place where you vacation. And in Europe? Seemingly so advanced and so above Western simplicity of thought.
But where does it all come from?
Perhaps another reason it'd been hard for me to conceptualize racism in Europe before my arrival is that it hasn't manifested the same way I know it in the States. Everything is Black and White in America, but it's not always that simple. My Spanish teacher gave me insight regarding her own experience in Spain that proved helpful for my understanding:
She has a vivid childhood memory of her grandfather taking her out, to a military town I believe, to see "special" people: her first time seeing anyone Black or with dark skin.
She was born in 1981.
Assuming she was between 5 and 10, the idea that there could have been children in Europe who had never seen Black people until the mid 80s or early 90s is completely baffling - Spain especially, being in such proximity to the African continent. Who knows, there could be people still today who have never interacted with others outside their race.
Anti-Black rhetoric was already clear and pervasive in 20th century America. Conversely, integration and exposure are so far behind the curve that the Black/White binary as Americans may know it seems to be a 21st century issue in parts of the Eastern hemisphere. The kind of codified racism we learned about in 1900s America wouldn't have been imaginable if there were no Black people to begin with, as seems to have been the case here. And none of this is to undermine the history of religious and ethnic discrimination that has, in fact, taken place in Spain or across Europe, just to examine how my own preconceptions and personal experiences fit together with that history and where things are today.
My teacher explained that certain Spanish attitudes regarding race are rooted in antiquated xenophobic sentiments that foreigners threaten the security and success of natural born citizens. Perhaps, then, my feeling uncomfortable and unwelcome has more to do with my being foreign than specifically with me being Black - but even in therein lies the discriminatory assumption that Blackness and Spanish heritage can't coexist.
Regardless - you should definitely believe it when people tell you racism is alive and well in Barcelona and throughout Spain. It might also be naive of me to think that isn't the case almost everywhere, but a girl can dream, can't she?
I'd love to hear your take on this or follow recommendations on where to learn more.