“Mercedes…. Tu nombre es en Español… Pero….. Tu eres Americana…. ” they always say to me with the same confused vocal infliction, and furrowed eyebrows. What they genuinely mean by that is “Mercedes, tu nombre es en Español, pero… tu eres Morena.” I am an Afro Latina from New York by way of the Washington, D.C. area who felt a burdening need for change as I finished up my first two years as an educator and Master’s degree in Education in May 2017. In September, I packed up two large suitcases and moved across the Atlantic Ocean to teach English in Spain. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for, but what I found here was a country full of rich culture, beautiful architecture, interesting food, fascinating people and – racism. You may be wondering: “but you’re from America! Isn’t America racist?!” The short answer to that question is: Yes. America is racist. Institutionalized racism in America is everywhere from schools, to jobs, to jails, to the housing market. But in America, with the exception of The Orange Man and his minions, most people try to sweep their racism under the rug and the overt mocking or degradation of minority groups is socially unacceptable. However in Spain, that’s quite the contrary.
During my five months living in a small town about twenty minutes outside of Valencia city, I have been exposed to ignorance and racism that my 25 years of living in America never granted me. As I mentioned, in America racism is more insitutionalized than social which allows the country to cover up and to save face – although most of us know the truth about the country that we are living in. It is also important that I acknowledge my own privilege that comes with being a biracial woman living on the East Coast, always in very racially diverse and liberal towns. In Spain – I have witnesses and experienced things I never have before such as countless swastikas spray painted on walls in and around the city, countless strangers sticking their hands in my hair without permission, a woman who needed directions getting the attention of me and a black man I was walking with by shouting “morenos!” then calling us liars after directions were given. My (black) friends and I have had the police called on us at a restaurant for requesting an item that was inedible be removed from the bill, and that same day a mime street performer walked up to our table switching his hips, snapping his fingers, and yelling “uh uhhhhh”- acting out the ghetto black girl stereotype. Did he do that to any other people? Of course not. Fast forward to about a month and a half later when Spain’s racism and prejudice toward people of color hit the fan for me right before the Christmas break, when the Three Kings came to pay a visit to my students at work.
Prior to this day, I had heard many times that blackface was popular in Spain but I felt that the school I worked in, which boasts tolerance and multiculturalism would do better. Unfortunately, I was in for a rude awakening about how incorrect that theory was. Since I am a floating English teacher – I move around to different classrooms to teach English – that day I had no classes since all of the students stayed with their main teacher. The teacher that I work most closely with – also the school’s language coordinator – asked me to cover her 6th grade class so she could see her son in infantile with the Three Kings. When she returned, she asked me to assist them in the room where the Kings were, because the kids were getting a bit out of hand. Without hesitation, I walked down the hallway to assist and before I even entered the room through the window of the door I saw what felt like generations of ancestral trauma and humiliation sitting right in front of me.
I immediately became overwhelmed with emotion, and stood outside the room trying to talk myself into going in and helping the teachers who were there with the children. I took a deep breath and walked into the room, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of a white man dressed up in a king’s costume, with brown paint all over his face, and a smile so big I swore I could see all 32 teeth in his mouth. The anger and embarrassment that raged through my body, not only being the only black person in the room, but the only black person in the entire school was indescribable. Here I am, consistently going above and beyond for a group of people – and this is how they see me. As I felt my eyes well up with tears, and my body began to shake I immediately turned around and left the room. I went to the teacher whose class I was initially covering, and told her I could not be in that room while a man was in blackface. She said she understood, and left me to cover her class of ten year olds as I sat trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed.
When she returned, I looked at her and candidly said “that shit is so racist”. She met my anger with an uncomfortable smile, “I know in your country it’s racist, but here, it’s the exact opposite – it’s inclusion! He was black and we want to include that”. Even more irritated now, I asked her, “if it’s about inclusion – why couldn’t you just find a black person?” Her reply, “because, Mercedes, there are no black people here. How do they celebrate the holiday in your country?” her uncomfortable smile now turning into a nervous chuckle. “They just use a black person!” I shouted, then I immediately stopped speaking, because there’s no point arguing with someone who is committed to misunderstanding you. How can she tell me, a black person, that shit ISN’T racist? I thought as I walked out of her room.
For the rest of the day, I felt defeated. Since I didn’t have any classes, I had the luxury of being able to hide in an empty room for the rest of the day. When I thought I felt better, I went into the teachers room to get some work done, but when I walked in on the table I saw a pink sponge covered in brown paint aside the costumes the men in the room had on. Wait, that’s someone who works here? I thought, upsetting myself all over again. I immediately pulled out my phone and explained to my sister what happened, “when I come home to visit for Christmas I’m not coming back,” I told her.
“It’s not that serious, that teacher was right about what she said – that it was for inclusive purposes because he was black and there are no black people who work in your school” is what you might be thinking as you read this. The thing is, I felt as though I couldn’t work for or with people who see me and my people as something to put on as a costume – to make a mockery of, then to simply dismiss me when I bring forward my feelings about what they have done. Blackface has a very strong historically racist context in not only the United States, but in Europe as well. White people in Ministrel shows would put brown or black paint on their face, draw huge red lips, and portray what they believed to be stereotypical behaviors of black people for the entertainment white people. (For more information on blackface and its historical presence, please consult Google.) These days, those types of shows are not as prevelant – but blackface still is. Black people and their culture (stereotyped or real), are not pieces of a costume that you can put on and take off when you decide you want to be Black. We are not here for your entertainment, nor to be made a mockery out of for the sake of your white or nonblack counterparts. We are not part of a fairytale, or majestic creatures floating around in the mythical abyss that you can pretend to be when it so suits you. In the words of Jesse Williams at his famous BET Awards speech in 2016, “just because we’re magic – doesn’t mean we aren’t real”.
With the support of my amazing sister, friends, mentors, and even some strangers – I’ve decided to stay in my position and to provide my students a true multicultural, antiracist education to the best of my abilities. Since that day, I’ve had very important conversations with my secondary students about identity, culture, and oppression. It is unfortunate I will not permanently be teaching here, but if I can plant the seeds of change into just a few of their brains and hearts – I would consider it a job well done.