The Harsh Reality of Racism Abroad

By Nhari Djan

When Tyra Jean was at an orientation for the Madrid study abroad program at Syracuse University, she learned that staring was common for Spaniards. Staff informed her SU Madrid group about this as they were talking about the cultural differences they may encounter when they’re in Spain. 

But once Jean got to Spain, she immediately noticed that people were staring at her and her non-white friends a lot — much more so than her white peers, who could easily blend in with the vastly white population of the city. 

“I automatically thought for the first week [that] all these people are racist. Like they’re staring at me,” says Jean, a senior sociology major with a biology and Spanish minor. She’s now back in Syracuse after completing her study abroad prog-ram last spring. “I had to grow into the culture and understand the history. In the specific part I lived in, they don’t see a lot of Black people come around. So, if anything, it was a thing of curiosity.” 

Jean, who is Black and of Haitian heritage, repeats multiple times that she doesn’t regret her experience in Madrid and has grown a lot from living and studying abroad. She’s even applying to teach in countries like Colombia so she can live abroad again. But her experience in Madrid also left her feel uncomfortable in her own skin as she and her friends experienced a series of racist encounters during their time there. She became much more aware of her Blackness and how it was perceived in Spain and the other European countries she visited. 

In the specific part I lived in, they don’t see a lot of Black people come around. So, if anything, it was a thing of curiosity. 

Tyra Jean, former participant in SU Madrid Study Abroad’s program

Non-white individuals are aware of what their race means in the United States. For example, 71% of Black Americans and 60% of Hispanic Americans say that race relations in the country are getting worse, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center*. However, stereotypes, slurs, discrimination, and racism in general against people of color is not a cut-and-dry concept. These concepts don’t translate in the same way in other countries and cultures. In a city like Madrid where the population is “homogenous,” as Jean describes, anyone who doesn’t fit the mold could face hostility. 

“We actually got attacked on the metro. It was me and two brown skinned Dominican girls. [One of them] got jabbed several times by this white man who wanted the seat she was sitting in,” Jean says. “We got turned away from a tapas bar, and there were instances where we were not able to enter nightclubs. Other white people got to go, and they were wearing the same clothes as us.” 

The vast whiteness in Spain might explain some of the treatment Jean and her friends experienced while in Madrid. But immigration statistics about Spain show that the country is open to foreigners. For instance, Spain ranked highest with 83% of people in favor of taking in refugees compared to other countries like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. Spain also saw a new record of undocumented migrant arrivals by sea in 2018 with 57,250 people completing the journey across the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. 

Yet attitudes in the country towards refugees, migrants, and foreigners may not always be as welcoming. Jean was in Spain at the same time as their 2019 general election. The country was also facing protests from Catalonia as people fought for independence from Spain. Jean says people were feeling uneasy about having “outsiders” at that time. And in Salamanca, where Jean lived, she noticed that people in the neighborhood were more conservative and nationalistic. 

Elsa Garcia-Irby, a senior anthropology student at SU, was also in Madrid last spring. Garcia-Irby has also studied abroad in Ireland and is currently studying abroad in Japan. “The semester before, I did an independent study about colonial Guatemala,” Garcia-Irby says. “I learned a lot about Spain that I didn’t know. It didn’t hit me until before I left, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to the birthplace of racism.’” 

Like Jean, Garcia-Irby also noticed the constant staring every day, coupled with people moving away from her and her friends in discomfort when they rode public transportation. After the first day of classes, she and a friend were standing on a street corner when a man on a motorcycle drove by them and called them whores in Spanish while simultaneously giving them the middle finger. One of the Spaniard students from their dorm building witnessed the event and laughed at them. 

Garcia-Irby identifies as Afro-Xicana, relating to both her Black and Mexican American heritage. She and Tatiana Hernandez-Mitchell, who identifies as Black and Dominican and also studied abroad in Madrid, both felt as though they were othered not only for their blackness, but also for their Latin American heritage. “I know that in Spain, they look down on the ‘colonies’. That’s what they still call us,” says Hernandez-Mitchell, a senior psychology and forensic studies major with a minor in African American studies. 

Spain’s government is leftist, and the current Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, is in the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. While the country is mainly in support of left-wing leadership, the past election did give Vox, the far-right, anti-immigration party, a platform and a few seats in the Parliament. Although the party is not largely supported in Spain, Hernandez-Mitchell says some students stayed with host families who were Vox supporters. She says she couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the group’s rhetoric and President Donald Trump’s rhetoric in the United States. 

“I think it goes to show the harsh reality of America’s influence. Once you go to another country and see the effects of the Trump administration, you’re going to lose your mind because you never would’ve thought that it would amount to this globally,” Hernandez- Mitchell says. 

The three women not only experienced singular racist incidents, but also felt uncomfortable with how much their race was emphasized in Spain. For example, Garcia-Irby says she had issues with the dorm staff and her peers in the dorm, who were affluent and unkind. Jean and Hernandez- Mitchell both did homestays in Salamanca’s affluent, white neighborhoods. Jean hardly ever saw anyone Black where she lived. She was also hurt by comments her host mother made, who shared anti-immigrant sentiments around her. “It was little microaggressions here and there,” Jean says. “I knew this woman cared deep down, but I wouldn’t say I had the most positive relationship with [her].” 

But the incident that caught SU’s attention occurred inside the classroom. Last March, a professor teaching a class on colonialism in Latin America for the SU Madrid program argued that it was OK to use the N-word after a white student in the classroom was chastised by her peers for saying it. The professor was already in trouble for allowing the use of the N-word in class before, according to reporting by The Daily Orange

The SU Madrid Center conducted a forum in May to discuss the issue. Jean says the forum led to her white peers seeing what students of color were going through in Madrid. But for her, the situation didn’t end well. “I felt like they were supposed to take action on [the professor], but I was forced to leave the class and do an independent study,” Jean says. 

The students’ discomfort inside and outside the classroom led to feelings of stress and isolation. Jean, Garcia-Irby, and Hernandez-Mitchell leaned on each other and other students of color in the program who were feeling the same way as them. They all said that ultimately, that bond helped them enjoy their time abroad. They found some safe spaces in Madrid’s more diverse and younger neighborhoods, like Chueca and Lavapies. 

“The younger generation is so progressive. They do a lot of protests about the bullfighting culture, there’s a lot of veganism and expressionistic art,” Hernandez-Mitchell says. “Specific neighborhoods like Chueca, it’s like the most LGBTQ+-promoting neighborhood. There’s a lot of gay art and couples walking around holding hands. They’re very free in that sense, and it made me feel welcomed.” 

Hernandez-Mitchell also had to find other ways to deal with the stress she felt. Like Jean, she does not regret her experience, but she it was hard to enjoy her semester fully because she harbored a lot of resentment and felt discouraged hearing how she was perceived by other people when she traveled. “When I was abroad, that was the first time I started going to therapy because the center [offers] six free consultations. I recommend that all POC go because you’re going to want to talk to someone about being one of the few Black or Latinx people in your space,” Hernandez-Mitchell says.

I was like a zoo animal to them. I was someone they’ve never seen before. 

Evan Asante, current participant in SU Hong Kong study abroad program

Meanwhile, Evan Asante, a junior studying finance and marketing, is currently studying abroad in Hong Kong. Even though he is Black in a country where the population is over 90% ethnic Chinese, he doesn’t feel as though his race affected his experience. “Everyone here has seen a bunch of different races, and there’s people from all around the world here. I don’t feel too different here,” Asante says. 

The one time Asante felt that his race really stood out was when he traveled to Beijing, China as a part of a two-week seminar at the beginning of the semester. He noticed people taking pictures and videos of him, especially in the more rural areas where they went to see tourist attractions. 

“I was like a zoo animal to them,” Asante says. “I was someone they’ve never seen before.” 

Asante took the situation lightly at first, but there were points where people in Beijing did cross the line and made him and other Black students feel discomfort. He says he still understands where people were coming from, especially in the more rural areas, because of how uncommon it was for them to see Black people. 

“The only thing that bothered me was the way some people were going about it. I know with [my friend] Dion, a lot of people were touching her hair. The craziest thing that happened to me was when a little kid was walking next to me, and the mother looks and sees me, and she grabs the kid and runs away,” Asante says. 

But in Hong Kong, Asante feels like he has been able to adjust well. He says there is a strong African community, so there hasn’t been an issue with him standing out too much. 

“One thing I regret is staying in my room a lot,” Garcia-Irby says about her time abroad in Spain. Now in Japan, she says she is having a better experience and hasn’t run into similar problems. She encourages students of color to go abroad in places like Europe to study because people in other countries should start getting used to seeing more non-white people traveling and studying in their spaces. To her, it’s especially important for people of color to have access to the places where colonization originated. 

“Although you’re going to experience being othered while you’re abroad, they should get used to seeing people of color and students of color come abroad. Europe’s history is very problematic, and it’s doing a disservice to people of color not feeling comfortable to ‘go back,’” Garcia-Irby says. “Why can’t students of color go and see these histories, and why can’t we also experience Europe? 

Featured Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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