Political incorrectness at the school play
Despite its large influx of immigrants in recent years, Spain still has some old-fashioned attitudes to race.
By Guy Hedgecoe
It was when a dozen or so small children charged into the room with their faces blacked up, Afro wigs on their heads and wielding spears, that I started to feel a little uncomfortable.
It was the Christmas theatre performance at my son’s school in Madrid, not usually an occasion that leaves me pondering issues of race, politics and political correctness. My four-year-old and his class had already performed a carefully choreographed dance to some Andean music, dressed in traditional Peruvian clothing and the theme of the evening was “cultures of the world”.
“How open-minded,” I mused as the troop of mini-Andeans left the stage and I anticipated an hour of multiculturalism.
But when the next group of kids came on stage, dressed as jungle-dwelling Africans, I started to wonder. (I should point out that not all of them had their faces blacked-up – there were two Dominican children who didn’t require the make-up or the wigs). They all spoke their lines in rudimentary Spanish, apparently to denote their “primitiveness”, and waved their spears in time to the music. The school gymnasium, where several dozen parents and grandparents were seated, exploded in laughter. And despite my unease, I too laughed at a well-rehearsed performance.
Such a scene is fairly unthinkable in many western countries. Certainly not the United States, with its robust political correctness, or the likes of Britain and France, which have made cultural adjustments largely because of their large immigrant populations.
But Spain also has a sizeable immigrant community, with around five million foreigners arriving during the country’s decade-long economic boom. Many of those migrants are from racial minorities from Ecuador, Peru, Dominican Republic, Senegal and other African countries. In many ways, Spain has shown itself to be highly tolerant and open in accepting these people. And yet, in the country’s large, modern capital, while outright racism is rare, some decidedly old-fashioned attitudes can still be found in the most unexpected places.
The costumes used in the school performance would be deemed highly offensive in other countries, but are shrugged at here in Spain. It’s the same kind of cultural chasm that saw Uruguayan footballer Luis Suárez heavily sanctioned by English authorities for calling black player Patrice Evra negrito and/or negro during a Premiership game. For the bewildered Suárez, from a continent with no tradition of political correctness in such matters, it was merely a word. For many in England, it was a reminder of the bad old days when racism was rife in the game.
In Spain, it’s presumably just a matter of time before things change and children are no longer blacked up and given spears and Afro wigs with which to perform their Christmas plays. Incidentally, the next sketch after “Africa” was “the United States”, with the only black kid in class playing Barack Obama in a slapstick comedy routine that brought the house down.
Perhaps the emergence one day of a “Spanish Obama” – a political figure from an ethnic minority – would change things. It would probably make my son’s school plays a bit duller, but it would also signal progress of sorts.
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