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Political incorrectness at the school play

Despite its large influx of immigrants in recent years, Spain still has some old-fashioned attitudes to race.


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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4 Comments for “Political incorrectness at the school play”

  1. You’re going to come to my country and lecture me about what is the proper culture? What is next — a rant about the injustices and brutality of the corrida? This is The Ugly American!

  2. As an Englishman, I can assure you that, unfortunately, both implicit and overt racism does persist in my country. It’s true that many people, especially in very cosmopolitan cities like London have made “cultural adjustments” but many people, even in those same cities, have not yet “adjusted”. As in the US, political correctness certainly prevails in many areas of civic life, and I would like to believe that no school in UK would allow the same sort of depiction of Africans but we should beware of living in glass houses here…

    That said, I agree with the overall thrust of Guy’s article which seems to be that widespread and antiquated racial stereotyping is allowed to persist (largely unchallenged) here in Spain. There seems to be a high level of tolerance for the type of insidious racism described in this article. When I have expressed my own concern to Spanish friends and family about similarly racist stereotyping, I have been told that such things are not racist as such, that they are just a bit of fun and that basically I should lighten up!

    Racism exists in every country and we should be vigilant in recognising and combatting it wherever we see it. What is most concerning here in Spain is the lack of open, challenging discussion and the underlying culture of denial that attempts to stifle such discussion when it does occur.

    Keep up the good work, Guy!

  3. I agree that Spaniards are less conscious/self-conscious about racism than anglos (and people in other mostly North Western European countries). The virus of PCness has spread-out exponentially in Spain over the last 10-12 years, even if to anglos it appears to be otherwise, it is just that PCwise Spain was a total desert a dozen or so years ago. But political correctness has not yet reached all the corners of Spanish society, which is why you can still get situations like the one described in the article. And I would like to emphasize that I would like to see them (situations like that) erradicated. However, I think anglos should try to put things into context more often.1) As one commentator mentioned above, racism is alive and kicking in the the UK and the USA. I mean there is no denying that, despite Obama and Ophra and all the rest. 2) Racism will not disappear in our life-times. 3) Neither Britain nor the USA are mulitcultural societies. Let’s not be fooled by all the modern gobbledygook surrounding the issue. In the UK Cameron has put paid to that, by openly admitting what must have been obvious to any one wanting to see realiity as it is (not as we would like ti to be). 4) Spain will become more PC in coming years, but let’s face it, it might never reach the levels of (fake) PCness of America and UK, nor do I think would that be desirable. The anglo world has a tendency to lurch ahead onto new apparently progressive social habits only to have to recant after a while. Don’t get me wrong, the whole world benefits from such experimentation, but that doesn’t mean the rest has to copy everything. Adopting the better bits is what the rest of the world has already been doing for decades.
    5) Despite the “primitive” behaviour by Spaniards with regards to racial interaction, I have never read or heard saying that Spaniards are particularly racist. Although largely subjective, the view of mosts is that Spaniards are generally much more open, friendly, liberal, engaging with foreigners (including those with darker skin) than northern Europeans and their descendants overseas.
    Could this be perhaps because of Spaniards own mixed heritage (arab?)? Maybe. The answer is: I don’t know but isn’t it and shouldn’t this be much more relevant to the subject of racism than demonstations of openly clumsy nonPCness? And why are people in the USA and the UK so sensitive about the subject? Doesn’t that in itself reflect the fact that there are still too many open wounds in those societies? Is superficial often fake PCness the cure for these wounds?
    I agree with the content of the article but often when I read articles like these I find they lack sufficent self-critical analysis and end up being superficial. I would have thought the subject matter was serious enough to merit a little bit mote introspection.

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