Spanish holiday tainted by locals’ obsession with blackness

This was the first trip without my husband for my daughter and I, with some friends from her school.  I‘ve travelled to Spain and many other European countries so was aware of the possible lack of diversity, intolerance to people of colour and a morbid curiosity of people with dark skin.

I’ve been teaching students from around the world at Masters Level for over 10 years, and I’m sure that those from Europe would be horrified by what my daughter and I were subjected to.

The actions we are subjected to in our daily lives as people of colour are not often talked about, as we deem them little things given where and what our ancestors fought for. But boy does it hurt, especially when my child is also a target, so I take this time to share my holiday experience in Spain.

My daughter asked a few times during our 10 days: “Why are they staring at us mum?” To which I replied: “The people in this community are not used to seeing black people, so they are curious”. She nodded her head in acknowledgement and moved on.  We would go to the supermarket and if we were in our entire group of five (two adults & three children) the stares would take place. However when it was just my daughter and I or just me, things would be different.

In the queue or walking down the aisles people would touch my hair (without asking), tap me on the shoulder and then stroke my skin and the same with my daughter.  My daughter would say to me afterwards “I know there are no black people here and they are curious but why do they keep touching our hair and skin mum?” The first time this happened I reminded her at home that this happens too, even at school with people she sees and knows very well.

I only visited the shop on one other occasion with my daughter as I felt powerless to prevent or prepare for the unauthorised touching. We were walking down the main street, about 20 yards ahead of the rest of the party going to the main hotel near where we were staying. On route a policeman stopped his car and asked me what I was doing, how far I was going and if I felt safe to walk there on my own. I said I should I feel safe and he shrugged his shoulders, said it wasn’t far then drove off.

I took my daughter to the beach restaurant, just her and I for some mummy- daughter time.  We both ignored the stares (proud of her) and we ordered wonderful food and new local cuisines recommended by the friendly waiter.

We were enjoying our time talking and laughing when a child from the table behind me came over and stared at us. In a moment an older lady who arose from the same table came over to us and grabbed the child’s hand and actually stroked my daughters face before returning with the child to their table.

But that wasn’t the end of the ordeal.  The older lady then spat on a tissue, gave it to the child and gestured what looked like a wiping action.  Before the tissue touched my daughter’s skin I grabbed the arm of this child, pointed my finger at her and said “NO!”

I then picked up a tissue, spat on it and turned to the family and gestured as if to wipe the arm of the older lady, cursing in English, they then got up to leave. The waiter came over to us and apologised and we were not charged for the meal.  Several of the Spanish guests at the restaurant apologised or made apologetic gestures. I guess they felt that the curiosity had gone too far.

Somebody that my daughter and I know from the UK (also visiting Spain) came to see us at our apartment and spent the day with us at the pool, but even then the obsession with our blackness continued. The woman’s youngest daughter asked my daughter: “Why are you black?”

The mother just looked at me and laughed but said nothing and her child repeated the question. So my daughter replied: “We’re all different; God made none of us the same so that we are all special.”

Then a white five-year old boy who was staying with us added: “Anyway she's not black she’s brown, and we all are too, just she’s darker.  A bit like chocolate, and I like chocolate.”

In that moment I was so proud of my daughter, and equally of my friend’s son.

To sum it up, there were some lovely people we met on our trip, but the pain of the realisation that a child of colour can be targeted by adults as well as children in 2013 is hugely disappointing in terms of our development for understanding and the appreciation of difference.

I wonder in years to come if my daughter remembers this trip, and if so how she remembers it?


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Aisha Richards

Aisha Richards

Aisha Richards is an Associate Lecture in Art& Design at UAL and the Founder & Director of Shades of Noir-a programme centred on race in creative arts education and industry.
Aisha Richards

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5 Comments On “Spanish holiday tainted by locals’ obsession with blackness”

  1. The woman spat on the tissue and gestured a wiping action! For what, to see if your colour would come off? I'm literally utterly astounded by this. In 2013 can people really still be that ignorant? Where does she live in a cave! My goodness, I'm so sorry for the awful experience you and your daughter and friends had but it really does highlight the need for continued and widespread discourse and education on the subject of blackness from every angle. God bless the amazingly thoughtful response to the little boy at the pool by your daughter and the very astute reiteration by your friend's son. From the mouths of babes!

  2. Teleica thank you for your thoughtful reply and yes the children are amazing. Although this trip is behind us, I am mindful that unless a collective voice drives change there may well be many more stories like this irrespective of socioeconomic, education or ancestry. This is the reason I joined this network, to share experience and be part of a community of academics whom have so much to offer with regards to race equality…..we live it!

    • Hi, I can relate to your experience as a black woman who has travelled alone to many places around the globe and have experienced various incidents from the little fascinations to the most frightening. The worst, or most frightening was in the South of France which is a place that is quite cosmopolitan. Admittedly, I visited a part of the South that had no black people. A restaurant owner had to physically take me back to my holiday residence to protect from a mob of men who acted quite disturbingly when they saw me in the restaurant having a meal. The look of evil in their eyes and crude gestures aimed at me as they stood and loitered outside the restaurant were very scary and, even the brave white french restaurant owner was a little afraid when we left to walk towards her vehicle to take me back safely. Dubai, Japan, Canada, San Torini, Portugal, Spain (Barcelona) Venezuela, Hawaii, California (Santa Barbara and Palm Springs) France (Paris, Calais, Cap d'Age) Italy (Rome and Naples) Brazil, Belgium (Brussels and Oostend) Holland and many more trips to different places I have travelled alone. I have learned to understand and accept the reactions of people when they see me which all boils down to educattional beliefs, preferences and stereotyping and it is the people who are potentially dangerous that I give most attention to as a means to protect myself.

  3. I am so sad to hear of the awful experience that you had. I am Irish and I adopted my son Joe, who is nearly 5, from Ethiopia. Because we are not the same colour, we sometimes encounter stares but nothing more, until a recent holiday in Ireland. My son was out playing with some girls that he had met a few days earlier. He came in about 5 minutes later and with tears in his eyes said 'mammy, Lia said she doesn't want to play with me because I am brown'. I was so upset, and went out and asked the girl (she was 9) if she had said this. She was a bit evasive, but then admitted that she had said it. Just then her dad came along and I told him what had happened. He was absolutely mortified and so was his wife, and they apologised profusely and told their daughter very clearly that what she said was wrong. I chatted to Joe afterwards and told him that what she had said was wrong, and that he should always tell me if anyone says something like this again. Just thought I would share my story. My brother-in-law is African too and he has encountered some racism too. I think that it is worrying in the current economic environment, as in Ireland for example, I can observe resentment towards foreign nationals and increased intolerance and racism. Just thought I would share my thoughts, thanks, Sile

  4. I will not excuse the general rude behaviour of my country fellows, especially the disgusting old lady, but you should expect unauthorized touching and staring in Spain as this is a cultural feature. If you and your daughter would be Scandinavian blonde-blue eyed Vikings you would be treated the same way. Our customs are really different concerning personal space, among other surprising issues and if you are not comfortable with this, Spain is not a country for you. It is not about racism.

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