For my STEP project, I decided to study abroad in Toledo, Spain. While in Spain, I took classes in Spanish at La Fundación de José Ortega y Gasset during the week and traveled by train and bus to various cities on the weekends.
Something that really struck me from my cultural experience was the difference in the Spanish attitude about race compared to that of Americans. While there is not a contemporary story of the enslavement of a particular race of people in Spain, as is in the United States, there is a strong tension toward the gypsy race. My host mom and conversation partner, namely, did not consider their attitudes towards gypsies to be racist. They made the assumption that gypsies were uneducated criminals. While my host mom a
nd conversation partner are not to blame for being a product of their environment, the issue of racism toward gypsies cannot be understated. While I was in Spain, there were a lot of race riots going on in the United States. The constant images of the riots on the news gave the Spaniards who I interacted with an increasingly negative attitude toward the United States. I think that my host mom’s comments about most Americans being racist made me hypersensitive to the issues of racism not being a uniquely American experience. People all around the world shun the United States for being extremely racist, part of our Nation’s story that the vast majority of us are ashamed of. All nations, however, are guilty of racism or oppression of some sort. The first step to eradicating racism is recognizing that it exists. There are people in Spain, I am sure, who are aware of the issue of racism toward gypsies, but for the most part, the Spanish public seems to be accepting a generally racist view of gypsies as truth. One of the most impactful things that I learned on my trip was that racism is an issue that every corner of the world faces.
There are several instances in which I remember thinking about the discrimination that gypsies face in Spain. While in Toledo, I went several times to the public pool with my conversation partner. There was one instance in which a gypsy boy, of probably 14 years old, called out to me in the little bit of English that he knew. The boy was being immature, trying to get the attention of two older girls. Instead of reacting to the boy in a negative way regarding his treatment of women, my conversation partner explained to me that the boy was acting that way because he was a gypsy. She told me that he could not speak English, let alone Spanish. My friend attributed this boy’s rudeness entirely to his race. She made a sour face, ignoring the boy entirely.
Also noteworthy was the fact that before going to any new city, my host parents would advise me to stay away from the gypsies who sell things at tourist attractions. They explained to me that gypsies are notoriously thieves and should not be trusted. Although I was raised to never trust anyone who is trying to sell me something, I found it strange that I should trust one merchant over another based on something as superficial as race. I know, however, that the fact that gypsies are more often associated with crime can be attributed to the fact that they have been largely stuck in poverty traps. One must not remain oblivious to the implications of race as it relates to class and privilege, but one must not let this knowledge perpetuate stereotypes.
I remember seeing a group of gypsies selling trinkets when I was getting off the bus to view La Alhambra in Granada. As I confronted them, all the negative comments that my host parents and conversation partner had made were floating around in my head. In spite of this, I did not feel any particular feeling of fear or animosity toward the gypsies outside La Alhambra, because I had not internalized their biases. I noted, too, that the administrators from La Fundación had not made any derogatory “warning” statements about the gypsies. I do not know if they were holding back their biases or if they simply did not have them, but it was refreshing to be given the opportunity to interpret my surroundings unfettered from the Spanish perspective.
In all, the interactions that I had with Spaniards regarding the gypsy population demonstrated that there is a pervasive racist sentiment toward gypsies in Spain. Although there are many Spaniards who do not make sweeping generalizations about the gypsy population, I encountered many more who do.
This observation has made me pay more attention to where the biases that I hold stem from. I have tried to put into question more of my beliefs—I have been able to view my perceptions for what they are, opinions. While I remain an opinionated person, I am more aware than ever before of the fact that the ideas I express are framed by the context of my life. As my host mom and conversation partner in Toledo hold biases about gypsies that they view as facts, I hold biases about numerous other groups of people that I view as fact. I do not look down on the Spaniards who hold these harmful opinions, I just hope that society becomes increasingly self-aware.