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PERSONA NON GRATA

Friend and fellow blogger (and ka-ostheory guest author) Stefan Adegbola writes about his experience with the Spanish police...

Born in Nigeria, raised in London, and curently studying his degree at the University of Sussex, Stefan has spent the academic year 2008-09 living in Madrid, as part of his studies. While there, he has engaged in late-night binge-drinking, explicit activites with members of the same gender, and spoken the odd foreign language while attending classes. He can usually be found in a theatre - either in the audience or on the stage - or in a park with a book. Failing that, look for the nearest bar or off-licence, listen out for someone talking too loudly about "the one thing [he] can't stand", and keep your nose peeled for a faint whiff of self-loathing. That'll be him.

I'VE BEEN DESPERATELY trying to avoid this issue for two reasons: 1) everybody knows Sanya in España is a fun blog, which deals with anything and everything to do with anywhere but Spain; and 2) the issue of race and racism in Spanish society is a very complex and somewhat blurred one (then again, show me a place where racism isn't a complex issue). Nevertheless, I feel the time has come for the blog to grow up. Particularly because of what happened to me a few days ago.


Since the beginning of July, I have been teaching English part-time at an academy for secondary school-age children in Pozuelo de Alarcón, which is a small suburban city in the region of Madrid. It is one of those perfectly-planned, creepy little places which reminds me of Village of the Damned, or The Prisoner. You know the kind: everyone is supposedly happy and relaxed in their idyllic little world, cut off from the rest of civilisation; but something dark and terrifying is behind the serenity. Well, fortunately for me, I have access to the outside world, via a half-hour bus journey from Madrid city.

On Wednesday morning, I was running late. I belted it down the road to the Moncloa bus station, ran to the closest entrance to my bus stand, and rushed down the escalator. Out of the corner of my eye, for about a second, I noticed two police officers at the foot of the escalator speaking to a woman. The woman was black. I paid no attention to it - I had my own business to attend to - but as soon as I had reached the bottom of the escalator, and was already on my way to the bus stand, I heard a call: "Oye, chico. Ven aquí." Maybe my brain had worked faster than I realised, but since I was the only person around who was likely to have been called, I turned around. The two policemen were standing in the same spot, facing me. I walked back up to them. What you read next is not an exact reproducion, but as close to what I can remember of the exchange.

Me: Yes? Is there a problem?

Officer 1 (tall, thin, in his thirties; non-threatening face): Do you have any documentation on you?

Me: I'm sorry?

Officer 1: Do you have your ID card?

Me: Err, yes.

I quickly reach into my pocket, pull out my wallet, and extract my Tarjeta de estudiante. OFFICER 1 takes it, and has good long stare. I respectfully take off my sunglasses and have a quick peek at OFFICER 2. He is much less kind-looking. Short, stocky and bald, he is clearly the "heavy". OFFICER 2 speaks to me, in an officious tone.

Officer 2: What are you doing in Spain?

Me: I'm a student. I've been studying my Year Abroad in the Complutense university.

Officer 2: It's summer, now.

Me: I decided to stay on for a little while and work as an English teacher. I'm actually on my way to work, now.

OFFICER 1 says something to his colleague. I don't hear it, since I'm thinking, "why on Earth are they asking me questions? They've seen my ID, and they can see I'm in a hurry." I quickly peek at the black woman, who is presumably waiting to be released, herself. She looks slightly anxious. The officers are talking, and writing things down, but I'm not paying attention, thinking in English, since I'm still tired from recently waking up and rushing to catch the bus I have now missed. OFFICER 1 then continues to speak to me.

Officer 1: Where are you from?

Me: The UK.

Officer 1: (Looking at the card) This says Nigeria.

Me: I was born in Nigeria, which is why you'll see "Nigerian" as my nationality on the card, but I have lived in the UK since I was a toddler.

Officer 1: You're under arrest.

Me: I beg your pardon? Why am I under arrest?

The officers laugh. I have misunderstood.

Officer 2: He said "Have you ever been under arrest?" Either in Spain or anywhere else.

Me: Ah, sorry. No. (The officers continue chuckling to themselves) It's just that I'm running late, and I'm not concentrating very well.

Officer 1: When are you leaving Spain?

Me: At the end of the month. I know my card runs out in mid-September, but I was only ever going to be living in Spain for one year.

Officer 1: What do you study?

Me: Hispanic literature. Which is how I can speak Spanish.

Officer 1: (Handing me back my card) OK, then. You can go.

Me: (Not without a considerable measure of restraint) Thank you very much. Goodbye.

I walked off to my bus stand, and fortunately caught the next bus. I noticed they had let the woman go, too.

It was quite clear from the beginning that these officers were not simply regular police. Their uniforms were neither the standard colour of the police nor were they Guardia Civil. They must have been working for the Immigration department. When I got on the bus, and was on my way, I glanced at the area, and they had gone. Clearly no-one else looked like they needed to be checked.

Why did I feel so indignant after that incident? After all, I'm not Spanish, and I'm not in possession of an EU passport. There was every possibility I could have been an illegal african immigrant, either living in Spain, or using the country as a route to the rest of Europe, as several hundred arabic and sub-saharan africans do every year. In any case, they let me go, once they were satisfied I was clearly no such person. Yet, even thinking about it now, I still feel really annoyed at the fact that I was stopped, in the midst of going about my business in a place I now call home; and that the legality of my presence was questioned. Why was I stopped? Because I'm black.

Before I go on, I must point out that I hate the Race Card. Honestly, I do. My dad used to use it as a means of winding people up, in order to get his way. I would cringe if I ever heard other black people - in London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, of all places - complain about being racially discriminated against. By the time I was a teenager, the "it's because I'm black" whine had become so commonly-used, most of all by badly-behaved young black people being publicly reproached by older white people, that it was used as a catchphrase for satirist Sacha Baron Cohen's creation Ali G.

I think the general debate about racism is too generic. It focuses on the supposed "black vs white" dichotomy, which pushes all other forms of racism aside. When, in 2004, right-wing tabloid papers called the day of EU-expansion a day on which "floods" of Eastern European people desperate to enter the UK, looking for work, would arrive on Britain's shores and create a massive problem of immigration, I thought that was racist. When I read about two Egyptian teenagers, studying English in Brighton, being attacked by a racially-mixed group of boys for not speaking English to each other, I thought that was racist. When I hear Yoruba nigerians talk derogatively about their Igbo countrymen, simply for belonging to a different ethnicity, engaging in an age-old rivalry between both groups, I find that to be racist.

Recently, Prof. Henry Luis Gates Jr of Harvard University was arrested and the case became public, due to Prof Gates' insistence on his being treated by the police in a certain manner as racist because the officer was white and he is black. According to him, it was an indication of the vulnerability of "all black men [...] to caprice's forces". As far as I could tell, he was arrested for shooting his mouth off to the police.

What really annoys me about Prof. Gates is that he had no claim to the racism charge, yet I feel I do. I don't think the policemen themselves were racist - they were doing their jobs, carrying out a task they were sent to do. The problem is, when you are told "go get anyone who may look like an illegal immigrant" in a country which has very few legal black immigrants in it, you are going to single out the blacks. I can only guess this was the case, but my claim is slightly strengthened by the fact that the only other person I saw them detain was also black. If it is the case, then in my opinion, that's wrong, for two reasons.

Firstly, although the majority of black people you will see in Spain are illegal immigrants, that is not to say that all of them are. Most illegal african immigrants are out on the streets all day, selling bootleg DVDs, jewelry, sunglasses, or bags, trying to get by. They do pretty well, those street vendors, too: they always go to the same spots, and have a reliable customer base. If he isn't selling black market wares, he'll be standing outside a supermarket, peddling La Farola - a street newspaper which supports people by giving them a certain amount of copies to sell, the profits of which they keep. Think The Big Issue, but for african immigrants, rather than the homeless. However, I do not dress, look, sound or even carry myself like one of these people. Let me make it clear: I'm not saying I'm above or better than them, just that I am different. Since I have grown up in a Western culture and society, I reflect this in my behaviour, my attitude and the way I present myself to others. Furthermore, I was dressed to teach a morning of classes, with my satchel-bag at my hip, checking the time on my phone, in a busy bus station. Does that fit with the image of someone trying to sell knock-off jewelry or pirate DVDs?

Also, not all illegal immigrants in Spain are black. Aside from the blacks and latinos, who clearly do not "look Spanish", there are white immigrants who have entered and are living in the country via "unconventional" means. What about the Romanians and other Eastern Europeans who are here? I'm not saying they are all illegal, either; far from it. Rather, why were they not being stopped in the street, or on their way to work? Was it because they might get away with "looking Spanish"? I had a friend, here, who I still find hard to believe is Serbian: she's spent her life in Spain since she was a little girl, and has a very mediterranean look. Then again, Serbia is a Baltic country, and it borders with Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, all of which have a Mediterranean coast, so she looks mediterranean because she is mediterranean. She just isn't Spanish.

I'm worried that I may actually start to sound racist in this post, myself, but I don't think I am. I'm just indignant at the way I was treated. The real point I want to make, though, is not that I consider myself special because I know I'm not an illegal immigrant. Nor am I saying I was victimised because I'm black, even though I I do feel it was the reason for me being stopped and questioned. Nor do I even think Spain is a racist country. I've lived here for nearly an entire year, and I had previously visited at various stages in my life and for differing lengths of time. Spain is no longer a strange country to me, but a familiar home-from-home. In the seven years since I first came to the country, I have barely experienced anything which I would call even remotely racist. None of them were even incidents which would not have occurred anywhere else: I was either dealing with bigots, stupid or thoughtless people who spoke before processing their words. We all know they exist everywhere.

No, my problem is with the institution of the Immigration Police, and its far from progressive guidelines. There are now black teenagers, walking the streets with their friends, chatting and gossiping with their friends in thick Madrid accents. In ten years' time, why should any of them be stopped, as they go about their business, and have their validity to be in the country in which they were born, raised, and now whose workforce and economy they contribute to questioned? That is why I am angry that this happened to me, and that is why I thought I could no longer hold my tongue on the issue.

Now, tell me: have I become a Race Card Player?

This article originally appeared on the Sanya in España blog on 15th August 2009, and has been reprinted her with the permission of the author.

7 comments:

Bend said...

I find your neurosis about not having assumptions that are racial, racy or racist quite interesting. You raise valid points... and especaiily about Prof. Gates who before his drama had being a a vocal authority on post-racial matters. I find it hard to agree that we are in a post racial world. Race matters, even with Black American Presidents :)

Its almost trite to say again that race is complex. Race matters and dealing with other people's otherness can be very difficult. But being African, living in Europe, sceptical and lacking understanding about race, my concern lies beyond the sterotyping of people and its resultant effect but rather the systems that make this possible, the re enforced pattern of how race is negotiated puts some races at disadvantage... apparently I ve lost myself, am known to ramble quite often.. but great blog by the way

Garçon Stupide said...

Excellent article, thoughtful and thought-provoking as always.

I think you've every right to feel aggrieved; you're the very last person who could be called a "Race Card Player."

From your recounting of the episode, it's clear you were stopped because you're black (and probably young, I shouldn't wonder). It's clear that the police officers made certain assumptions about you based on your appearance. That's a horrible position to be in, particularly as you're actually a legitimate "guest" going about your legitimate business and making a worthwhile contribution to society.

I think the comments by the above correspondent are unfair: neurosis? What neurosis? Sanya's article is a cool, calm, rational analysis, devoid of the angry finger-pointing and tired accusations beloved of many African American activists (stand up Jasmyne Cannick, James Earl Hardy et al...

Lastly, good for you in being so restrained - I'm not sure I would've been, in a similar situation.

Eduardo Guize said...

Yes, it happened to you because you were black. Being visibly rushing didn't help either, as maybe that made them believe you were trying to dodge them.

Several reasons why they didn't let you go immediately after you showed him the ID:
- Spanish cops love fucking with you just for fun when they are bored.
- Maybe that was the first time in their lives they saw a Tarjeta de Estudiante.
- In Spain, as immigration is a recent phenomenon, they tend not to realize there are black Europeans. Same thing in Italy, where people wouldn't believe my black co-workers when they said they were French.

I agree with your reasoning!

Bend said...

oh i didnt mean it as an indictment at all.. neurosis only rgearding the preoccupation with balance, with the naunces in the context of each situation.. so it shld be a positive kind of neurosis. apparently my thoughts havent come across right

Curious said...

Please don't compare what happened to you with Gates. In the US, laws are written so that as cliche as it sounds, a man's home is his castle. Professor Gates could have whipped his thing out, ejaculated while whistling Dixie in front of the police officer and would have been within his rights. There is no law against "shooting" his mouth off against a policeman, just creating a public nuisance or disturbance. Since he was inside his house, there was nothing public and hence the charges were dropped. There may not have any racist motives involved, but the abuse by the officer was just as painful.

As for your incident, the police were obviously profiling which again is frowned upon in the US even though I'm sure it's done all the time. I'm sure it hurt and made you feel less than legitimate especially since there was no apology at the end which is what I would have insisted on although not directly. Of course that maybe because I have gotten older and realized that I don't have to take a lot of guff from people and that I'll respect those that respect me. But I'm digressing; there will be a time when the police will realize that the profiling thing alone is not going to be helpful in their cause. Just rounding up all the black kids in hopes of catching 1 or 2 illegal immigrants will turn out not to be cost or time effective. Until that time I would suggest that you be firm in who you are and know the protections that you have so no one can roll over you without there being consequences.

Gloria said...

Hi, this is my first visit to your site and the first of your many postings that I have read so far. I just want to echo the thoughts and opinions of Garcon Stupide, Eduardo and Curious. I too am black and have lived in Cordoba, Spain, with my husband, for the past two years and so it is with great gladness that I have come across your page following an introduction from my son, Trojan of Trojan's Corner. I also have a blog which I started less than one week ago so please drop by to visit when you have a moment. Once again, I am very very pleased to have found your page and am going to follow you with eagerness.

eagereagle said...

You are definitely not a racist in the comments you expressed but the victim of genetically encapsulated white supremacy feelings. Is it now Immigration police or just ordinary citizens, they all secretly feel superior or having the right to harass the non-white looking individuals around. You see as a white man myself, having adopted a Nigerian child I have experienced the situation so often, when we both were on the streets and my son got harassed because he was black and I was even told, before I could explain our relationship, to go my own way and matter my own business! Whites even in the most remote places on this planet are given this token feeling of superiority for they will never be harassed as blacks or browns would over here. I am afraid the way to go is a very long one. I admire your sense of restrain as it seems, for my son who I would guess is twice your age, would have entered in a endless verbal argument with these policemen for he is the holder of a EU-passport. Most of the time once he has had the opportunity to show his papers, they turn around, don't apologize for their behavior - which is based on pure racial profiling - and walk away head down, their tail between their legs.
I'll end quoting Rev. Jesse Jackson: ~ When we're unemployed, we're called lazy; when the whites are unemployed it's called a depression. ~. This quote sums it all.

 
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