Is there racism in Spain?

Is race an issue in Spain? A black woman's story why she left Spain

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"I’m a black woman who wanted to move to Spain for years. Here’s why I lasted only a few months." American Nneka shares her story.

In my mind, I imagined moving to Spain to be my own rendition of Eat, Pray, Love, a journey which would enliven me, shake me up and leave me changed forever.

It did. Just not in the ways I expected.

Though I thought I had considered every possible scenario I could encounter on my journey moving to a foreign country, what I never considered was what it would mean for me — as a black and African woman.

During my first few weeks, when I ordered food at a counter, a woman at the cashier smiled warmly and said, “Hola morena.” I smiled back and fumbled through my order. This was the first time of many I’d be called morena by random strangers on the street, or africana or negra, the latter of which I took offense to because it’s close to another ill-fated n-word I’d been told my name sounded like my entire life. Though I found out ultimately that morena and negra are considered terms of endearment for black women, I knew from then my experience in Spain would be different than what I had imagined.

I expected race issues in Spain to be less lonely and less tenuous. I expected to be able to easily find people who looked like me but actually discovered I’d willingly signed myself up to often be the only one in a sea of sameness. I was different. I didn’t fit in.

Race manifested itself in both overt and insidious ways. People often stared at me wherever I went. I was followed several times while I shopped. The waiters often took long to provide service when I went out to dine, or completely forgot about me altogether. I lost a teaching job without being given any substantiated reason and feared race was the unspoken reason. People laughed when I explained I was Nigerian. A student once jeered at me when I wore a head wrap to class.

Other Nigerians and Africans were also treated differently in the streets. Many shared their stories of discrimination with me: being followed by police, asked repeatedly for their papers to prove they were legally allowed to reside there.

This felt exhausting. It was draining. It was depleting. The weight of being different, the weight of constantly having to explain 'no, I am not Latina and yes, I am Africana and yes, I am also American' became too heavy for me each day. The constant and unrelenting questions made me feel that I was not free to be myself without having to constantly make others understand my existence. Though I intended to stay there for years, I left Madrid after only nine months, simply because I was so tired.

In my experience, being black often comes with great misunderstanding and mistreatment.

After my experiences in Spain, I now have a firm, unshakeable sense of who I am. I have unrelenting pride. Navigating blackness in Madrid cemented that. I have seen firsthand how intersections of race and gender genuinely impact what travel means for a person. And I have learned that glossing over its impact is short-sighted, a bit naive and in some cases irresponsible.

I wish before I had embarked on my journey to Madrid someone had told me that a whimsical, breezy experience a la Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t entirely what I should expect. And now that it’s over, I hope more people continue honestly talking about the realities of traveling as a black person with more vulnerability.


Nneka Okona / Reprinted with permission of Matador Network.

Nneka Okona Nneka M Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog,, her website, or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka. Thumbnail credit: Byran Thompson


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2 Comments To This Article

  • Suzanne posted:

    on 27th April 2016, 17:14:56 - Reply

    Hi Nneka, thanks for an interesting post. I think Madrid is an unusual city in this respect, I'm British and when I visited Madrid I was struck my how really Spanish it is, everywhere I went it was all Spaniards, and there didn't really seem to be many non-Spanish people living there at all, I didn't even see that many tourists. Everyone speaks Spanish., it was quite difficult for me to communicate. Probably Barcelona or Malaga are much more cosmopolitan and once you get to the coast, e.g. Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca etc you see people from every corner of the world. I find that in general the Spanish stare a lot, they don't have a problem with eye to eye contact with strangers, whereas in London, for instance, it's considered quite rude to stare and if anything we tend to avoid any direct eye contact with just about everyone on the street, or in shops or on public transport!! The Latin culture is very different to Northern Europe.
  • Jo posted:

    on 27th April 2016, 14:15:08 - Reply

    Oh yes, Spain has issues in that respect! I'm German & live in Catalonia. Over the years that I have been living here (over 15 years) & always dependant on their level of independence drive, I have been insulted so many times, worst being "you are all children of Hitler".