Author: Fiona Murphy
As an American exchange student in Spain, I have seen my fair share of cultural differences. I’ve wrestled plenty with my normal versus the normal here in Spain. It has been difficult, but I believe I am learning to push back less when it comes to these new experiences. However, there is one thing I have stumbled upon that is not just limited to Spain, but occurs throughout Europe. And this is something I am not willing to compromise on.
A couple months ago we celebrated Carnival, a weekend long party throughout Europe and South America. People wear costumes, dance and drink. I was out with my family and some friends when I stumbled upon something that disturbed me quite a bit: blackface, complete with afro wigs and bright red lips, straight out of early American media. No one I was with batted an eye. Over the weekend I would see quite a few more instances of blackface, along with Chinese and Native American costumes.
Blackface originated in the 1800s in the United States, perpetrating racist stereotypes while also popularizing oversimplified versions of black culture. It quickly spread to other nations, including Europe.
In the United States, we are on the path towards diminishing the use of blackface. While it most definitely has not disappeared completely, I would like to think the average person knows the painful history and would not use it. Despite this, in Spain, many seem to use it without a second thought.
I’ve spent quite some time thinking about why this is, and I have come up with nothing that excuses it. Maybe since it didn’t originate in Europe, Europeans aren’t aware of the disgusting origin and how media used it. But a simple Google search can tell the whole story. There are instances of famous Spaniards getting in trouble for blackface, so I don’t fully understand why they think it’s acceptable for the average person to use it.
I asked my host brother about the use of blackface in Spain, and his thought was that it is the intent of the use that matters. However, it doesn’t matter if one isn’t trying to be offensive if the costume they are wearing is of a disgusting and offensive origin.
The second costume I want to talk about is that of Native Americans. This one hits especially close to home for me, as one of my best friends is Native and is also on exchange in Europe. When she tells me about how much it frustrates and hurts her to see these costumes it strikes a painful note.
The history that the Spanish are taught about the colonization of the Americas does not describe not the full picture. It does not talk about the massacres and near genocide of the Native people, and Christopher Columbus is still viewed as a noble person.
The irony of Spaniards dressing as Native Americans is not lost on me. Christopher Columbus, an Italian man sponsored by the Spanish, murdered and enslaved thousands of indigenous people. Now, many Spanish people dress as the same culture that their ancestors nearly destroyed.
Not to mention that these “costumes” are bastardizations of important cultural symbols, symbols that for a long time in the United States were ripped from the hands of the native peoples when they were forced into assimilation.
Again I have looked for answers as to why this is accepted and have found none. I concede that Native American costumes are still used quite a bit in the United States, and I am ashamed and angry about that as well. It disturbs me that people here in Europe, despite the horrors they visited upon the native peoples, are so impossibly ignorant. This painful past is also theirs to remember and something to be aware and ashamed of, not ignored and turned into a costume to be laughed at.
Before going on exchange, Europe seemed to me like a beacon of progressive, educated civilization. But, after living here for six months, the reality of the world has set in. There are no perfect places. Everywhere we go, there are problems and people who don’t think about what they or those around them are doing. I have also become more proud of the United States. We are not a dark, uncivilized, racist society compared to everywhere else.
The United States is deeply flawed, but we are aware of that, and many of us are working tirelessly to repair that. It is my observation that the United States tends to seem more regressive than other places because we don’t ignore the problems. We stand up and we shout until everyone hears us, and I’m proud of that, even if illuminating those problems makes us appear worse than other countries.