Yo no soy racista, pero…

July 23, 2008

I didn’t meet Alberto, my Italian roommate, until my third day in my new apartment. He’ll be continuing a master’s in political science this fall but is waiting tables for the summer. It’s not unusual to go out for dinner at 11pm here in Spain, so I assumed he got home well after I go to bed. Sure enough, I ran into a stranger with an aggressive case of bedhead on Sunday afternoon.
In the ensuing conversation, I learned that Alberto was well-traveled. He’s visited much of Europe and has been to New York, Miami, San Francisco, LA, and San Diego. I asked him what he thought of the States.
‘I like New York, but California me encanta.’
This is a phrase I love: [California] enchants me. What about Miami, though?
‘Well, I like Miami, but.. don’t get me wrong, yo no soy racista, pero hay tante cubanos all.’ I’m not racist, but there are so many Cubans there. Then he grimaced and waved his hand as if to imply that Elian Gonzales and all his brethren were akin to a new kind of algae invading the Miami beaches.
A week later I met a Spanish man, Pablo, in the Retiro park behind the Prado. We got to talking about the upcoming US Presidential election, and he asked me who I was voting for. I told him I hadn’t decided: I think both candidates are interesting prospects.
‘Yes, but you know, Obama is black.’
I had been expecting a slur on Republicans, a comment about McCain’s age, or a sort of thin-lipped disapproval at my indecisiveness. What exactly did he mean?
‘He’s just not really American. What you Americans need is a new Kennedy.’
I said I didn’t understand why being black made Obama un-American, and countered that many people were calling Obama a new Kennedy.
‘Yes, but Kennedy was Irish, and Catholic.’
Now I was really confused. Obama is not American because he is black and Kennedy was American because he was Irish?  I asked Pablo to clarify.
‘Yo no soy racista, pero… Let’s just say it would never happen in Spain.’ I’ve been warned that you can never change a Spanish man’s mind about two things: football and politics. I tried to reason with Pablo anyway. He countered: ‘ You don’t understand. I work with a lot of black women. Yo no soy racista, pero son todas putas.’ The conversation was going nowhere. We moved on to bullfighting.
Racism, like religion, is one thing I’ve never been able to understand. Much less the kind of self-righteous disclaimer that Alberto and Pablo use – yo no soy racista – as if beginning a sentence that way can cancel out the way you end it. It’s like saying ‘I’m Spanish, but I think Germany should have won the European Cup.’ It just doesn’t make sense.
On a lighter note, I just discovered the delightful work of Matt Harding.
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