Childish Spanish Racism


Because of Spain’s contemporary history of being sheltered from the rest of the world during much of the 20th century, its people lack any sense of cross-cultural sensitivity in dealing with foreign cultures. Consequently, Spanish people will frequently make remarks or use gestures in reference to foreign cultures and races that would be considered offensive, inappropriate and outright racist in any other modern, dynamic and heterogeneous population. Nonetheless, the Spanish will laugh off these usages as being terms or signs of affection. The offended should learn not to take offense, and the proponent of political correctness should learn not to be so hypocritical.

The latest example of this is the Spanish men’s olympic basketball team’s photograph with all of its players making their eyes slanted. What is remarkable is how innocently naive and childish their gesture believes itself to be an act of “appreciation” towards the Chinese. While most Spanish newspapers are never color blind (they always refer to the race, religion, or nationality of their subject matter as long as it is not the majority in Spain), at least this time El Mundo asks whether the team pose was appropriate.

What is shocking is that in Spain, absolutely no one will find the photograph troublesome in the least.

Update: Just read the story covered in Yahoo!.

Update 2: Apparently, the Spanish national basketball team isn’t the only Spanish team to define Asians by eye shape.



Filed under Essays, Living la vida española

21 responses to “Childish Spanish Racism

  1. Chewie

    I don’t know how can someone find this troublesome. What shocks me however is how patronizing some foreigners tend to be about Spain at times, particularly the media (it slips a bit through your post too), but fail to make a fair comparison, in terms of the issues that matter, between their modern, dynamic society and the Spanish recently unsheltered young democracy. When did you last hear about established racial segregation in Spain? Certainly not in the 20th century.

    Furthermore, this kind of overreaction towards an unaffected and harmless acknowledgement of certain phenotypic traits proves unnatural and maybe reveals a racist complex they don’t have completely sorted out. And I believe this hysterical form of political correctness stands in the way of sorting it out.

    That being said, one could argue that, because there exists this hysteria in the world, the photo is still counterproductive, and maybe that’s true, but I’m not sure that yielding to political correctness is the best way to fight it, and I’m still to see a reaction outside the Anglo-Saxon world (any word from the Chinese themselves?).

  2. eric

    I find it troublesome. I live in Spain and I see this type of thing all the time. I don’t think it is “productive” when physical, racial, or religious differences are used by the media as headline “defining” traits. I could give literally hundreds of examples from the Spanish media that would be simply considered unacceptable journalism in any other dynamic economy. The nationality of suspected criminals is ALWAYS detailed in the press, a Jewish or black person will always be defined as such … The Jewish Businessman, the black athlete … and all Asians are Chinitos, all black people are Negritos, all Arabs are moros, and any shady behavior is gitano.

    Your reaction, with all due respect, is the typical Spanish reaction — it lacks an acknowledgment that words, actions, and gestures regardless of the intent can be harmful, offensive, and only further negative stereotypes. Yes, Spain is not the U.S. or even the U.K. or France and lacks large enough minorities who could potentially be offended but such remarks — as would happen in the U.S.

    No matter how you look at the photo, it is a gesture in poor taste, is not funny, and is not endearing. I love Spain, it is a great country — heck, it is one that has so many positive traits that the U.S. and its European neighbors should learn from — but it still needs to learn a little sensitivity.

    In Spain, I like to be introduced as someone’s friend, not their gringo friend, yankee friend, or American friend. Just their friend.

  3. ReWrite

    This photo is highly offensive and facially (pun intended) racist. This is not about political correctness at all, it is just flat out wrong.

    Imagine if the Olympics were in Kenya and the athletes painted their faces black or wore fake big lips… hopefully you would find that overtly offensive, if not there is no reason to reason with you.

    The photo shows a clear lack of understanding of what is appropriate. Many Asians are quite sensitive about the shape of their eyes. Asians have historically been quite sensitive about the shape of their eyes and the color of their skin. Unfortunately, these issues continue today. There is a lot of speculation that many of the Asian actors have been selected for TV and movies are selected precisely because they have rounder eyes and lighter skin (and thus look more Caucasian).

    The concept is basic, one should not flaunt the actual (or even perceived) negative stereotypes/differences between races and cultures. If I did something like that on the job in the US I would be fired on the spot… and deservedly so.

    As far as whether the media is picking on the Spanish, I cannot comment on that, but it is a silly defense. If the team didn’t take the ill-advised photo there would be no story. If you lynch someone and they happen to be black, don’t be surprised when people call you racist.

    I really cannot understand why the team thought this photo would be perceived by anyone as anything other than racist.

  4. ede

    Diarios británicos critican la fotografía de la selección española de baloncesto con “ojos de chino” y la califican de “racista”. Sin embargo, China no ve ningún insulto en ese gesto y no dudan de las buenas intenciones de los españoles. La polémica se ahogó en un vaso de agua.

    Now think about….native american indians slaughter, segregation in southern sates, US troops in Vietnam and Korea….and I will tell you what racism is

    Best Regards

  5. eric

    Believe it or not, the Spanish would be capable of painting their faces black and saying that it was a gesture of affection.

    Ironically, last year at FON, our US team made a video of a guy dressed up as a bullfighter in S.F. connecting to FON hotspots. Some Spanish people complained that the use of a bullfighter was offensive because it promoted a negative stereotype and/or ignorance about the richness of Spanish culture.

  6. eric


    Racism is all of the above, including the Spanish photograph. Just because the U.S. or any other country has a racist past (and/or present) in now way justifies the photo.

    Accept it. No hay otra.

  7. ReWrite


    I agree that the West is hypocritical in the sense that they are openly racist both historically and presently. And I agree that the press in the West does not cover such stories enough.

    Nevertheless, the photo is categorically racist and offensive. And it is quite shocking (and telling) that one would defend it.

    Not to change topics, but it is interesting that it seems that people in Spain are supporting this, whereas if this picture was published in the US, most Americans would not publicly defend it. That is not to say that Americans are better or more progressive (which they aren’t). It is just interesting to me that people in Spain (seem) to be so defensive about this, as if it is a personal attack against all Spanish people.

    It is a historical (and present) reality that many Asian people feel (or have been made to feel) inferior based on the color of their skin and the shape of their eyes. One does not need to poll Chinese people to figure that out or maybe the Spanish National team does- as Eric posits that this was an act of innocent ignorance.

  8. dandan

    C’est vrai que cette photo est vraiment débile, ça me rappelle l’époque ou je suis arrivée dans ma banlieue du 93 (montreuil s/s bois) où j’étais la seule chinoise du collège et cela intriguait pas mal mes petits camarades dont certains qui me faisaient des mimiques ridicules à l’image de ces joueurs espagnols.
    Pourtant je ne pense pas que ces adolescents ignares votent tous FN.
    C’était juste l’âge bête: l’adolescence! Alors que deus ans plus tôt ,en primaire (toujours à Montreuil), j’avais été très bien accueille par mes petits camarades.
    Comme quoi, ces joueurs espagnols (ou/et le photographe) n’ont pas dépassé l’âge de l’adolescence et de surcroit n’ont rien vue de leur vie: je veux dire qu’ils n’ont sans doute jamais pointé leur nez en dehors de chez eux.
    En tant que chinoise comment je ressens ce geste?
    C’est un geste bête, enfantin mais est ce que c’est du racisme?
    Je ne sais pas et je ne pense pas que cela vaille la peine de rentrer dans la polémique et de surcroit d’accorder plus d’importance à cette histoire, elle n’en vaut pas la peine. La meilleur façon de montrer que nous ne sommes pas atteints par ce genre de comportement et de faire preuve d’indifférence et d’avancer la tête haute comme le prouve les résultats de ces jeux olympiques: la Chine est pour le moment leader avec 32 médailles dont 20 en or alors que l’Espagne n’est qu’en 19 ° position avec seulement 2 médailles dont une seule en or.

    Certes la Chine à perdu contre l’Espagne en match de premier tour en Basket, mais il faut noter que les Espagnols, Champions du monde, ont eu bien peur: ils ont remporté le match en prolongation avec seulement dix points d’écarts contre des chinois qui viennent découvrir le Basket …..

    Désolé d’avoir écrit en français pour les non francophones mais mon niveau d’anglais ne me permettrai pas de retranscrire mon ressentiment 🙂 Si il y a des amateurs pour traduire!!

  9. Iban

    Eric, the Chinese people don’t take any offense, the American do… I think “that” is telling…

    Accept it. No hay otra.

  10. eric

    Iban!!!! I miss our endless debates. Nice to hear from you.

    I think that maybe a Chinese person who has been a minority in the U.S. or in Europe knows this kind of “joke” is something that was used to make fun of them at some point in their life and is not appreciated, as Dandan points out (in French). While she doesn’t consider it “racism” in the extreme, it is still somewhat hurtful.

    What surprises me is that no one on the Spanish team, in the marketing or communications department of the team or the company that ran the ad, had a sufficient amount of common sense, worldliness, or sensitivity to foresee that the ad could possibly draw negative attention.

  11. eric


    Thanks for your comments and insight!!! Here is a translation, courtesy of Sanaa:

    It’s true that this picture is really silly and stupid ; it reminds me of when I first arrived to my suburb 93 (Montreuil-France), and I was the only Chinese of the middle school; my schoolmates were intrigued and kept in ridiculously imitating my slanted eyes-as the players do in this picture.

    However I don’t think that all these ignorant teenagers vote FN (French extreme right wing political party(racist)). It was just the silly age: The adolescence! While 2 years ago, in the elementary school (always in Montreuil-France), I was given a warm welcome by my little schoolmates.

    All this to say that the Spanish players (or/and the photographer) did probably not go over the adolescence age and did not see that much of the diversity of the world.

    As Chinese how do I feel about this picture? I think it is stupid, Childish, but is it racism? I don’t know, and I don’t think it s worth it to give more attention to this picture to what it deserves. The best way to show that we are not reached by this type of behaviors is indifference and to continue to show the results of these games: China is for the moment leading with 32 medals of which 20 gold, while Spain is only at the 19th place- and with only 2 medals of which one gold.

    Yet China lost against Spain in the basket-ball game, but Spanish team is a world champion and they needed an additional round to finally conclude the game against a team that just discovered the basket ball…

    Sorry to write in French for those who don’t understand, but my level in English does not allow me to express myself as I would do in French. If anyone can translate!!

  12. Eloy

    Hello all,

    I didnt wanted to jump into this one but is too tempting… This whole mess came out ONLY because on Saturday Spain plays the US and they are trying to drag the attention out of the mere sport (the US super players are scared of these Europeans to beat them?).

    This is just one of those silly commercials that the teams make before going to a mayor competition, if they where eating with chopsticks, would that be racist?

    When the Spanish team is presented in some of these competitions they show a bullfighter, a stereotype, not racist (even if we like it or not), the US team can be shown with a cowboy hat, a stereotype as well.

    No one in China found this offensive, how interesting that the offended is the media in the US, who is trying to impose their moral to other countries here?

    Just a note to the Americans with bad memory, two years ago, in the world cup in Japan, the US tam made the military greeting to the public, that is not racist, but is provocation, the Japanese didn’t like it and I understand why.

    Who makes the rules of the game?

    Check the news here about the official answer of the Chinese authorities:

  13. eric

    Thanks, Eloy.

    Once again I beg to differ and I think that anyone living in a culturally diverse nation would find it curious at the least how much everyone in Spain feels the need to defend the commercial.

    It is insensitive. Not so much to people living in China: those people are a majority, but do Chinese minorities around Europe and the U.S. who physical difference (as Dandan pointed out from her own experience) is used to ridicule them for being different.

    Why is it so hard for anyone in Spain to say that it was inappropriate?

    I would (and do) criticize the same behavior in the U.S. media. Heck, Americans lose their jobs over this stuff all the time. It is alright to condemn the image even if it is Spanish. The rules of the game are the same. As a matter of fact, the U.S. players complained about a double standard. Were they to have made a similar ad in the U.S., they would have been crucified, but the Spanish players were being given a free pass.

    This reminds me of what happened very recently at a Spanish mobile phone company (that I will not mention). They made some ads directed at the gay community, but many gay groups in Europe and around the world found them offensive. Consequently, the head of marketing no longer works for that company.

    In a global marketplace, the Spanish national team should have been more sensitive. It is as simple as that. And I am SURE that Asian Americans have found the photo inappropriate. Not much of a surprise then that the NBA is considering sanctioning the Spaniards who play in the NBA and appeared in the image.

    Finally, where is the conspiracy? It was the Spanish team that made the ad. It was just extremely childish.

  14. ReWrite

    I think the most offensive part about this controversy is the fact that formally educated Spaniards (and I’m not just referring to this blog) are defending the photo. That is not to say that the photo itself isn’t offensive because it is.

    My impression of the Spanish reaction is a combination of: (1) complete ignorance (hopefully not intolerance or xenophobia) of non-Spanish or Asian cultures and (2) Patriotism.

    I have never been one for Patriotism (as I do not support artificial boarders as they create both physical and non-physical barriers between people), but even if I was a Patriot that wouldn’t mean that I need to support a photo that is facially and categorically offensive.

    The fact that formally educated Spaniards are defending this photo has actually metamorphisized this issue from one a mistake made on the part of, probably of the public relations (PR) firm hired by the National Team, to controversy involving the players and the Spanish people. Had the players and the Spanish people NOT defended this photo there would be no controversy. It would have been written off as an error on the party of the PR firm.

  15. Chewie

    eric: I could say that yours is the typical American attitude, giving for granted that human ethics is and should be grounded on their petty domestic faux pas, but I don’t really think such an American attitude exists and hey, aren’t stereotypes what we’re trying to avoid here? Let’s stick to the arguments.

    First of all, let’s be careful with the words we’re using here if we want to have a fruitful discussion. Nope, the photo is not racist. That is out of the question. It does not advocate the inferiority of the Chinese race, nor incites hatred against the Chinese, nor implies anything negative about the Chinese. Not only these messages can’t be implied by the photo, but there needs to be an intention to send these messages —which we know there isn’t— in order to call this racism. ReWrite, you need more than categorical affirmation to make a point on this. Your lynching “metaphor” is particularly preposterous and a blatant non sequitur. And please, those references to Spanish patriotism is just plain ad hominem. I’d given the same discourse had this photo been from the U.S. and the nitpicking outrage from the Spanish media.

    Is the photo inappropriate? Is it bad taste? That, we could argue about.

    Is it bad taste? That is completely subjective, and nobody should have their criticism to others based on their own taste.

    Is it inappropriate? For me, it’s the same as it would be to stand on tiptoes to resemble tall people (say the Games took place in the Netherlands). It’s just a *characterization*.

    You both insist in telling how unacceptable this kind of labeling or impressions would be in your home countries, but still fail to give an argument as to why it is morally wrong and I’m *still to see an outrage from China*. Could it be that this gesture is not necessarily seen as offensive outside where it has made a reaction? So much for cultural sensitivity.

  16. eric


    I guess you’re right. No one in Europe has ever made fun of a Chinese person for having different shaped eyes. Therefore, the Spanish team is the Albert Einstein of affection and maturity.

    Racism doesn’t need to come in the form of enslaving people. Many times it comes in very subtle ways that we are not conscious of. That’s why I call it childish, naive, not outright blatant racism.

    Are people in China offended? Probably not. Remember they are the majority and would not feel discriminated against. But Chinese minorities in Europe and in the States may very well be offended.

    I guess what is so strange for an American is that we stopped making fun of or defining Chinese people by their eye shape 30 years ago. The gesture just goes to show that for a Spaniard, a Chinese person is not someone with 4,000 years of diverse history and culture, but someone with a physical difference — and difference, as Dundun points out in her comment above, has been used in the past to belittle Chinese people.

    And there’s no denying that.

    Finally, one last question. Isn’t anyone is Spain at least a little embarrassed by the photo?

  17. ReWrite

    For something to be considered racist (or discriminatory) there does not have to be an element of intent. In fact most forms of racism/discrimination in society are much more subtle. There is a whole body of law related to such instances and this often referred to “adverse impact.’

    That being said, the photo in question does not fall under the unintentional cateogory because it is in fact racist and offensive on its face.

    For example, when I was in high school an Christian African-American teammate wore a yarmulke during warm-ups of a basketball game as a joke. All of the Jewish kids on the team and in the school thought it was hilarious. The student had no negative intent in his action, but the act was obviously offensive. The student was, justifiably, suspended from school for a day for his actions.

    The Spanish team, and its PR firm, unlike my teammate are grown-ups and should know better than to have taken such a photo.


  18. eric

    I think that what is particularly interesting here — and we see if from the comments — is that Spain has never had to have these types of discussions. They simply have not had a exposure to diversity or any significant minorities. The public debate about what is acceptable has never occurred.

    Regarding whether the Chinese government having expressed that it did not find the images offensive, does anyone believe that the Chinese government would ever say otherwise? It’s their Olympics and their glory, and they would never show a point of weakness.

  19. Eloy

    In the Merriam Webster Dictionary.-


    2: racial prejudice or discrimination

    If you guys want we can take any newspaper in the US and see how many news fit this definition.

    Example in the world of basket:

  20. ReWrite

    Yes, as I pointed out earlier, the US has a long history (and present) of racism. The difference is that not only do I not defend racism in the US, but I attack anyone who is racist in the US or abroad.

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