Spain, a racist and xenophobic country?


If all public figures were like Rafael Nadal, I would be unemployed. What is my profession? I advise individuals, governments and public and private corporations how to communicate better and more effectively.

In general, you have to train, teach, public figures how to maximize their press appearances, how to transmit more efficiently their message and, especially, how to ensure that they don’t make monumental mistakes that can ruin their image and career.  However, Rafael Nadal doesn’t need any of that training.

Nadal is an example of what needs to be done.  Despite being the number one tennis player in the world, he has always been humble when he speaks and never disrespects his opponents.  He thanks everyone who has helped him reach the top, he doesn’t put himself on a pedestal.  He makes himself accessible to the media and to his fans.  While other elite athletes were staying at luxury hotels in Beijing, he preferred to stay at the Olympic Village with the other athletes.  For him, this meant having to deal with long lines of admirers, something that took away a lot of his time. Time he could have used to rest. But Nadal was happy with his decision.  He is an open kind person who emanates professionalism, sincerity and respect towards everyone.  When he plays badly, he recognizes his faults and praises his opponents.  He is such a nice person, that even his most fierce opponents have kind words for him.  As is customary, those who know the most are the most humble.  He has shown that you can be polite and a fierce warrior at the same time.  Every time Nadal speaks, he makes Spain look good.  Aside from his triumphs on the tennis courts, he is an unbeatable ambassador for the country. He seems impeccable.  Perfect.

However, there are others who need urgent training in how to behave before the worldwide media outlets that we have nowadays.  This is what we call Media Training.  Some athletes, with their comments, have gravely tarnished not only their own image, but Spain’s.  Because, whether or not they want it, in and outside our country, they are viewed as the country’s ambassadors or representatives.  A little piece of all of us.

Some incidents have made many people around the world wonder if Spain is a racist and xenophobic country.  From what they have seen and read, and from another nation’s perspective, I am not surprised that they reached this conclusion.  The saddest thing is that this is as far from the truth as can be, but some unfortunate incidents and comments have exported this damaging perception.  And the consequences are extremely grave.

The fact that Spanish Olympic athletes are featured in a photograph making gestures to make their eyes look Chinese is not considered an insult in Spain, just an anecdote, a joke with no intention of harming or insulting anyone. These photos, of course, were never made with the intention of offending the Chinese.  It’s the same as if the Olympics had been held in Spain, no one would have been offended if the Chinese had gotten their picture taken dressed as flamenco dancers.  Even so, I still can’t believe that no one in Spain realized the mistake they were making.  The number one rule in media training is not doing in public anything that you don’t want to see published on the front page of newspapers around the globe.  How is it possible that they were not advised by a media specialist that this could be offensive to the Chinese, who are very nationalistic? How is it possible that no one in Spain realized that this picture would not bee seen in China as a simple and harmless joke?  How is it possible that no one remembered that until a mere few decades ago, the Chinese were banned by the European powers stationed over there from entering certain areas in their own country?  Don’t they know that there used to be posters that read “Dogs and Chinese not allowed”?  Many Chinese feel that they are not getting the respect that they deserve and now, as they become an economic world power, all issues dealing with nationalism are extremely delicate for them.  In other words, it isn’t advisable at all to go to the Olympic Games being held in Beijing to make jokes about the Chinese that they could interpret as offensive.  It doesn’t matter that they don’t have the same connotation in Spain.  What is important is how it is going to be perceived in other countries.  In this case, in China. With this, unquestionably, Spain’s image was damaged in the so-called Asian giant.  It wasn’t on purpose. The athletes of course didn’t mean that. It happened out of ignorance and a lack of expert advice on the subject.  The Spanish athletes and coaches were not advised correctly.  The photo of the Spanish athletes slanting their eyes felt for many Chinese like a punch in their stomach. And I don’t think that it is necessary to expand on the idea that it is not advisable to create a controversy that makes you look bad in a country of 1.3 billion people.

The personal and public performance by the Spanish teams during the Olympics was impeccable, but an incident such as this one was enough to tarnish their image before many Chinese.

Photo:  The Guardian, text of photo: “Spain’s basketball team posing for photo. Public Domain.”

But the problem is that the issue doesn’t stop there.  There have been several recent incidents of this nature that have added more fuel to the fire.

When Luis Aragonés was the coach of the Spanish national soccer team, EFE reported that during a training session he told José Antonio Reyes, a team member, to “Tell that black guy (referring to Thierry Henry, his teammate at the time in the British club Arsenal) that you are better.  Tell him I say so.”  The English newspaper The Guardian, wrote that what Aragonés actually said was “Tell that shitty black guy that you are better than he is.  Tell him that I say so.  You are better than that shitty black guy.”  Aragonés later vowed that he was not a racist, that some of his best friends are black and that it was only a joke to motivate Reyes.

Leaving this incident aside, I don’t have any reason to doubt Luis Aragonés when he says that he is not a racist, but had he been living in Great Britain or the United States, he would have had to immediately resign from his position.  And not just that, but, probably, he would have been sued for millions of dollars in court.  His comments were published throughout the world.  The coach of the most important team in Spain calling Thierry Henry a “shitty black.”  Another blemish for Spain’s world image.  Luis Aragonés should have boarded the first plane to London to personally apologize to Henry.  Explain to him in no uncertain terms that he is not a racist and that he was extremely sorry for what he had said.  That everything had been a misunderstanding.  A terrible joke that backfired.  But he didn’t do it and the problem just became bigger and bigger.  Aragonés needed to understand that it didn’t matter that he hadn’t meant to be offensive, but that the reality is that he was. And not only to Henry, but to many others, no matter their skin color.  In addition to the valuable lesson that one should never utter words that can insult others, there is another one: you can’t talk before the press in the same way that you would do with your friends while drinking a beer in a bar.  A bad joke goes to a very different level if the press gets a hold of what you said.

In Spain, as was the case with the photo prior to the Olympics in China, many people would not consider this an insult.  “He said it just as he could have said anything else to motivate Reyes,” they would say.  But there are two problems with this way of thinking.  The first one is that we live in a global community where anything you say is heard everywhere.  Literally.  And secondly, that those words denote a total lack of sensibility and understanding of other cultures.  Because those are very hurtful and offensive words.  If you say that someone is a “shitty black guy” in a country such as the United States, those could possibly be the last words you’ll ever utter.  Losing your job would be the least of your worries.

A mere few decades ago, blacks had to ride in the back of buses in the US, couldn’t use the same toilet facilities as whites and had to serve in segregated military units.  Nowadays they still suffer great discrimination and ethnic violence because of one simple fact:  the color of their skin.  A racial insult to someone from any racial group is always inadmissible, but to do so against a group that has suffered and continues to suffer such recent discrimination is even worse.  Anyone who hears Aragonés’ comments outside of Spain would think that he is a racist.  And if Spain keeps him as its coach after what he said, that person will also think that Spain is a racist country.  Connecting the dots on this issue is immediate.  And the saddest part of this story is that probably Luis Aragonés is not a racist at all.  But he made the mistake, first of all, of saying it, and second of all, of not apologizing personally to Thierry.  The sports authorities should have taken control of the situation and made him get on that plane to go apologize to Thierry.  Once again, lack of sensibility towards others, ignorance.  Again, Spain’s image damaged before the world.  And all because Luis Aragonés never had media training.  Both from a technical as well as a cultural sensitivity sense.  How would he have felt if someone from London had called him a “shitty Spaniard”? I wonder if the Spanish people really understand the consequences of these incidents.

Eto’o, a member of the Barcelona soccer team, was once about to leave the field, furious at the racist insults uttered against  him.  Something that clearly indicates the delicate nature of this issue.  Perhaps the fans use these racist epithets only because they know that these insults will unbalance the player and break his concentration.  If yelling out “torero!” had the same effect, that would be what they would yell.  But they need to stop and reflect carefully, that for individuals such as Eto’o, this is not a joke.  It’s an insult.  No one likes to be disrespected.  And these are precisely the details that the international press pays attention to.  Fans yelling out racist heckles, the coach of the country’s premier team calling someone a “shitty black guy,” photos of Olympic athletes mocking their Chinese hosts.  When there are so many incidents, people abroad ask:  is Spain a racist and xenophobic country?  The answer is NO, because it sends huge amounts of aid to third world countries.  The answer is NO, because its rescue workers are the first ones to help any nation in the third world that has suffered a natural disaster.  The answer is NO because its citizens mobilize en masse to collect funds to send to third world countries after, for example, they have been ravaged by a devastating hurricane.  The answer is NO, because it has received with open arms a true exodus of immigrants that have come to Spain in search of a better life.  And those are certainly not the actions of a racist country.  These are the actions of a country that wants to help others regardless of the color of their skin.  But the most eye-catching story in the international media isn’t that the Spanish rescue workers arrived before anyone else at the site of a disaster in Central America, but that Luis Aragonés called a black soccer player a “shitty black guy.”

And the examples continue to multiply.  Not only because of lack of knowing how to act in public and before the cameras, but also due to a lack of sensibility towards others.  Such as when tennis player David Ferrer, during this year’s US Open, and unhappy with a call from a female umpire told her:  “That’s to be expected, you’re a woman.  And women can’t do anything right, nothing.  They can’t do anything.”  Ferrer apologized immediately after saying this, but what was published in the newspapers were his denigrating words against women, not his apology.

Let’s look at another example of the lack of media training and the total lack of understanding of the consequences that everything we say can have.  After this year’s basketball Olympic finals between Spain and the United States, Spanish center Marc Gasol said:  “They were shitting in their pants.  If they deny it, they’re lying,” referring to the US team.

The US players, who are carefully trained to maximize their exposure with the press, only had words of praise for their Spanish opponents.  My question is, then:  Does Marc Gasol realize the consequences of his comments?  Marc Gasol is going to play with the Memphis Grizzlies next year, the very same team where his brother, Pau Gasol, used to play.  What kind of reaction does he think he would get from the Grizzlies´ fans if they knew what he had said about their national team?  Is it advisable to say that the US players were “shitting in their pants” when his salary is going to be paid by Americans?  Is it advisable to say something like this when he is being welcomed with open arms by the best basketball league in the world?  What would have been the reaction in Spain if the US players (who, after all, won the game) had said that the Spanish players were “shitting in their pants”?  Marc Gasol is very young and just said the first thing that came to mind, without giving it a second thought. It was a youthful indiscretion.  He didn’t mean to cause any real harm. But he needs to understand that it isn’t the same to say “we had them against the ropes and almost beat them” (which is true) than “they were shitting in their pants.”  These kinds of comments can put an early end to his career in a country such as the United States.  He needs urgent media training to prevent future major mistakes such as this one.  Especially if he is going to play and live in a country that is different from his own and with which he is not familiar.

Of course, this last incident is nothing compared with what Bobby Knight, the former US basketball national team coach, did.  In 1979, during the Panamerican Games in Puerto Rico, he was kicked off the court.  As he was leaving, he fought with a policeman and punched him in the face.  The Puerto Rican government asked that Knight be extradited to Puerto Rico to try him, but he, with an expert legal defense, never had to face charges.  He told Sports Illustrated, referring to Puerto Ricans:  “F—’em, f—’em all.… The only thing they know how to do is grow bananas.”

In closing.  Setting aside those who are clearly racist and that need psychiatric treatment, elite athletes need media training just as much as a politician or a business executive who are constantly before the cameras.  Not only for their own good and their team’s benefit, but for their country’s as well.  Not everyone is Rafael Nadal.

By:  Pablo Gato, Gato Communications



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One Response to “Spain, a racist and xenophobic country?”

  1. Flamenco Dancing Guitar and Cajon Spanish Music » Blog Archive » Spain, a racist and xenophobic country? Says:

    […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIn 1979, during the Panamerican Games in Puerto Rico, he was kicked off the court. As he was leaving, he fought with a policeman and punched him in the face. The Puerto Rican government asked that Knight be extradited to Puerto Rico to … Read the rest of this great post here Posted in Uncategorized on September 20th, 2008 | […]

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