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London to Lisbon: racism in Portugal

22 Feb 2018

I recently moved from London to Lisbon and, as an Italian friend from my Gender Studies Masters warned me, Southern Europe is roughly twenty years behind when it comes to internet connections and social attitudes. I doubted her when it came to Lisbon – a capital city with a mixed population, a young and dynamic crowd, a socialist government, creative buzz and more free WiFi than anywhere I’ve ever been. I saw more racially mixed couples in one week here than three months travelling in Italy. How stupidly naive I was.

Moving to a new city means having to forge new networks. I need a job, an affordable home, and friends. This comes with meeting people and, being in Portugal. I’m keen to meet Portuguese people and not just hang out drinking flat whites with other, mostly-white, immigrants – or expats – as I think they prefer to be called.

I embarked on this seismic move with my husband, who is half Spanish and half Portuguese, born in London. We were born in the same hospital in Paddington and grew up in Ladbroke Grove, but I’m mixed race; half Indian and half white British. My husband speaks fluent Portuguese and when meeting new people here, he usually introduces us both in Portuguese. After a while, if the person we’re meeting knows it, we’ll continue conversing in English.

This has worked to position him, and by defect me, as (white) insiders. As Lisbon grows ever popular, we are no longer perceived as tourists and so avoid paying more for food and flats. When the neighbour of a landlord showed us around during a recent viewing, she revealed that she was paying €600 a month for an identical flat adjacent to the one we were looking at. It turned out the landlord was quoting foreigners €1100 a month, with rent rising ever higher as the landlord facilitated bidding wars.

“…there are layers of difficulty added to their lives that aren’t for me because I pass as white”

The short-term Airbnb we booked before arriving, despite getting a discount, sets us back €1000 a month, but a phone call to a local estate agent revealed some flats on our road in older, crumbling buildings, go for just €100. When ordering a typical small Imperial beer, the regular price for Portuguese folk is an affordable €0.80, whereas tourists pay up to €2.50, depending on where in the bar they sit. But here in Lisbon my husband and I, when together, are two of their own, so to speak. Him being a white man with the relatable story of a Portuguese mother who emigrated as many of her generation did, to the UK, to seek out better prospects, and me, a palatable olive-skinned woman.

This little setup was working quite well on a recent visit to an estate agents where we met a white Portuguese woman who was describing a newly renovated studio we hoped we could afford to live in. As she flitted from complaining about her caffeine cravings, to scrolling through some badly lit photos of the space, she recalled her time having lived in the UK. She’d lived in Reading for four years. Why, I asked, had she left? Was it the weather, or did she not like her job? She paused, and lowered the tone of her voice asking “Are you both British, yeah”’ to which I responded “well half, but yes”. No further prying and a smile of relief. Having validated our whiteness (interestingly, being “British” for her equated to being white), and thus secure that she was speaking safely, she proceeded to say she’d left Reading because “there were too many Pakis”.

We completely froze, switching to auto mode and carried on conversing normally for another minute, before thanking her and shaking her hand to say goodbye. I hadn’t heard that word be used for such a long time – since I was a kid. It made me feel furious, sick and hurt. I remembered my cousin, scarred from an acid attack in Ireland for being a “paki”. I felt guilty for passing as white, realising my fellow darker-skinned neighbours who work, live and hang out in nearby Banglatown, must get racist abuse all the time.

“I hadn’t heard that word be used for such a long time – since I was a kid. It made me feel furious, sick and hurt”

It reminded me of my husband’s family voicing retirement worries about moving to the Algarve and renting out their Harlesden flat. It could get rented to Somalis, to Moroccans, or even worse, Bangladeshis. It haunted me again as a white supermarket cashier grew visually and vocally frustrated with an elderly Sikh man who was speaking broken Portuguese at the checkout. It opened my eyes to how darker-skinned residents are treated daily, compared with lighter-skinned residents here in Lisbon. That they must face verbal abuse, perhaps physical too. That getting employment and accommodation must be an uphill struggle. That there are layers of difficulty added to their lives that aren’t for me because I pass as white.

Being a mixed race woman perceived to be white Portuguese has laid bare Portugal’s racism. It’s made me upset, angry, uncomfortable, and lost. I’m in no denial that passing as white in a white world makes everything easier and opens up a huge range of privileges that I’ll never fully comprehend. But the disconnect between white people voicing their racist views to me, and the despair I feel, is torturous. That’s my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents. That’s me you’re talking about.

With the glorious benefit of hindsight, I thought about endless unsavoury responses for the racist estate agent. And I’m determined to confidently challenge racism when confronted with it again. But it’s going to be a learning curve to teach myself how best to deal with similar scenarios, to feel like I’m not just passively letting racism pass me by and to do better. I’m determined to make it work.