How nationality matters – prejudices and the work place

I am German, while the husband is Brazilian. We both look kind of like the stereotypical version of our nationalities, or at least of the geographical greater regions we come from (me: Northern Europe, him: Latin America). One reason we came to Spain was the neutral ground for both of us, which gives our marriage a much greater stability than if one of the two had the advantage of being in his/her native environment (we have lived both in Brazil and Germany before, so we can tell the difference).

So we are both from abroad. We both have about the same level of education (post-graduate level). We both have experience of living abroad before coming to Spain, and yet our shared characteristic of “being a foreigner” has totally different implications for each one of us. Just because we come from different places, which are valued differently in the society we came to.

Let’s look at some numbers first. The Catalan Statistical Institute has statistics the biggest national groups in Barcelona. The biggest group comes from Latin America (around 35%), followed by the African continent (25.75%) and then the European Union (21,58%). However, as the Latin American countries are often seen as one block due to the same language (the number of Brazilians is really low, so they are put into this category), there presence is perceived on a much higher level than European immigrants, who are seen per country and not generalized as Europeans. So, the husband is part of a 240,000 latinos (plus a huge chunk of illegal ones), while I am one of 11,074 Germans (about all of them legal, because of EU free movement laws). These numbers already explain in part the different perception.

Latin American immigrants (both legal and illegal) are much more present in the media than Northern European immigrants. Partly because of sheer numbers, and partly because of the illegal part. It is easy to equate illegal immigrants (which usually is broken down to “latinos and africans” without further distinction or refinement) with all kinds of problems. The FEDEA (Fundación de Estudios de Economía Aplicada – Foundation of Applied Economics) published a document which highlights very clear the correlation between negative media reports on immigration and the perception of immigration as a source of personal worry for Spanish nationals (pdf in Spanish). And as an extension, the intellectual and political debate also hugely focus on illegal immi. So on the job market the husband has to counter two main assumptions: Latino = illegal = security risk and Brazilian = samba and carnival = party = bad work ethics.

I don’t think that these images of Brazilian people influence his chances on the work market in a conscious way, but he always has to prove that he is not the typical Brazilian. For example: if he comes 5 min late, because the metro broke done this is seen as something typical latino. He doesn’t even manage to be on time.

Now on the contrary, if I am 5 min late, that is clearly an exception. Because I am German. And by default Germans are punctual, efficient, cold-hearted, timid, rational, and in love with detailed planning (to point of ridicule if seen from the outside). Just googling for experiences from foreigner in Germany or with Germans, gives a pretty good idea. Of course, some of the stereotypes I encounter are just as unpleasant as the ones the husband hears. But in the business world, I don’t mind that somebody things I am cold-hearted, as long as the efficiency, punctuality and reliability is also in the mix. So me coming 5 min late is definitely a rare occasion and there must be an explanation (like the metro broke down), which of course than won’t have negative repercussion on whichever I came to do. So by just playing along with the stereotypes I already get some kind of advantage in the local job market. I am quite rational and certainly very efficient. But here I don’t have to prove it over and over again, because it is assumed to be my default condition. And that gives me more tranquility at work, which probably increases my performance even more, because I can concentrate on the details. This is good for me and good for my employer. And probably a little annoying for my colleagues 😉 *

Of course, the husband has already managed to correct how they view “the Brazilians” at his work place (and I wonder how many blame it on his German wife), but he will eventually encounter the same problem again in the future. And I guess this has serious repercussions on a career, which is a shame.

*Note that in Germany these stereotypes do not work in my favor, because they apply to everybody, so they don’t differentiate me in a positive way.

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