She will never forget that day, because it marked the rest of her life. She had gone to the police headquarters in Algeciras to start a seven-month training period as a police officer, after passing her first exams.
“I had to give them some documents. I was told which office to go to and I knocked on the door and went in, but before I even opened my mouth, he said ‘Sorry, you’re in the wrong place. The immigration department is downstairs’,” she says.
The man who made that comment to her is now her husband, and since 2011 they have both been working at the provincial police station in Malaga. Nine years have passed since that confusion occurred.
“He apologised over and over again afterwards, when I explained that I wasn’t an immigrant, I was a new colleague and it was my first day,” she says.
Carmen Ada Edjang could write a book about her experiences, because this police officer, who was born in Las Palmas, Gran Ganaria, 35 years ago, is a black woman. Her parents are from Equatorial Guinea and they emigrated to the Canary Islands when they were children: her mother was six years old, and her father 15.
Carmen is not the only black officer among the 8,753 women in the National Police force, but she is one of the few who have gradually been joining in recent years, along with others of Chinese, Indian or gypsy origin....
“There is no special register of these police officers, just like there is no list of those who have blue eyes or brown hair. They’re all Spanish, and that’s that,” say sources at the Ministry of the Interior. Official figures only show the number of police officers: on 31 May this year there were 63,930, of whom 55,177 were men.
Here in Spain, some people are still surprised to find that a black woman is a police officer. “People associate black people with illegal immigrants,” says Carmen. She says it would be unfair to describe this attitude as racist, but comments, ironically, that “Nobody is racist, until their daughter turns up with a black boyfriend one day; things tend to change then!”
She thinks the situation will improve over time, as people get used to it, but says there is still a long way to go until it is considered normal to see a black person working in a bank or a law firm.
Carmen has never felt despised because of her skin colour, but says some situations have occurred which have been disagreeable, in uniform and out. One example: she and her husband were assigned to work at the airport and when they arrived they showed their badges at security. He was allowed through, but she was held back while they checked whether her police badge was genuine. “When I asked them why they were checking mine, they said there were a lot of fake police badges about. But I wondered why they assumed it would be the black woman who would be carrying a fake one.”
The second example occurred when she was off duty and out of uniform. She recently went with her husband to a notary’s office to sign for the purchase of a property. The notary asked for their identification and then asked whether Carmen spoke Spanish. “No, I speak Chinese,” she replied.
There are plenty of other instances like these, including from colleagues who ought to know that police officers in Spain have to speak Spanish. However, “some colleagues still ask me what nationality I am,” she says.
An example of patience
One day, even her uniform was not enough to convince somebody that she was a policewoman. She was on duty outside the polling station on election day, and a woman came up to her and asked if she really was a police officer. Carmen admits that on that occasion she did lose her patience. “No, I bought the uniform in a fancy dress shop,” she snapped.
She had always been attracted by the idea of a career in the police force “but I kept putting off doing anything about it, like I did taking driving lessons,” she says.
When she finished her studies in Administrative Management, she realised it was what she really wanted to do. She was 23 and started to “do battle” with the studies she needed to pass the exams. One sentence in the first book has remained etched on her brain: “If you’re not going to study properly, then don’t waste your time.” It spurred her on, and helped her to ignore all the people who said she wouldn’t pass and was studying for nothing, because nobody had ever seen a black policewoman.
She knew she could pass the exam, but was doubtful about the personal interview. “It involved factors that were out of my control,” she says. But she succeeded first time. Now she urges other black women not to be afraid of rejection and she was recently awarded an AfroSocialist prize for equality.
“They didn’t give me the award for being the only black policewoman, because I’m not. It was for being somebody who proved that if you really set your mind on something, you can achieve it,” she says.