Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Race in Cuba: The Politics of Power and Hypocrisy

Race in Cuba: The Politics of Power and Hypocrisy
By: Inéz Maria Martiatu Terry
Posted: July 28, 2010 at 6:08 AM

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from a utopia. As part of The Root's
series exploring the island's color complex, one of Cuba's esteemed
social scientists writes about the aftermath of an open letter decrying
racism there.

The letter signed by 60 African Americans about the state of racism in
Cuba, which ended decades of silence on Cuba's racial policies, was the
first shot. Naturally, certain sectors of the foreign press,
representing interests that had always been racist, tried to take
advantage of the situation. A good number of intellectuals on the island
responded immediately, denying the accusations and the results of
studies on the subject that they themselves had published -- a response
provoked by the fears of criticism from abroad.

The most important internal response came a month after the letter (from
African Americans), on Thursday, Dec. 21, when Cuba TV broadcast A Cuban
Battle Against Racism (the title plays off A Cuban Battle Against
Demons, a seminal book on national identity by Fernando Ortíz, the
island's first significant post-colonial critic) on "Mesa Redonda," one
of the most coveted prime-time slots. Various specialists appeared on
the show, and it was finally publicly recognized that prejudice, racism
and racial discrimination persist in Cuba.

This contradicted statements that had hastily been made to deny the
situation. And yet this happened on TV -- the mass medium par excellence
in our country, and where the most pointed evidence of this very racism
continues, especially in the lack of black actors in featured
programming that frequently uses them only in police procedurals to play
delinquents who practice Afro-Cuban religions.

What erroneous policies have allowed such an important issue to Cuban
society to go without resolution in these 50 years of revolution? The
triumphalism that decided the problem was solved in 1962; the imposition
of a single Cuban subject that did not take differences into account;
and the fear that a public discussion on the matter would produce
schisms before enemy threats from abroad. These were the pretexts used
to keep the dialogue and/or discussions about these and other important
matters to society as a whole from ever taking place.

The exclusion of blacks from the halls of power and from the most
advantageous economic sectors can be explained in part by the historical
consequences of slavery and the inequalities of the black and mulatto
population to whites in the first years of our socialist project, but it
is no longer justifiable.

Other things -- such as the near total absence of textbooks at all
levels of learning about the history and culture of Africa and of blacks
in Cuba, continued emphasis of European aesthetic values, the degrading
representation of black and mulatto women in touristic propaganda and
police harassment -- continue to batter the self-esteem of the country's
population of color.

A growing number of scholars have engaged with these questions for
years, going against the tide of partisan opinions trying to put off
discussion and analysis of the issue. The hip-hop movement has opened a
space in which to confront matters of interest to youth, particularly
black and mulatto youth. The inclusion of women in a decidedly masculine
endeavor such as rap is particularly notable. Young people of color
struggle against racial discrimination and patriarchal oppression.
They're interested in family, the vindication of beauty, the
relationship between the sexes, violence, prostitution, drugs, the
double morality/hypocrisy, corruption, racism, police harassment,
conformity and the defense of diversity, including homosexuality/lesbianism.

There's still much to do. Although the answer lies in education and a
strong involvement in cultural work, it's still a long ways off. The
hegemonic sectors of our society that have historically benefited from
this inequality will not give up their privilege after a mere bout of
conscience. It will be necessary to seek the help of the courts. If we
don't keep in mind that racism is linked to the exercise of power, it
will continue to play out as a consequence of its obvious economic,
social and cultural benefits to the hegemonic sectors.

Inés María Martiatu Terry is a Cuban writer and cultural critic whose
many books include Over the Waves and Other Stories, published in the
United States. She has received various awards, including the Ministry
of Culture's distinction for national culture.

Translation by Achy Obejas. Read her piece on race in Cuba in the first
installment of this series. Read the second installment of this series
by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura.

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