November 22 2019
Sitting on a book fair shelf, the writing on a t-shirt caught my attention: Races do not exist; racism yes. In 1946, Fernando Ortiz wrote The Deception of Race, a key essay in the evolution of anthropological thought that led him to describe the Cuban ethnos in terms of full integration. He scientifically and conceptually dismantled the application of racial standards to classify human beings, and attempt to justify the superiority of one over another on the basis of skin color.
Half a century later, when the vanguard of the scientific community deciphered the human genome, the precocious assertion made by Ortiz was once again confirmed: there is only one race, the human race. External physical traits are determined by only 1% of our genes, thus it is absolutely unscientific and fallacious to attribute intellectual abilities or aptitudes to women and men of a certain pigmentation.
By that time, genetic studies of the Cuban population had advanced in the investigation of factors that affect human health. A rigorous investigation, led by Dr. Beatriz Marcheco, yielded, beyond the proposed initial objectives, a revealing result: “All Cubans,” emphasized the doctor after reporting the irrefutable data, “without a doubt” are mixed race, regardless of the color of the skin we have.”
Racism is a cultural construction that, in the Cuban case, is based on the heritage of a colonial past and the exploitation of African slave labor, forcefully brought to the island. The European white, who occupied the apex of the social pyramid, in the plantation economy, not only exploited and oppressed slaves, but also promoted the myth of racial inferiority of Blacks and their descendants. A myth that was accepted by most light-skinned Creoles and marked social practices during the colonial era, and later in the years of the neocolonial republic, a phenomenon linked to class divisions.
In a 1950 lecture, Ortiz also said, “In Cuba the most serious racism is undoubtedly against Blacks. Racisms are more aggravated against Blacks, in places where they are, or were, socially suppressed and some want to perpetuate this dependent condition. The blackest thing about being black lies not in the darkness of one’s skin, but in one’s social condition. The definition of black as a human type, as it is generally known and considered as the target of prejudice, departs from anthropology to enter politics. This must be done more for its social impact than its congenital nature. Blacks owe their blackness less to their dark ancestors, and more to their white contemporaries. Black is not so much about being born black but rather about being socially deprived of light. Being black is not only being black, but eclipsed and denigrated, as well.”
The revolutionary transformations that began after the January 1959 victory addressed this situation and largely reversed it. Many of the measures taken in those years dealt a devastating blow to the structural supports of racism.
On several occasions, Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro publicly aired the issue. On March 29, 1959, when speaking during an event in Güines, he said: “We are a people of all colors and of no color; a people constituted of different racial components; how are we going to commit the stupidity and absurdity of harboring the discrimination virus? Here, in this crowd, I see whites, and I see blacks, because this is our people. The people are white, black, yellow, and this must be Cuba. This is what should prevail among us.”
However, the destruction of the foundation that gave rise to institutionalized and structural racism in the pre-revolutionary era was not accompanied by a transformation of subjectivity. It is not enough to proclaim equal rights and equal opportunity, to condemn acts of discrimination, if work is not done to change the mentality.
There are two discriminations
The historical leader of our Revolution, in the essential book One Hundred Hours with Fidel (2006), stated much later to Ignacio Ramonet: “We were naive enough to believe that establishing total, absolute equality before the law would put an end to discrimination. Because there are two discriminations, one that is subjective and one that is objective… The Revolution – despite the rights and guarantees achieved for all citizens of any ethnicity or origin – has not achieved the same success in the fight to eradicate differences in the social and economic status of the country’s black population. Blacks do not live in the best houses, they are still performing difficult and sometimes lower paying jobs, and fewer are receiving family remittances in foreign currency than their white compatriots. But I am satisfied with what we are doing to discover the causes, which, if we do not resolutely fight them, could tend to prolong marginalization in successive generations.”
The other great battle is to utilize educational and cultural methods that contribute, sooner rather than later, to this new subjectivity. At the same time, we cannot live with attitudes that, consciously or unconsciously, reveal the persistence of prejudices, evident in various areas of daily life, from work environments to television programs.
It is not possible to allow, for example, that in the essential non-state service sector, the hiring of young white women obviously predominates. In this case, sexism and racism join hands.
Nor is it possible to ignore, in a dialogue broadcast on television, that a black dancer is referred to as “blue” or that the presence of dancers of various skins colors in the country’s principal companies is described as “mulattocracy,” because when such things are taken lightly – irresponsibly, without thinking -sensibilities are injured.
The road is long, we know this, but it must be traveled step by step, without pause. On more than one occasion, over the years, Army General Raúl Castro has addressed the need to stimulate and promote the role of women and blacks and mixed race Cubans in the political, social and economic life of the country, and in the improvement of our social model. In the constitutive session of the National Assembly of People’s Power Ninth Legislature, April 18, 2018, after noting progress, he insisted that work must continue, and made a call to definitively resolve inherited problems related to the issue: “Things must be thought out,” he stated, “not just said and left to God’s goodwill. They are implemented or they are not implemented, insisting, looking for new methods, avoiding mistakes so we are not criticized in such a noble effort, and going back to think again and again, about another solution when we fail to solve the problem.”
Let us think and act accordingly. Let us recall a central concept expressed by that remarkable revolutionary intellectual who was Fernando Martínez Heredia: “The struggle for the deepening of socialism in Cuba must be anti-racist.”