Race in Cuba: Yes, Virginia, There Is Racism on the Island

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from the utopia that black intellectuals like to think it is. Today, on the 57th anniversary of the start of the Cuban Revolution, The Root launches its series exploring the island's color complex.

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In 1998, when President Bill Clinton was allowing Cuban artists to travel relatively easily in and out of the United States, I invited a well-known Cuban visual artist to visit my graduate class at Columbia College in Chicago. I wanted her to show the students her work and talk a little about what it was like to create art -- such a personal endeavor -- in a society that focused on the collective rather than the individual.

The visit to Columbia, an urban school with a strong arts focus, went well until the question-and-answer session. An African-American student, eyes misty with hope, asked, "Is it true that there's no racism in Cuba?" My friend, a red-haired and white-skinned Cuban, nodded enthusiastically. "No, there's no racism," she affirmed, and there was a collective sigh in the class over the very notion that such a utopia could really exist.

Like my friend, I am also light-skinned -- white in Cuban society -- but unlike her, I didn't grow up in Havana hearing, and thus believing, in this human-relations miracle. I was born in Cuba but grew up outside Chicago in the 1960s and '70s; I'd lived through the U.S. civil rights movement and worked for Harold Washington's mayoral campaign. I'd struggled with racism all my life -- racism directed at me as a Cuban-Latina by white and black Americans, racism by Cubans and other Latinos of all colors directed at anyone darker, and, of course, my own racism. And instinctively, I rejected her assertion that racism had been vanquished on the island -- and I said so right there in class.

This didn't go over well. My students preferred her version of events -- she was the Cuban from the island and had the edge on credibility by virtue of residence -- but perhaps more importantly, they wanted to believe her. The idea of a racism-free space was intoxicating.

My friend was also upset. She felt that her credibility had been publicly assailed and I had failed to understand the real achievements of the Cuban Revolution. I had gone back to Cuba and missed the point; I had been obviously brainwashed by my years in exile in the United States

We remained friends but agreed to disagree on this issue. She went back to Cuba and told her friends her stories about her first visit to America, including the tale of this silly Cuban-American who'd suggested that there was still racial discrimination in the homeland.

To her surprise, her black and mixed-raced friends -- including close and longtime friends -- used the opportunity to express their own misgivings about the racial situation in Cuba. My friend was flabbergasted.

Why, she asked, if the truth didn't conform to the official story, hadn't anyone ever said anything before?

There's little question that, whatever else the Cuban Revolution has done or not done, it triumphed with a strong and progressive platform on race. At every single official level, it explicitly and forcibly banned racial discrimination. In fact, it may have done so too forcefully. Because Cuba is a top-down society -- especially under Fidel Castro -- the new anti-racism codes rained down without explanation and, more importantly, without process. People understood that racism was no longer tolerated but not how they participated in racist structures, how they were affected by the legacy of racism and, least of all, how light-skinned Cubans -- especially on the island -- benefited from those legacies.

Because racism was banned and did not officially exist, where was the venue, the safe space, in which these things could be aired? If there was no racism by virtue of decree, didn't its mere mention in some way imply a revolutionary failure? Moreover, the lack of process meant that there was virtually no vocabulary -- particularly no revolutionary vocabulary -- with which to talk about racism in Cuba.

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