Dealing with racism

While just a few people on the island publicly admit being racist, social prejudices and discriminatory attitudes continue to be the rule these days.

Jokes and proverbs are still being used to discriminate against the so-called people of color.

All these issues were raised and carefully reviewed at a Meeting on Science, Race and Society, which was held last September 7 at the Dulce M. Loynaz Cultural Center in Havana.

"When you cannot directly make somebody feel inferior, you crack a joke about that person," said Zuleika Romay, director of the Cuban Book Institute and an experienced communication expert.

"Whenever there is a thorny issue or a taboo, interpersonal communication seeks to devise a way to release such a social tension," she added.

Color-related pejorative statements include: Negroes always screw things up; he is black, but decent; some whites are worse than blacks; and he had to be black to behave like that.

"These expressions are often followed by a phrase like Don't get upset, I was only kidding (when there is a reaction to them)," she indicated.

Rodrigo Espina, a local philologist and anthropologist working for the Juan Marinello Cultural Study Center, conducted a study that included interviewing 117 white people from Europe and North, Central and South America between 1997 and 2003. "Most of them said that marginalization is closely associated with race," he stressed.

"It is not the color of the skin, but the social position what counts," he noted.

"We have traditionally been educated to accept that the position black people have occupied in society has been given by nature," he emphasized.

"These conceptions are five centuries old; they go back to the period of Spanish colonization," he recalled.

"The local population, for example, resulted from the mixing of natives, Africans, Spaniards and other European and Asian immigrants," he commented.

Racism originally provided slavery with an ideological means of support and has managed to prevail until today.

"Discriminatory practices, however, cannot be eliminated simply by decree or political will. They are deeply rooted in history," he remarked.

"Despite huge efforts made since 1959 to do away with all forms of discrimination, the Cuban society is still class-and race-based," he regretted.

"White people are usually associated with positive values and standards, while blacks are often related to crime and eccentric behavior. They are considered to be physically strong and have a great flare for music and sports, however," Romay indicated.

"These conceptions are difficult to change," she added.

"Some people say they are truly revolutionary or are highly educated and take racist attitudes either consciously or unconsciously," she stressed.

"Local studies have shown that blacks and people of mixed race tend to occupy disadvantageous economic, social and cultural positions," Espina noted.

"Over 50 percent of those living in slums and tenements are blacks and mulattoes who work in traditional rather than emerging sectors," he indicated.

"They merely account for five percent of managers and technicians in the hospitality industry," he recalled.

"Remittances, which significantly help meet family needs today, are sent to white rather than black people; and promotions at work are mostly reserved for whites," he emphasized.

"There are married couples made up of white and black individuals, but most of them are of the same race," he said.

"Most students at vocational schools and universities are white," he added.

"Chronic diseases are affecting mainly black people today," said Dr. Patricia Varona.

"While the general infant mortality rate stood at around eight every 1,000 live births in 2008, the rate for the black population reached 10 at the time," she recalled.

"Black women make up the vast majority of drinkers and/or smokers on the island," she noted.

She highlighted the imperative need to conduct social and economic studies focusing on this population group.

"Inequality and income disparity are at the very core of all these problems," Romay stressed.

She strongly favored the idea of further fighting social prejudices and racism, promoting scientifically based discussion over gender issues and sexual discrimination in the media, and introducing the knowledge gained into curricula.

Literary critic Roberto Zurbano told SEMlac that racism has changed over the years. "There is a need for public debate and policies to be based on scientific studies and for legal standards to be developed and rigorously applied," he concluded.

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