HAVANA—On a typical balmy September afternoon, pedestrians make their way along narrow streets in the heart of the capital. As a tall, lanky man saunters past Academia De Belleza, the little girl hoisted on his shoulders gazes at posters spanning the beauty school’s large windows.
The complexions of the six female models are the color of cream. The child’s skin is the shade of cocoa. And although the girl doesn’t yet understand the complexities of color in her society, those who do have good reason to doubt that she will grow up with a healthy self-image in a culture that—virtually everywhere and all the time—privileges light and white skin.
“White people have the power. You don’t see Black people in power. You don’t see dark-skinned people in the jobs where people make money. Or in the government, at high levels in the government. We struggle.”Cuba’s color problem is reflected in its neighbor country 100 miles north. But unlike in the United States, where color and race are routinely engaged in the public sphere, those issues are not part of open discourse here. When the Cuban government ended legal discrimination by race at the end of the revolution six decades ago, the notion that racism no longer existed in Cuba became part of the national narrative.
But the truth contradicts the claim. In fact, color bias may be the most intractable social problem in this enigmatic island nation of 11 million.
Racism and its not-so-distant cousin, colorism, can be complicated topics. In Cuba, color bias is so complex that it doesn’t fit neatly into either category, even as it evidences characteristics and consequences of both.
Colorism must be understood as “a result of racism,” explains Shawn Alfonso Wells, an Africana studies professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies Cuba’s color-classification system and race relations. “If there is a preference for a color or phenotypic feature, that is because higher status and better opportunities are associated with it. Racism determines who is of higher status and what access they will have to resources and opportunities. In other words, racism sets the tone of a drawing and colorism fills in the lines.”
That can help outside observers begin to understand what they see in Cuba, where the phenomena of race and color have an added twist. Economic and virtually all other advantages historically and contemporarily accrue to White Cubans and, to a lesser extent, light-skinned people of mixed race. White Cubans overwhelmingly were the ones with the financial means to flee to the United States when the Cuban revolution began. In the decades since, many have sponsored their kin to immigrate to the U.S. and have used the remittance system to financially benefit relatives who remain in Cuba—indirectly perpetuating the economic disparities based on color.
Mixed-race Cubans, specifically mulattos and mestiza, rank second behind White Cubans in terms of power and privilege. Cuban culture esteems them as the most physically attractive and sexually desirable —depending upon how closely their physical features conform to European beauty standards. A major benefit of this exoticism is preference in higher-paying employment in the hospitality industry as well as other public-interfacing jobs.
Meanwhile, so-called Black Cubans are, in many regards, third-class citizens. They are least likely to have the funds to leave the country for greater opportunity and most likely to be negatively influenced by government propaganda that paints the U.S. as violently racist. As a result, they are stuck on the bottom rungs of a dilapidated socioeconomic ladder in a struggling Socialist country. They are the most likely to be poor and the most vulnerable to social and economic realities that diminish quality of life.
Wells’ husband, Vladimir Alfonso, remembers the discrimination he suffered growing up in Havana with dark-brown skin inherited from his grandmothers. From insults masked as jokes to random police harassment and abuse, to teachers questioning his intelligence, it became clear to him that dark-skinned Cubans shared a common disadvantage and disrespect.
Armed with a college education and training in electronics, Alfonso left Cuba for the U.S. in 1999. Periodic trips back to his homeland have allowed him to see how unchanged the color dynamics are.
“White people have the power. You don’t see Black people in power,” says Alfonso, 53. “You don’t see dark-skinned people in the jobs where people make money. Or in the government, at high levels in the government. We struggle.”
And the general response of Cubans?
“They say that they don’t have problems. They don’t want to talk about it.”
Alfonso is among those who contend that Black Cubans are a majority, even though the Cuban government’s most recent census in September 2012 documented a population that was 9.3 percent Black.
But there is fluidity and subjectivity in the official tallies. Native Cubans don’t use the terms Black or Afro-Cuban, opting instead for labels such as jabao, moro and Indian to differentiate among darker groups based on physical characteristics such as skin tone and hair texture.
The 2012 census identified White Cubans as the majority, just over 64 percent of the population, with mixed-race individuals constituting 26.6 percent—and often enjoying as much privilege as White Cubans.
“Light skin is considered beautiful in the U.S., but although it is also considered to be beautiful in Cuba, the epitome of beauty by Cuban standards is a mulatta,” a mixed-race woman, notes Wells, who also studies how race, gender and class intersect in the Caribbean and Americas. She notes that the bias doesn’t equally favor every mixed-race woman. Females are considered attractive to the degree that they conform to a range of physical markers beyond light skin—a nose that is narrow rather than broad, hair that is straight as opposed to kinky, lips that are thin rather than thick and other attributes associated more with Norway than Nigeria.
So, in the final analysis, it is what people see physically rather than what is declared legally that determines favor, advantage and opportunity in the lives of everyday Cubans.
Many historians agree that Cuba’s color-impacted history began with four Africans brought as slaves in 1513. By 1867, an estimated 500,000 others had arrived. Cuba was the last country in the Atlantic to stop importing African slaves and abolished slavery in 1886.
When Cuba’s revolution ended in 1959, the new Communist-leaning Socialist government, led by Fidel Castro, immediately acted to end legal racial discrimination. In Castro’s opinion, capitalism could not dismantle social problems such as racism.
Since then, the national narrative has been a no-racism, one-Cuba mantra. But Wells and other scholars say the facts tell a different story.
“Although there were jobs and opportunities in education that opened up for Blacks and mulattos in Cuba during the 1960s, racial hierarchies were not eradicated,” says Danielle Clealand, an assistant professor in the Department of Politics & International Relations at Florida International University. Her book, “The Power of Race in Cuba: Racial Ideology and Black Consciousness During the Revolution,” examines institutional mechanisms such as racial categories that reinforce racial inequality in Cuba.
“Cuba is still a culture that values Whiteness,” Clealand asserts, “and race still matters not only aesthetically, but for opportunity, as well. Non-White Cubans are still underrepresented at the university level, in managerial and other top positions, in the media and in the government. The lack of dialogue contributes to the images (of color bias) because there is no national reflection on racism and the invisibility of Blackness on the island.”
The highest-profile and best-paying jobs in Cuba tend to be in the hospitality industry, where Cubans with dark or even medium-brown skin are virtually unrepresented. In hotels and restaurants, dark-skinned workers are rarely seen in visible roles and uncommon behind the scenes.
The exclusion is even more glaring in retail. Step into any of the few fashion shops in this capital city and you are unlikely to see a dark-skinned face among employees. There is much less signage than in competition-fueled capitalist democracies, but where you do see images of models—as in the façade and lobby of the beauty school in central Havana—all are light or White.
Academics challenge the myth that Cubans see color, not race—as if that somehow would be better for darker-skinned Cubans, even if it were true. While Cubans don’t share the same concept of race as Americans, the admitted awareness of color distinctions is significant—and part of a larger cultural context in the southern hemisphere.
Both racism and colorism are legacies of European colonial legacies and White supremacy, but the difference is that colorism is an intraracial internalization of White supremacist ideologies. Clealand and other race scholars say color plays more prominently than the idea of race in Cuba and other Caribbean countries because the majorities in many of these countries are people of color, and there have been successful nationalist agendas that advanced a sense of unified national identity against their former colonial metropoles and other larger political powers.
So, attempts by Cuba, for example, to assert a unified national identity and deny the existence of racism are efforts to portray their national policies and identities as superior to the United States in that one regard. But the everyday material reality of people of visibly African heritage in contrast to their lighter-skinned fellow citizens calls into question the rhetoric.
Cuba is geographically unique in its location at the juncture of the Caribbean, Latin America and South America, but it reflects the same color bias evident throughout the western half of the southern hemisphere. Like some of its neighbors, Cuba was majority Black for most of its history until the government took steps to limit immigration of Africa-descended Black people while increasing White immigration in a deliberate effort to shift the racial balance.
Although that no longer occurs, Cuba still perpetuates a social hierarchy according to color distinctions that are the legacy of a White-superiority ideology and colonial policies and practices. The lighter-skinned receive preference and privilege and are placed in positions of power over darker-skinned and more African-featured members within the culture. This is then borne out in a color and class divide, with light and fair-skinned in the middle and upper classes and access to better jobs, education, and wealth—and the darker-skinned on the bottom of the class divide with fewer opportunities and chances to escape poverty.
“In Cuba—and all of Latin America—the color of your skin matters. Darker always correlates with fewer economic opportunities,” observes Alejandro M. de la Fuente, a Harvard University historian whose extensive research and writing focus on racial discrimination in contemporary Cuba and comparative slavery and race relations in the Caribbean and Latin America.
At Harvard, de la Fuente is a professor of Latin American history and economics and of African and African American studies, co-chair of the Cuban Studies Program and director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute. One of America’s foremost authorities on color and race in Cuba, he has written books and organized seminars and conferences that inform the discussion.
“It is false that Cubans see color and not race,” asserts de la Fuente, who holds a law degree from the University of Havana. “Color operates as a proxy for race.”
In 2013, discussing strides toward racial equality Cuba made after the revolution, de la Fuente wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that “despite Cuba’s success in reducing racial inequality, young Black males continued to be seen as potential criminals. Perceptions of people of African descent as racially differentiated and inferior continued to permeate Cuban society and institutions.”
Despite significant major changes, he wrote, “Blackness continued to be associated with negative social and cultural features. Black was still ugly. Black still meant deficit of culture and refinement, rates of schooling notwithstanding. Black was still associated with violence, rape, robbery, crime. Black continued to be Black. The justice system kept criminalizing Black youths, sending a scandalous number of them to prison. In this regard, Cuba looked very much like the United States.”
In spite of the persistent denials of racism, Cuban children are given informal color categories in the census. When they reach adulthood, the government assigns them a formal racial category based on their physical appearance.
“Nobody is born Black in Cuba,” says de la Fuente. “People are made to be, socially, Black or White.”
Further compounding the deep complexities of race and color in Cuba is the country’s relative cultural, social and political isolation and how it shapes the average Cuban’s self-awareness and worldview.
The history of most Caribbean, Latin American and South American countries—shaped over centuries by a combination of indigenous native and later African and European cultures—reveals the roots of color bias. While Spanish, French, British, Dutch and Portuguese colonizers planted the seeds of racism and color bias, the United States helped water them.
Color bias in Cuba has been shaped by individual attitudes domestically and institutional policies abroad. The phenomenon closely resembles color dynamics in the United States, as de la Fuente notes, but in Cuba it is more blatant and accepted.
“The basis of colorism in Cuba is a combination of colonialism, enslavement, U.S. intervention and legislative policies,” explains Wells. “It is not just a person’s color per se that determines how they are perceived, but socio-economic status and phenotypic features also play important roles.”
Though African Americans with extremely light skin and European features sometimes have intentionally “passed” for White in the U.S., race historically was much more fluid in Cuba. In colonial Cuba, for example, nonWhites—no matter how dark-skinned—could literally purchase whiteness, and, presumably, the attendant privileges.
“Free people of color,” anthropological scholar Andrea Queeley explains, “could change their caste by buying what was called a ‘cedula de gracias al sacar,’ which was a certificate given by the king that ‘took out’ the African and or indigenous ‘blood’ that prevented one from accessing particular jobs or marrying someone from a higher caste. This loophole in the caste laws provided wealthy free people of color the possibility of buying whiteness.”
The policy was an inversion of the so-called “one-drop rule” in the United States, where anyone believed to possess even the remotest trace of African ancestry was considered Black by both Whites and Blacks. Although Cuba has formally moved from a policy under which “one drop of non-Black blood makes you not Black,” Queeley said, its legacy “has helped maintain this system of inequality in that it is possible for people of color to gain social status, but only if they assimilate into whiteness physically or culturally.”
“This practice of organizing the distribution of resources around color and other racialized features such as hair texture, nose width, etc., was enshrined in law,” adds Queeley, an associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University. “Colonial Cuba, similar to the rest of Latin America, was governed by caste laws that were based on a hierarchy of ‘race’ and origin and limited free Black upward mobility through such tenets as restricting the jobs they could perform, clothes they could wear, weapons they could carry, etc.”
Cuba and other nations subjected to Spanish colonialism differed from British-style colonialism in the implications of color and ethnicity. In addition to purchasing whiteness in the manner outlined by Queeley, there was a generational way that non-Whites could transition to whiteness. Individuals who married White could, with each generation, whiten their families out of Blackness and into higher social strata.
The combination of internal and external influences turned Cuba into what some scholars call a “pigmentocracy” in which past de jure and current de facto color bias ensure that dark-skinned people are economically disadvantaged.
In her research on structural social and economic inequalities in the African diaspora and how racialized people assert shifting cultural identities within social hierarchies, Queeley has found that notions of Black inferiority are held by Cubans of all colors.
“When in Cuba, I was often confronted with how deeply held and unquestioned the belief in Black inferiority is. It was apparent in everything, from someone wondering why I, as an educated woman, don’t straighten my hair in order to ‘improve’ my race, to jokes, sayings and stories that reinforced the connection between Blackness and criminality, filth and hypersexuality, to the startlingly ubiquitous presence of racist imagery in the form of Blackface dolls and stereotypical Black characters on television. It is important to understand that Cubans across the color spectrum participate in this, and that there is a clear contradiction between the antiracist ideology so many believe in and the everyday behaviors we see.”
The economic consequences of race and color bias are far-reaching and affect everyday life for victims. For example, dark-skinned men and women, rarely able to gain employment in Cuba’s increasingly profitable tourism industry, have created underground ways to participate in the economy. Although the impact of color bias may be most severe in Cuba, whose population remains more culturally isolated than formerly colonized neighbors in the Caribbean and Latin America, the politics of color have similarly debilitating effects in those countries.
And not one of those countries can one go and find where the opposite is true—where darker-skinned citizens have preference and privilege over lighter-skinned or White groups.
Race self-identification in Cuba is no longer negotiated and transacted in a cold, commodity-like manner. However, the contrasting physical appearances among the population that have resulted from longstanding cultural color codes still matter.
And the repercussions are deeply personal. When physical traits are consistently used to advantage some groups and disadvantage others, it becomes “a form of psychological abuse that has a lasting impact on victims,” says Shanika Lavi Wilson, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at North Carolina Central University. She’s also a therapist whose research interests include racial identity and mental health and the intersection of colorism and well-being.
“Hearing constant negative messages regarding your skin tone or other phenotypical features can affect the way you view yourself, can alter your perception of how society views you, and can cause you to have an unhealthy racial identity, which can indefinitely affect your mental health and well-being,” says Wilson.
People are particularly vulnerable to such influences in childhood, when self-esteem is formed in ways that often last a lifetime. In cultures such as Cuba where physical appearance, particularly skin color, is so determinative of opportunity, color bias cannot be dismissed as less insidious than race bias.
The complexity of race and color in Cuba tends to leave the average outsider confused and the average Cuban conflicted.
“This conflict is in part due to the way in which Cubans define racism,” says Queeley. “For many, ‘racismo’ is de jure segregation, a la the U.S. Jim Crow and the KKK. It is structured, institutionalized and violent. It is racial homogeneity in neighborhoods, schools, recreation facilities, jobs, etc. The (Cuban) revolution eliminated these forms of racism and so, for many, racism doesn’t exist. And the preference for light skin? Well, that is simply common sense.”
In the U.S., colorism among African Americans has diminished but is still a divisive issue. It was the subject of Spike Lee’s seminal 1988 movie “School Daze” and has been the focus of several documentaries, including at least one in Cuba.
Wells, who has traveled to her husband’s native land many times, has witnessed blatant color bias that is treated as normal.
“People who are considered to be people of color will say some very racist things about darker-skinned people to their faces,” she says, recalling an incident in a home where a girl called a dark-skinned visitor “Donkey Kong,” a reference to a gorilla featured in a popular 1980s video game.
“Everybody was laughing,” Wells says. “I was profoundly disturbed.”
The effects of colorism and what makes one more preferable, especially among women, is evident in the U.S. and other democracies, particularly in the West. Consider the idea of “crossover appeal” in entertainment that leads performers of color to deliberately conform to a European beauty standard in hopes of appealing to greater numbers of consumers, particularly Whites. Multiple decisions—from straightening, lengthening and lightening hair to creating the appearance of lighter skin to making bodies and facial features thinner—are routinely made by women of color, perhaps most notably Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé.
It’s not a burden generally borne by their male counterparts, Michael Jackson notwithstanding.
“Colorism is extremely gendered,” notes Wells. “Color doesn’t affect men the same way because men aren’t judged based on their looks in the same way that women are.”
If the society-assigned value of a person is dependent upon appearance for women more so than men, then a color hierarchy would affect women more than men. On a practical level, that makes color bias in Cuba particularly burdensome for dark-skinned women.
At the same time, says Queeley, it subjects lighter-skinned, mixed-race women “to a particularly vociferous sexual objectification in the Cuban imaginary.”
“The Cuban saying that Black women are for work, White women are for marriage and mulattas are for sex illustrates this, and the notion that the darker one is, the less attractive,” she says. “Of course, there would be no mixed people without the sexual and psychological terrorism to which Black women have been subjected.”
The consequences of color bias impact everyday life for darker-skinned Cuban women. They are subjected to different ideals and expectations in terms of attractiveness and desirability that contribute to limitations on work, social and class mobility. For women who live in a society where they are already limited by gender as to what kinds of work they can pursue, areas related to beauty, sales and other industries that rely on selling image vis-a-vis cultural norms of beauty become unavailable, as well, further limiting the kind of work they might pursue.
Cuba’s evolution since the Soviet Union’s collapse and, more recently, the rise in foreign tourism have exposed color bias and its impact, notes Clealand.
“Jobs in tourism are the most lucrative, and they are disproportionately available to White and lighter-skinned Cubans due to an informal policy or practice known as ‘buena presencia.’ Literally meaning ‘good appearance,’ this policy dictates that people who have it are preferred for formal employment in the tourist industry. And, you guessed it, people who are darker and have more African features cannot possess a good appearance by definition.”
Clealand discusses the phenomenon in her 2015 book, “Rescuing Our Roots: The African Anglo-Caribbean Diaspora in Contemporary Cuba.” The “exclusion of darker-skinned Cubans from the new economy,” she contends, has “motivated Cubans of English-speaking Caribbean origin to revitalize their ethnic institutions in search of an affirmative Blackness to buffer themselves from the increasingly overt Negrophobia.”
In other words, they are finding ways to mediate the oppression of color bias by using their cultural histories to affirm their worth, dignity and beauty.
Indigenous hip-hop artists are at the forefront of public conversation about color and race in Cuba. Sometimes they engage the issue in their music, risking a ban by the government. Anything that can be construed as criticizing the country or the government, or that openly defies the national narrative, invites repercussions.
“It’s a difficult topic to address,” says Harvard’s de la Fuente. “The difference in other countries is that Afrocentric movements would go after publicity and marketing that excluded darker skin. In Cuba, they can’t inject that message in public discussion. There is a vibrant Afro-Cuban movement, but the public spaces for them to press demands and make claims and raise voices are still fairly limited.”
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