Black on the Outside, White on the Inside

Common racist expressions used in Cuba.  

Jorge Milanes Despaigne

Photo: Constantin Eremechev
Photo: Constantin Eremechev

HAVANA TIMES — “The situation is black,” an elderly woman says to another while choosing tomatoes at a market stand, referring to how difficult things are and, as the context suggests, the high price of food products.

Hearing this, I am suddenly curious about certain racist expressions some people use out on the street, using the color black to refer to something negative.

When I approach the fried-snack stand, the vendor, who apparently knows me since my primary school days, says:

“You don’t get old, blackie…”

“I try to stay young,” I reply.

“Well, you folk have better skin than whites do. And you can tell you’re white inside.”

I go away, unable to reply, because the bus is coming, but my curiosity grows as I think about that statement, “white inside.”
I arrived a meeting with colleagues and friends, an encounter in which my friend Grace Lynis Dubinson, an architect who has studied the issue of discrimination and the history of racism in the United States, the founder of Cinnamon Travel Heritage, speaks to us of a community gardening project she’s set up in Atlanta.
In her presentation, she offers details about a work group trying to protect crops from animals that cross the fences to eat the havest. On hearing this, one of my colleagues interrupts her.
“Don’t you have that plant that people in Cuba call “the black trap”? Farmers plant it around their fields to protect the crops.”
Confused, Grace makes an effort to understand. She speaks very little Spanish and, to confirm she’s heard right, she asks me to translate. I give her a detailed explanation.
Very much put off, she reclines in her chair, sits up and categorically condemns the use of the name many people here have given this thorny plant. She didn’t know that was its popular name.
When I got home, I asked my mother about the plant’s name and she says she’s always known it as a “Cardona.”
I repeated the name several times so as not to forget it and, the next day, told Grace. Someone had already given her a specimen.
These racist expressions are the results of numerous social problems which society is often blind to, repeating historical patterns unconsciously.


4 thoughts on “Black on the Outside, White on the Inside

  • I find this article fascinating. My first trip to Cuba was in 1977. I asked our hosts about racial discrimination in Cuba and was told that there was none. It had been abolished by the revolution. After several efforts I was finally able to have an honest conversation about the persistence of racism in Cuba with a Cuban foreign service officer who had served at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington DC. he brought his own sensibility as an Afro-Cuban to the conversation as well as a deeper understanding of issues of race in America. Race indeed is complex a complex issue in Cuba, but one that lies not so deep beneath the surface of daily life. I’m happy to read articles like this that bring these contradictions to the surface so that the strong cultural vestiges of race can be examined and replaced with a new and honest commit,net to equality.

  • Black is not always a negative term. And it is not always a reference to race.

  • European languages aren’t rich enough to distinguish between “black” as in the absence of light, and “black” as in the fullness of colour. The same with the word “dark”. I don’t know if this is true of African languages however the confusion between colour of matter and colour of light seems pretty universal. “Black” matter actually absorbs and radiates the most energy so could be said to be superior to “white” matter which merely reflects, whilst “white” light could be said to be superior to the absence of light which appears “black” to the eye. With regards to use of colours, many African priests wear “white” to indicate “white” light, even though they are using material colours, i.e. the colour of their clothes, whilst in Asian martial arts the masters wear “black” whilst the beginners wear “white”, (“black” belts, “white” belts) since “black” represents the superior material colour. There is a problem with mental slavery, but there is also a difference between mental slavery in the U.S. and mental slavery in Cuba. Just as there is a “class” war in capitalism, there is a “race” war, and it has to be fought by those who are suffering the consequences. However the realities of the war are different in Cuba to the U.S. The reduction of the “race” war to a “colour war” is the dominant concept in U.S. (and some other countries). In the absence of socialism it is a necessity. People must gang together in order to fight their battles collectively. Thus we see the emergence of “Black” pride and “Black” power in the U.S, and elsewhere to combat the negative stereotype of “Black” people by “White devils”. However, I would actually put this on its head and say to be “Black” is negative, a creation of “White devils” who forced the great diversity of Africa into a single rootless entity, for to be “Black” is to be ignorant of ones roots. Far better to be “African”. Perhaps this is why so many “Afro-Cubans” who have not forgotten their roots say that calling someone “negro” is in itself racist, and will tell you that they are not “Black” at all, but “Cuban”, “Afro-Cuban” or even just “African”. It is necessary to be critical of tactics, the advances of “Black” U.S. Americans which have seen “Black” artists and athletes earn millions and wield influence and the election of a President of African descent must be compared with the retention of authentic African culture in Cuba, the access to healthcare and education, and the absence of street violence. The recent “racial” divisions amongst voters for Bernie Sanders show that whilst “Afro-Cubans” are learning from the U.S., “Afro-Americans” are not learning from Cuba as much.

  • I think you need to be careful reading too much into an expression. Some expressions in the English language use black in negative terms eg blackmail but clearly predate any encounter with Africa. Take the term whitewash when applied to government duplicity – hardly positive. Or a bank account being “in the black” which is considered a good thing.

Comments are closed.