Coloniality and Epistemic Racism in Cuba

Yasser Farres Delgado

Regla de Osha. Foto: Elio Delgado Valdés

HAVANA TIMES — I feel obliged to reply to Veronica Vega’s recent post, as I consider it an example of how coloniality and epistemic racism operate at the subjective level. I understand Vega’s concerns, but I find her analysis biased and lacking in rigor. It is, rather, reminiscent of the colonial social construction that turned “blacks” into an inferior and savage race. It ignores historical questions that would allow us to better understand the situation she describes and offer solutions beneficial to all.

Since I am unable to fully develop my arguments in the limited space of one post, I will limit myself to exposing some ideas regarding the dogmas we inherited in terms of socio-cultural diversity (understood in its broadest sense) and on the need to foster new attitudes. To do this, I will explore the relationship between the concepts of coloniality and epistemic racism and let readers come to their own conclusions.

An Analytical Framework

I will begin by pointing out that, if coloniality affects all aspects of modern subjectivity, this is no less true in terms of our perception of different world views. As such, we must also work to decolonize our minds and rid ourselves of prejudices that prevent us from building spaces where all world views can co-exist.

I use the terms “world view” deliberately, in order to group together all religions, atheism and agnosticism. In this connection, I would like to stress that atheism has kept alive the epistemic racism that Catholicism established as a world-wide phenomenon in 1492, that is to say, maintaining a hierarchical system of colonial domination, in which the knowledge produced by Western subjects are regarded a priori as superior to those produced by non- Western subjects (see Grosfoguel, 2011, 2013).

In effect, when Columbus classified the indigenous populations of the Americas as “subjects without religion”, he was only becoming the “first modern religious theoretician (and) the first Western racist” (see Maldonado – Torres, 2008) but also laying the foundations for a concept of “barbarism” which Bartolome de las Casa would later apply to Turks, Moors and Jews (in his Apologetica Historia Sumaria), a concept that would later develop into a global system of racial classification that underpins the “scientific” writings of Hobbes, Locke and Kant (see Mignolo, 2003, 35-43). This notion of “barbarism” continues to operate within the civilizing process of globalization.

This epistemic hierarchy was established as three bodies of knowledge: science, philosophy and theology (see Sousa Santos, 2010). All knowledge (understood as the sum total of empirical, sensorial, spiritual and other “experiences”) that cannot be explained in terms of one of these categories is simply dismissed in a clear exercise of power.

In the case of the world views that originated in Africa, these were subjugated through slavery and the domination established by Catholicism in the colonial period, by neo-colonial racism and Catholicism and by the materialist atheism that became State philosophy. These traditions have always been denied the right to exist and, as such, they have had to survive clandestinely. Most being eminently rural world views, they have had to develop in an urban context that is not attuned to many of their practices.

Epistemic Racism

All of these issues have marked the development of Afro-Cubna ritual practices. Here, we can maintain a posture of opposition to these or contribute to dialogue between this religious community and all others. Veronica’s comments, however, do not move in that direction – they are, rather, offensive and highly biased. Let us have look at these.

  • “The fruit of the faith of the numerous believers has condemned all of us to breathe in the putrefaction.”

Isn’t there more putrefaction in the open sewers, in the contaminated water that has been running over the streets of Havana for decades, in the toxins State industry has long spilled into rivers, in the mismanagement of urban refuse, and so on and so forth? In light of all this, the “putrefaction” Vega refers to is ridiculously trivial.

  • “[The Catholic religion has] in its favor (…) the atavistic charity that it extends towards the diseased – from lepers to those suffering from AIDS – as well as to the poor and the elderly.”

Afro-Cuban religions have also provided networks for fraternal and mutual aid, and, if we haven’t seen more of this, it is because no Cuban government has allowed them to associate and act freely. Suffice it to compare these communities to the social role that Candomble plays in Brazil. The practices of the Council of Ifa Priests of Cuba, strongly criticized for its political partiality, are very different.

  • “In my daily experience, I’ve repeatedly noticed that those persons who have “made themselves saints” stand out for their arrogant attitudes (…)”

One comes across such people but they are not the majority, and my replies above demonstrate this. What’s more, lack of courtesy is a widespread phenomenon in Cuban society, not something unique to this religious community.

  • “(…) the communities where similar practices have taken root and expanded are among the poorest in the world. The societies that have managed to construct cities highly developed in trade, technology, culture, have invoked no other god but concrete money, and have followed no rule other than that of common sense.”

Vega forgets that the communities where these religions originated were razed to the ground by imperial/colonial processes that subjected these communities to genocide and epistemocide (the destruction of all acquired knowledge that was transmitted orally). This process benefitted – and still benefits – these other societies that have “managed to construct cities highly developed in trade, technology and culture.”

I could analyze these comments further but my space is limited. I will conclude by saying that, if Afro-Cuban religions had the opportunity to effect an internal theological debate among its members and spiritual guides, if they had sacred places acknowledged by the State (as Judeo-Christian religions, which the Cuban State supports more and more every day, do), the situation would be quite different, as all religions bring their ceremonial practices up to date on the basis of their historical and socio-regional contexts.

I believe that the exercise of democracy must include freedom of religion. Those of us who support the former ought to support the latter.

2 thoughts on “Coloniality and Epistemic Racism in Cuba

  • Each religion and /or belief in imaginary, supernatural beings is equally as valid or invalid since it’s all imaginary, all manmade .
    There have been over 1000 gods that have been very real to humanity over our some 100,000 years on the planet . Now all but the latest handful are ridiculed as primitive myths and superstitions based on ignorance and those who worship Thor and the Greek pantheon are considered barking mad .
    So now we’re back to sacrificing live chickens and you want respect for that sort of atavistic nonsense ?
    That calls for serious ridicule.

  • Thanks for this good piece….don’t agree with everything but it is well written and shows erudition

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