Cuba: reasonable doubt or blatant racism?

Yusumi Rodriguez

Woman in a collective Havana taxi. Foto: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES – On Saturday, October 18, I waved down a collective taxi to head home from the upscale Vedado neighborhood. I got in next to the driver, since three other people already occupied the back seat. In the neighborhood known as Sports City, a woman got in next to me.

Three blocks before the intersection at Acosta and 10th of October streets she paid the driver with a dollar bill, took her change and got out. The driver was about take off in his taxi, when the woman turned back around and signaled him to wait. She had left her cell phone in the taxi. She looked on the seat and then felt around it, but she couldn’t find it.

The driver turned on the inside lights of the taxi, and I got out so that the woman could make a more exhaustive inspection. This too yielded nothing. She then “asked” to inspect my bags. I responded by saying that the request was very offensive. She agreed, but at the same time her voice held the conviction that she not only had the right to examine my things but also that she would find her cell phone in my bag.

Could I have refused? Of course I could. But if I had, I would have reinforced that woman’s belief that I had stolen her cell phone. Right away I could imagine her declaring that “the black woman” had taken her cell phone. Both she and the other passengers were all white. I opened my bag and challenged her to find her phone in it.

It appeared. Not in my bag, but on the ground where it had fallen under the taxi. The woman had accidentally dropped it in her hurry to safeguard her change. In fact, she had also dropped a ten peso bill; something I pointed it out to her when I got out of the taxi to let her look for her phone.

I got back in, trembling with rage, and shouted at her: “You racist shithead!”

Was this stupidity? Yes, clearly; because if you’re holding a cell phone in one hand and trying to put money into a change purse with the other, it’s almost a sure bet that you’ll end up dropping the phone. But — racist? Can I be sure that she wouldn’t have suspected me if I had been white? Unfortunately, I had been the one sitting next to her. It would have been almost impossible for those sitting in the back seat to have stolen her phone.

So why did I associate her reaction with the color of my skin? Obviously because I have been a victim of a number of similar incidents related to my color. I’ve been the only black person in a group and the only one asked to show my identity card. I haven’t forgotten the morning I was collecting snails with my colleague Veronica on the beach, and a policeman asked me for my ID. But he didn’t ask her – he took her for a foreigner, and since we were together he considered me responsible for whatever was going on.

Two weeks ago, I witnessed an argument between a white woman and a black one in a large and very full bus, the normal state of the omnibuses on our route. The cause of the conflict, as could be expected in a bus full of people squeezed into a narrow middle aisle, was that one of them – I’m not sure which – had bumped into the other as she went by. As the black woman moved on towards the back, the white one sang out that famous phrase: “It had to be a black woman.” So…if she had been white, they wouldn’t have bumped into each other?

After so many years of inefficient public transportation, where the buses arrive crammed to the gills if you have the luck to have them show up and stop at all, haven’t we learned that we’re all victims of the same circumstances and that we should treat each other in a civilized manner?

Instead, we manage only to vent our frustrations on each other and to scream out the first ugly thing that comes into our heads: “Fatty!”, “Idiot!”, “Useless old woman!”, “Palestinian” (the term we use to insult our fellow citizens from the eastern part of Cuba), “Black shithead!”.. We black people are not exempt from the general hurling of insults.

Colective taxi in Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

These are the reflections that come to my mind now, when my anger has evaporated. Not that night, although I was a little calmer by the time I got home and told my mother about the incident. She was immediately infected with my rage: “Why didn’t you haul off and give her a good whack?”

I confess that I felt the impulse. What held me back? I wish I could say that it was the conviction that violence only generates more violence. But the sad reality is that what kept me from going after that woman was only the thought of the comments that she and the others would make, despite my being totally innocent of that supposed robbery: “Did you see that? If those black people don’t do it on the way in, they do it on the way out.”

I used to criticize a friend, who was black like me, because all of his actions passed through the prism of his skin color. It peeved me to hear him say: “I’m going to do this and so, so that they don’t say…”, “I kept my mouth shut so they don’t have a reason to say..” “It had to be the black person” – that was the phrase he was trying so hard to avoid. At that time I would criticize him, without suspecting that I would come to feel the same way, even though I know in my mind that I’m not inferior (or superior) because I have dark skin.

Without our realizing it, we begin to find racism in everything, and in this way we too become victims of racism. But – careful – we also place ourselves on the edges of opportunism. Some black people associate every failure with discrimination, without stopping to consider their own faults or limitations. Some use the topic of racism to gain notoriety.

Once the bad moment and my mortification passed, I ask myself if it could have been me who dropped my cell phone while putting my change away. It’s very possible give how absent-minded I can be. Wouldn’t my first reaction have been to suspect the people who had been closest to me? Would I have stopped to think about the skin color of that person?

Maybe the only difference between that woman and myself is that I would have apologized when I discovered I had made a mistake. She didn’t. That has nothing to do with skin color.

5 thoughts on “Cuba: reasonable doubt or blatant racism?

  • I think you misunderstood my comment. The casual shop-keeper racism you described is very real. No argument. I have seen it in action, directed against blacks, especially youths, in shops.

    What I described about projective identification is also real, and it plays a part in how the shop clerk (or the police officer) see blacks, and how blacks see shop clerks (or police). I do not suggest that the African-American starts the process. It works both ways, and it starts even before the African-American walk into the store (i.e. racial profiling).

    The protests and police responses we see in Ferguson, Missouri are an example of the interaction between racism and projective identification on a community scale.

    I read “Black Like Me” when I was a young teen and was deeply moved by it. I also enjoyed Eddie Murphy’s “White Like You” skit on SNL, which played on the reverse process.

  • Griffin, nice try. I have walked into stores so deeply in thought regarding the troubles of the day that I would not have even noticed the store clerk but for their overactive surveillance of my movements. I understand your ‘self-fulfilling’ theory and have no doubt that it may come into play at times. But the fact is that RACISM is alive and well and does not need my help to manifest itself in my life. By the way, its one thing to keep a close on a teenager, but it is a very different thing to treat a grown man like a prospective shoplifter.

    P.S. As it appears that you struggle with accepting the cruel existence of racism, I recommend that you read an American classic written by Richard Wright titled “Black Like Me”. It’s about a white guy who chemically-altered his complexion to become a black man. His experience as a Black man opened his eyes to how different life is for a Black man doing simple things like going to the department store or trying to get a job.

  • When I was a teenager, store clerks kept a close eye on me too. Less so today, but it still happens.

    There is a psychological phenomenon called “projective identification”. If you are uncomfortable or suspicious of store clerks, they will notice that in your body language and act suspicious of you. In turn, you will notice the store clerks looking at you, which makes you more nervous. Back and forth it goes, each person projecting a negative image which triggers a response in the other with identifies with the negative image… African-American = thief, shop clerk = racist …those are two sides of the projective identification dyad.

  • Yusumi is right, that has nothing to do with the color of their skin but everything to do with the “content of of their personality”.

    We all have our fair share of “racism” in this world, whether it is discrimination against the poor or people in different religions or gender or culture or country of origin, or anything make us believe we are better than others, in any pathetic ways.

    The fight against racism starts from within. Are you ready to treat all others as equal yourself and treat them the way that you want to be treated? If the answer is “Yes” then you are at the very good starting point.

    However the question might sound easy to but it is actually very very hard.

  • Yusumi is a little paranoid. She has a justifiable paranoia that there is a ‘racist’ lurking around every corner. Every time a store clerk follows me around in a department store, I am convinced they are doing it because I am an African-American and they think I am going to steal something. Racism in Cuba, like racism in the US, affects everyone.

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