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Race in America: Will We Ever Learn

from Stan Dotson


June 23, 2015

Originally published here.

There is a long list of re-entry shocks to deal with in coming back home after nearly a year in Cuba. Close to the top of the list is our country’s continuing struggles around race. Not having access to Internet or U.S. television, we basically missed the news cycles dealing with Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and Baltimore. We heard about the incidents, from friends’ emails and from the Granma, Cuba’s daily newspaper which never misses an opportunity to broadcast bad news from their neighbor to the north. But that’s not the same as being in the middle of it, hearing and seeing the images 24/7 as our country is prone to do.

The re-entry shock in coming back is parallel to the entry shock in going to Cuba, as far as race relations are concerned. At least on the surface, in stark contrast to the U.S., Cuba seems to have solved the race problem that emerged there, as it did here, from the legacy of the slave trade. Bi-racial marriages are much more the norm than the exception. Every church we visited was multi-racial; 11:00 Sunday morning hour is not a segregated hour in Cuba. And of the 43 churches of the Fraternity of Baptists, nearly half have pastors of African descent. 

Another difference – the way they talk about race. Cubans regularly refer to each other in racial terms, with no thought of offense. Hola blanco; oye negrita; escucha mulatto; hay mi china... (Cuban President Raul Castro is known on the street as El Chino, because of his Asian facial features). 

Another, more profound difference, is the absence of violence. Being a white person socialized in the American south, I am familiar with the ingrained prejudicial fear associated with walking through a predominantly black neighborhood at night. And yet, we regularly walked at night through a Matanzas neighborhood named Harlem, with loud music and few working street lights, and never felt the least bit uncomfortable. Kids and teens would sometimes speak to us, asking us where we were from, and they always got a laugh out of my answer — soy matencero, y tú? (I'm from Matanzas, how about you?)

All this is not to say that racism is non-existent in Cuba. One benefit from gaining more proficiency in the language is that you begin to understand more of the subtleties of the society. Racism is present, just in a more subtle form. It has a regional dynamic, as the people on the eastern end of the island, with more African influence, experience their fair share of prejudice and discrimination. Eastern Cubans who have been displaced by the economy call themselves Palestinians, an effort to exercise solidarity with another displaced group suffering from discrimination. The continued strong presence of African-based popular religions, deemed demonic by the more conservative Christian denominations in Cuba, presents yet another cultural difference that can at times be a shock. 

This was true for us one Sunday afternoon when we went to an inter-faith dialogue event in the Marina, a neighborhood in Matanzas with a strong presence of African religions. After the dialogue, there was a demonstration of Orisha dance, for which Kim was on the front row. As two men in rumba costume demonstrated the Ogún machete dance, from my perch several rows back it appeared that the machetes came perilously close to her neck. But Kim survived; no blood was shed, and she even got coaxed up to dance with the rumberos.

Living for 11 months in Matanzas, we missed the all too real bloodshed of Ferguson and Baltimore.

But we are here for Charleston. 

Nine worshipers gunned down during their Wednesday night prayer meeting, at around 9 PM according to the reports. That was about the time Kim and I had put in a DVD and started watching the movie Selma. I remember flinching in reactive horror at the shocking scene of four young girls walking down a staircase in their Birmingham church, getting blasted by a bomb. And now, over 50 years later, I turn on the news to another shocking scene. 

This kind of scene, this kind of race-based hate crime, does not happen in Cuba, or at least it hasn’t happened in the last 56 years. I hope that our analysis of events like this will include a comparison with neighboring countries who do not share our "exceptionalism," who do not experience this kind of violent hate crime. What have we done to create the conditions for this kind of hatred in our society, and what have other cultures done to create different conditions that foster co-existence across lines of difference? Cuba, for all its flaws, has something to teach us when it comes to overcoming the legacy of slavery and ongoing racism and gun violence. May we be humble enough to learn and apply their lessons.

Stan Dotson makes his home in Fairview, NC, with his wife Kim Christman. Stan took a year off from his duties as Director of In Our Elements to live and work in Cuba. In Cuba he taught courses in Leadership and Church History at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, and led the Kairos Center of Matanzas in the development of their 3 year strategic plan. He also preached, played guitar, translated for groups, and led many workshops and retreats all across the island for the Fraternity of Baptists and the Cuban Council of Churches. 

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