Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Black Women Face Double Discrimination, Half Century After Revolution

Black Women Face Double Discrimination, Half Century After Revolution
By Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Sep 21, 2010 (IPS) - Cuban women have to work twice as hard as
men to get ahead in their careers. But things are even tougher for black
women in Cuba, although discrimination by reason of gender or skin
colour is prohibited by law and by the constitution itself.

"My mother, who was a simple farm worker, used to always say to my
sisters and me: 'You girls have to study hard to show everyone you can
be just as good as any white boy or girl in whatever you choose to do.'
And that's exactly what I tell my daughter now," Maritza Rodríguez, a
51-year-old elementary and high school history teacher, told IPS.

She said she has never felt less than anyone else, not even when she
feels the eyes of all the sales staff on her as she looks around a
store. "They look at me suspiciously because I'm black and I'm not all
dressed up; it doesn't occur to them that I'm a professional. That's a
form of discrimination," she said.

Like most people in Cuba, Rodríguez was severely affected by the
economic crisis of the 1990s, brought on by the fall of the Soviet Union
and the East European socialist bloc, Cuba's main aid and trade
partners. But she doesn't dwell on that. She does complain, however,
about the lack of opportunities she as a black woman has to get ahead in
her profession.

"In 2005 I completed a master's degree, and now I'd like to write a
book," she said. But her ambition alone is not enough to overcome
financial difficulties, poor access to sources, and a limited network of
contacts. "In that sense I feel marginalised as a woman and as an
Afro-Cuban. I don't see many black women writers in Cuba; most female
writers here are white," she said.

More than 60 percent of the 11.2 million people of this Caribbean island
nation are of African or mixed-race descent, according to studies by
Esteban Morales, an academic who specialises in racial issues.

Racial inequality in Cuba was for many years a taboo issue, and it is
only recently that people have begun to talk openly about it. Public
debate was prompted by calls by the Cofradía de la Negritud (roughly,
'The Black Guild'), a project that seeks to raise awareness about the
problem. One of its most recent workshops focused precisely on the
double discrimination faced by black women in Cuba.

The Cofradía de la Negritud is also attempting to address the lack of
proper media coverage given to race issues, as well as the lack of a
gender perspective.

This may explain the surprised reaction by many of the participants in
the late August workshop to Desiderio Navarro's presentation on the
portrayal of Afro-Cuban women in advertising.

Navarro, a writer and cultural activist, used images to illustrate what
he argues is a racist ad campaign designed to attract foreign tourists
to Cuba through post cards, posters and billboards showing young black
women on the beach. The scantily-clad women in the images are always on
their own; for Navarro, an underlying suggestion -- and the key part of
the message conveyed -- that these women are available.

"Afro-Cuban women took advantage of the opportunities afforded by the
(1959) revolution, and we now see them engaged as professionals in every
area, including education, health, science, and culture," but in
advertising they are being "sold" as sex objects, Cuban art critic and
writer Inés María Martiatu told IPS.

Mayra Espina, a psychologist and writer who works at the Psychological
and Sociological Research Centre, said that several studies concur that
the 1990s crisis aggravated poverty and social inequalities.

Black Cubans are more likely than their peers of European descent to
live in poor housing conditions and earn low incomes, she pointed out.
Women in general and Cuba's eastern provinces are also more acutely
affected by the gap in socio-economic conditions.

Some of the participants in the workshop said Afro-Cubans are always at
a disadvantage and that more than half a century of social change under
the socialist government has done little to erase social differences,
which date back to colonial times, when the population was divided
between white slave-owners and African slaves.

Espina said that Cuba's social policies are "universalistic" in nature,
and that there was never an attempt to specifically address the
prejudice and discrimination faced by any group in particular, on the
argument that such an approach only serves to perpetuate stigmatisation
and inequalities.

But, "exactly the opposite has happened, as extremely egalitarian
policies have not been able to overcome the enormous inequality we
started out with" in terms of discrimination, she said.

Espina agreed with Morales -- who has written several essays on the
issue of race -- that affirmative action is needed to tackle
inequalities rooted in a person's gender, skin colour or the area they
live in. The particular problems of each group must be addressed, she said.

According to Espina, gender, race and social class are intricately
connected sources of discrimination. Thus, she says, "It is not enough
to provide free education for all; more funding and greater quality
education must be made available to the most vulnerable groups and to
those living in the worst conditions."

In a recent article, Morales said that Cuba would benefit from an
affirmative action approach to development, aimed at eliminating the
disadvantages faced by the black and mixed-race populations and other
disadvantaged groups.


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