If you ask most Cubans about racism, they will tell you it doesn’t exist in Cuba: “El color de piel, no me importa!” (Skin color doesn’t matter to me!). This was one of the goals of the revolution, after all, to abolish racism at every level, to achieve José Martí’s vision of a racially unified nation. They will admit that other forms of prejudice exist, such as homophobia and sexism, but racism, no way. However, during the two months I have spent here, the perceptions I have gathered during my trips in taxis, to various parts of the city, and to hotels, have revealed otherwise.
Every Monday, I volunteer at a private Catholic K-12 school where I lead 50-minute conversation groups of 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds to help them practice English with a native speaker. To many, I am the first flesh-and-blood American they’ve encountered, leading to an endless stream of questions:
As Jews around the world celebrate Purim, the feast commemorating Queen Esther saving the Jewish people from massacre by the ancient Persian empire, we are reminded that religious intolerance can still be an influential factor in modern-day international relations. The potential for these dynamics can be readily observed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Throughout the past few decades, observers have raised the issue of whether criticism of Israel’s policies, or more broadly criticism of the state of Israel as a whole, is synonymous with or leads to anti-Semitism. For instance, the United Nations Human Rights Council has repeatedly focused on criticizing or condemning Israel. Additionally, some observers have denounced the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as an attempt to delegitimize Israel that contributes to a worldwide increase in anti-Semitism. However, some who object to this characterization argue that it serves to invalidate their criticisms of particular Israeli policies, especially in regard to Palestine.
As I strolled past the main train station in China’s northeastern city of Harbin, I noticed a Russian Orthodox Church with five small onion domes prominently displayed on the front plaza. The church, built in 1908 as the Holy Iveron Icon Orthodox Church, is currently closed to visitors as it is being reconstructed; the bright new red bricks of the lower floors contrast sharply with its weathered steeples. So this was the Harbin Russian legacy I had heard so much about, I thought. I tried taking a picture of the half-old half-new church, but found that the Manchurian cold had been too much for my phone to bear, so I had to go into the train station and hold my phone under my clothes to revive it. Holy Iveron Icon, like the other remaining Orthodox churches and synagogues in the city, is a ghost from a brief but frantic period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when this city was founded and controlled by Russian settlers and refugees.
Under the new administration and its interpretation of protections for religious freedom, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is now working to protect health practitioners who decline patients or refrain from conducting certain procedures based on their moral or religious convictions. Roger Severino, the official behind the new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom, has cited religious freedom as a “primary freedom, a civil right that deserves enforcement and respect.” Under this interpretation, health practitioners are able to refuse to perform procedures like abortions or vasectomies, and companies are allowed to refuse to cover contraceptives and/or sterilizations in their health insurance plans. Religious freedom claims in the field of healthcare have come up frequently in the past, especially with regard to morally and emotionally charged issues such as abortion. For example, in January 2018 a nurse in Illinois complained to the HHS about abortion mandates that were in conflict with her religious beliefs and therefore violated her constitutional right to religious freedom.
Boasting a host of independent bookstores, small theaters, art exhibitions, and acclaimed literary figures, Belfast is a liberal arts major’s dream. Now that I’ve called this place home for two months, I can say the city lives up to its reputation as a vibrant arts and culture capital. Events and panels are happening all the time, and the wider community is very active and engaged with the arts. I think this popularity can be ascribed in part to art’s acceptance of all points of view: not that every piece strives for universality, but that the medium itself flexibly adapts to shine light on what the forward-marching peace process has left in the dark.
When I first arrived in Costa Rica, I was amazed by the brightly colored flags flying from all the cars and people honking their horns and making noise in the streets. This atmosphere of excitement wasn’t about a soccer game or a religious festival, though—it was election day. On the way home from the airport, I saw at least six different political parties and candidates represented by flags, signs, and T-shirts. That evening, I went with my host mom to the polls to watch the process in action. We drove to the local elementary school, where we were escorted by a 10-year-old “election guide” to the right classroom, and my host mom took her paper ballots, marked them, and turned them in to the proper boxes as election monitors watched over the process. She was voting for both president and diputados, or representatives to Costa Rica’s one-house congress, since all positions are elected at once every four years. After returning home, we watched the results roll in on TV: the diputados were split between many parties, while the presidential race showed a shocking early lead for Fabricio Alvarado, a conservative evangelical musician, while the other 12 presidential candidates vied for second with varying degrees of success.
Last weekend, I took some time by myself to visit the NS-Dokumentationszentrum, a museum documenting the history of right-wing extremism in Germany. The rigid, box-shaped building made of striking white stone stands just meters away from the building where Adolf Hitler signed the Munich Agreement, which annexed portions of former Czechoslovakia. With candor and detail, the museum chronicles the ways in which extremism has and does infiltrate all layers of society, but also the ways in which civilian resistance has manifested itself. Starting with the reign of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (also known as the Nazi Party), the museum works its way through four floors of history and ends with modern-day events that we hear about too often on the news today, like the increasing popularity of the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party.
Contemporary Russia grapples with a unique challenge: it is a country born anew, from the ashes of the Bolshevik Communist experiment that systematically overturned imperial culture, re-forging the empire from its very roots. Russian Slavic identity is ancient, building on centuries of history and tradition. The Russian Federation, however, is quite new, and it is seeking to reinstate popular, pre-Soviet traditions into contemporary Russia and thus cultivate an inclusive yet modern culture that celebrates its Slavic Russian roots. The dramatic loss of prestige felt following the fall of the Soviet Union left many feeling humiliated, and the government has worked hard to re-instill pride and patriotism in its people. As can be expected, the Russian Orthodox Church has played an essential role in this process, steadily regaining influence and standing in post-Soviet Russia, returning to its historical position as a bastion of national pride and unity. The examination of two vastly different holidays sheds light on how the preservation and promotion of historical identity have influenced the curation of contemporary Russian culture.
As a hijabi woman that has lived most her life in America, I am always acutely aware of the fabric that is draped around my head. At times it has made me a vulnerable target of Islamophobia, but that is only a small portion of the challenge I frequently find with it. Wearing the hijab in the United States is like walking around as a Muslim billboard, and it has often made me a spokesperson for an entire faith. My actions, opinions, and interests are attributed to over a billion other people on this Earth—which can be a blessing in some ways but overwhelming in others.