There are a few things I find funny about the way people think about “mulattoes”, which for our purposes will be defined in the classical way: a person of white and black parentage. One is, to a lot of white people mulattoes are usually black until they do something important. Then they’re “biracial” — and always have been. Another is, to a lot of black people, mulattoes are constantly expected to prove their “blackness” until they do something important, and then they’re definitely black — and always have been.

The assumption is that we’ve got it easier than “full blacks” because of the white blood, regardless of the fact that history is rife with equally negative stereotypes about mulattoes as there are about full blacks. (I use the term “full black” with lots of eye rolling, because there aren’t that many people who identify as black who have nothing but black African genes.) Mulatto men were considered more dangerous than full black men because they had “ambitious and power hungry” Caucasian blood in them that combined with the “savage, animalistic” African blood empowered them to rape white women and commit all sorts of violent crimes. Full blacks were assumed to be more docile and obedient. Mulattas (mulatto women) were considered oversexed, mentally unstable temptresses that led white men to ruin. Mulattas were also worth more on the slave market — and yeah, they were sold as slaves, have no doubt there’s no get out of slavery free card just cause your mama got raped by a white man — because of their sexual potential. Mulattas were raped most often because it was as close to raping a white woman as you can get. Bottom line. Birth of a Nation, the incredibly racist movie that glorified the Klan back in 1915, had as a main story arc a mulatto character, Silas Lynch, who riled up the black people during Reconstruction to oppress and assault the good white folk. He became lieutenant governor of some state and through cronyism got all his black friends positioned in government and they all smoked cigars and talked about killing all white people. Something to that effect.

The stereotype of the tragic mulatto (really, go read that link, it’s incredibly informative) is ingrained in our culture, and evidenced by the fact that mulattoes are often expected to choose sides, unless it’s completely obvious that you’re black, and then you’re expected to shut up and just be black. Take Halle Berry, who is mulatta but due to her darker skin tone is assumed to be full black by many people. Someone like Lisa Bonet has to be put in a black context for people to think she’s black, and even then it’s obvious she’s mixed with something. The thing is, there’s really no choice. You can’t be white or you’re “passing”, which has negative connotations and of course involves the erasure of a large part of your heritage. And even then, you’ve got to look really European to take that route. If you’re like me, lighter skinned but nappy headed and with more African features, you’re pretty much seen as black — at the least you’re seen as biracial or some other non-white ethnicity (when I had a perm some would guess Latina). But many act like you have to choose one or the other.

I didn’t really call myself by any racial descriptors when I was young, up until I got into junior high and started public school where no one knew my family. Then I just said I was half black, half white. As I got more politically aware I began to simply refer to myself as black, and if asked I would explain “what I was mixed with”. One reason for this was that for me identifying as the “lesser” of my two halves was a way to represent my pride in my black heritage, since it seemed like everyone who could was identifying as anything BUT black, like it was some disease. The other reason was that culturally, I fall on the black spectrum, so it just made sense. I did go through the requisite identity crises that mulattoes are supposed to go through as they grow up in a race-obsessed culture that is incredibly hostile to nonwhites. This was mostly because I was seeking validation from others instead of validating my own damn self. There have been interesting landmarks along the way, like when I grew my hair out natural and discovered I don’t have biracial hair. Well, maybe in the back. (Love that poem, though — I too, sing biracial)

For as much as I’ve used it here, I find the term mulatto somewhat distasteful, given that it’s the name given to the offspring of a horse and a mule. If you don’t want to call me black, call me a hybrid — because that sounds really X-Files and I’m a nerd like that.

36 thoughts on “My life as a tragic mulatto

  1. I love Dr. Pilgrim's essays which are super-informative and rad.

    I'd always understood "mulatto" to be an offensive (to many) term. But then, I suppose it depends where you grow up.

    Thanks for this. It is a good read.

    • I don't like the word mulatto, and I can see why someone might find it offensive. However, there is a burgeoning movement (small as it is) of people identifying as mulatto instead of black or white or even biracial. Weird, but it's their right.

      • I absolutely support people's right to self-identify or reclaim a word. I didn't know this was a movement. I'll be interested to read more about the mulatto / biracial discussion and distinction.

        "Quadroon". I just learned something new.

        • Little Women has a reference to a quadroon, who is a student in Jo's school at the end of the book. "There were slow boys and bashful boys; feeble boys and riotous boys ; boys that lisped and boys that stuttered; one or two lame ones; and a merry little quadroon, who could not be taken in elsewhere, but who was welcome to the "Bhaer-garten," though some people predicted that his admission would ruin the school."

          Unfortunately Little Men, the sequel, doesn't include that character — it seems Alcott didn't quite have the guts to go through with showing a racially-mixed boy as a full member of the school (he never even gets a name). Before I knew what a quadroon was, I thought it meant a mischievous little boy, and assumed that the "quadroon" was Tommy Bangs.

          • The whole hateful "Xroon" thing has it's roots in how bloodlines of horses are tracked. And figuring out who is born a slave in Western civ. goes back to ancient Greece; Howard Fast tells us Spartacus was considered completely ineligible for earning freedom by virtue of being the third generation born into slavery. As far as is known, the real Spartacus was a Thracian made a slave by being captured in war, but Fast uses this rarest form of Greek slavery (most of whom became slaves through war, piracy, and kidnapping) purposely to draw a parallel for modern Americans.

            Anyway, remembering the vile one drop rule, the prefix will be the latin for the # of grand parents who are black. A quadroon has one black grandparent out of the four. An octaroon has one black great-grandparent.

  2. Great post. I've heard this many times that biracial or hybrid people are 'luckier' so to speak because they can 'choose' which 'race/ethnicity' they want to belong too (exact quote from an anthropologist) — obviously this ignores the politics and confined choice behind such a decision. It's sad how many people don't understand this.

  3. I look like the Italian-American side of my family and am the type of white person that light skinned black people "pass" for. People often fish around for information about my background so that they can classify me – at least that what it feels like they're doing. I've always found it sort of odd.

    • Yeah, when I had straight hair some people would ask me "you're mixed, right?" or something like that, trying to get me to disclose my full ethnic background. Because of course no non-mixed black person has straight hair and light skin. Whatever.

  4. Great post! And I'm excited about creating an essay to send you for consideration in your book. I remember when I was young, I was fine with people calling me "mulatta," as long as they were Latin. The other day when I was in Prague, a Norwegian guy called me "black woman" as if it was my name, and i was offended, but then I wondered why, because if he had called me that in Spanish, it immediately wouldn't be as offensive. So it's a weird cultural thing. But even when I was too young to really think about it consciously, I remember having a gut feeling that there was a difference between my Mexican dance teacher calling me "mulatta" or "negrita" (he called other girls "flaca" and "burro" and other mildly-offensive-but-meant-with-love names) and people calling their slaves "mulattoe girls" (I read Harriet Jacobs when I was about 9, I think). It almost feels like a nigger-nigga thing–cultural, an in-the-club thing. But whether you like the word or not, as you say, defining yourself is a lot harder than just using a word.

  5. This was great. Thanks for putting into words things that I've been thinking about for a long time.

  6. I have always considered myself black (or African American), and have no white parents or grandparents, so was very surprised when I was in Cuba visiting a cousin, who referred to me as "mulatta." In Cuba, there are black people, white people, and everyone in between is mulatto. But to be called a black person there, you have to be very dark skinned. I met a young dark skinned man there who gave me a different perspective on what racial "equality"is in Cuba for the black man.

    • I remember hearing about that racial hierarchy in Cuba. Wasn't there something similar going on in South Africa during apartheid times? Like "whites", "coloreds" and "blacks" and coloreds would be considered mixed race people? I might be remembering wrong.

  7. Re: Little Men. I always thought that was Nat. Since in Jo's Boys Meg doesn't have any real reason for not wanting Daisy to marry him except his ancestry.

  8. wow…this was insightful indeed…its probably something that i've tried to write about, but never had the starting point…i used to think that my skin color was part of some twisted legacy…growing up in the 80's and 90's…i was always raised to believe that we are all the same…it wasnt until my late teen years and even more so recently i've realized that there is a racisim…and in my recent years, i've seen it within "my"own community…and maybe it does go back to the days of slavery…maybe that's why we're all so divided because as much as we say race doesn't matter…it does..i would like to think that it doesn't…that skin is just part of our dna…but our dna comes from our past…those precious strands are all we have left to tell the story of who we are and where we've been…i've always been caught in the middle…not "black" enough in high school because of the music i listened to…although i've never tried to be white…i remember the looks i got when i'd go to show featuring emo artists….and even today i listen to everything…and lately i've been trying to find myself in hip hop…i write and write trying to playfully express myself…but when i talk to people in my natural voice they say i sound "white"…okay this is getting really long, and i have a tendency to digress…so i'm going to take my thoughts over to my blog (if i ever get a chance to write it)….but i'm really glad i read this…thank you for sharing.

    • Hey, thanks for commenting. I always got weird looks for listening to music other than hip-hop when I was in high school. For a while I was really into grunge and all that and I dressed like it too. The black kids just thought I was confused. As I got older I realized I just didn't care what other people thought and now I'm my own kind of black person. I think the idea that there's a certain way you have to be to be black is outdated.

  9. I've read every single one of your blog posts over the last 48 hours or so, and I just wanted to extend a very warm hello and thank you for your words and your insights. So much of what you have said resonates deeply with me – as a white, queer, sorta fat, sorta femme, tattooed, feminist Canadian gal – especially posts that touch on marginalized identities/intersectionality/visibility.
    As a graduate of a feminist social work program and an affordable housing worker at an agency with pretty killer core values (anti-racism, anti-oppression, harm reduction, sex-work-positive, etc.), no one would question me if I claimed to know it all…but I don't. I'm always learning. And your blog has proved to be a valuable resource for me and a source of inspiration – I write, too, and if I ever get around to writing a blog, I hope it's at least a bit like yours.
    Looking forward to your next post!

  10. interesting post….and then if you are on the side of the spectrum that "passes" you're privy to the kind of casual racism people save for times they assume they're among their own kind—

  11. I just wanted to echo (a few days late) that this was a really awesome post. I followed the link you provided to the Jim Crow museum and actually read the entire thing. I agree that it was INCREDIBLY informative. It showed me that I know a hell of a lot less than I think I do about the topic and also made sense of some cultural reference points that I didn't know I wasn't understanding correctly.

  12. Incredibly insightful post, Tasha.

    I’ve been called a multatta more times than I can count and I’m not biracial. The most recent white person in my family (that I know of) was in the late 19th century, so that doesn’t qualify. I am incredibly light skinned (think Lisa Bonet or a shade lighter). Almost everyone assumes I’m biracial/multiracial, so I’ve grown up as a mixed girl even though “I’m just black.” (That’s usually what I say when people ask.)

    It’s always felt surreal and it definitely affected my self-image. I still can’t fully articulate how it felt/feels now. Also my interests, style, and speech have always caused others to assume I’m not “all black.” Everything about me has been interrogated by almost everyone I’ve ever met. When I was in elementary school I would sometimes just say, “Yeah, I’m mixed,” because challenging other people’s perceptions was just too exhausting, and because I wanted to fit into a recognized category (meaning “biracial”) without being challenged about it.

    • When I was in private xtian elementary school I was one of a handful of black students and I just got lumped in with them, except for some reason I was singled out for teasing about my hair, which was unprocessed, and my weight (weird because there was another black student with unprocessed hair who was also much larger than me and she got it less). I got called “african booty snatcher” and other racist names, and it was totally surreal to me because as far as I knew prior to elementary school I was just me, with no real racial designation voiced to me by either side of my family. Then suddenly I a) had a race and b) was shamed for being that race. Then I got to public school and I wasn’t black enough.

      The world is just all kinds of backwards.

  13. I like to think of myself as American. I grew up with the insults, getting beat up just for looking, or behaving differently than my black friends. Things have changed now. I fight back be it physically or verbally. As for my white counterparts, I could care less what they think. At least I'm not some silly giggling fool looking to score a husband because I'm too incompetent to make it on my own. I still get a lot of flack for my thoughts and ways. Yes I have even been arrested on several occasions because I refused to give information about myself that I felt was no one's business except my own. (Cop demanded that I show him the contents of my purse and I told him to take a hike). Don't like my attitude? Tough. The old days are over. Some people had better get used to it. There's a whole bunch of ME out there. Watch out world. Coming though. <3

  14. I am a full blooded black person, and i think biracial pple shud b 2 choose which race. Eventhough i know many wud prefer white, but i won’t blame them bcos being white comes with many privilege in the USA. Mulattoes aren’t tragic bcos of their Negro blood, bt bcos d black man has very limited privilege in the USA-lets wait on time.

    I can pass 4 a hybrid-many people in Nigeria especially d Igbo tribe-have very light-skins, even with lose kinks, my sister has very hazel eyes, and mine is the lightest shade of brown-dt can pass for anything. So go figure.

  15. Hale Berry is a bad example to “break” the stereotype of an oversexed neurotic temptress that gets white men in trouble, lol.

  16. Just so you know, the term mulatto comes from the Arabic term “muwallad” or “muladi” which was adopted to a Spanish term. Makes since considering Moors ruled Spain for quite a while, right?
    Muwallad meant born from an Arabic father and a slave or a non-Arabic woman.

    May I ask what is your admixture? Completely first-generational mulatto or you have a mixed parent? I myself have a mixed mother and father.

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