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.