Why the word “mutt” makes me wince

by Racialicious guest contributor Luke Lee

“Who’s doggy’s daddy? A DNA test can determine the breeds that make your mutt”

Making its way to the very front page of Yahoo! on Monday night was a video and a news article about a DNA kit which, as the folks at Yahoo! so eloquently put it, is able to tell dog-owners the different breeds in their “mutt.”

Now, I realize that we’re talking about dogs here but the word “mutt” is one that makes me wince no matter what the context. And though the word, when talking about dogs, is in supposedly a completely canine context, I don’t think it’s in an entirely different context without any sort of implications of cultural attitudes that carry over to the ways in which our society sees and talks about mixed race folks.

The most glaring aspect of the word and it’s popular usage when it comes to dogs is that people, dog-owners just don’t know what the dog is which results in the “mutt” description. There’s nothing wrong with this because god knows that a lot of dog-owners don’t know what their dog is but at the same time, many dog-owners do know very well. “Mutt,” to me, implies very much a sort of hairbrained “I don’t know. It’s just a bunch of everything thrown in there. I lost track” which is fine if people want to talk about their dogs like that, if people want to talk about themselves like that but its lackadaisical presence in the way people talk about race and in this case, dog breeds, fosters a sort of “don’t know so reduce it down” attitude. Don’t get me wrong, people should identify however they want to and if someone identifies and calls themselves a mutt “because it’s simple” then that’s great for them. However, as the word has the overriding suggestion of a lack of knowledge when it comes to one’s background, it’s not the most sensitive term to be flinging around at least when it comes to real people. I know this isn’t a perfect comparison, but it’d be like if I proudly told people I was “Oriental” and preferred the term over “Asian” or “Asian American.” If I did then that’s my business but it would inevitably give people the idea that it’s an OK term to use when describing Orientals Asian Americans. And also, I’m not saying that dog-owners who use the term are somehow insensitive and subtly racist when it comes to issues of race but rather the culture in our language perpetuates the idea that mutt=potpourri and if to be mixed is to be a mutt then to be a mutt means to not know what you are (and not care) which I don’t think is remotely the case for many, many mixed people.

Even in terms of dog health and genetic disposition, it’s the same sort of dialogue to that when it comes to stereotypes about mixed race people. For example, though people often joke that “purebred” dogs look better for being just that, a purebred, they also note that those dogs can have some serious health problems. On the other side of the coin, “mutts” are seen as inherently healthier–a result of supposedly “weeding out” diseases and negative traits from different breeds. In the same way, people assume mixed race men and women to be semi-superhumans with the “best of both worlds” when it comes to the genetic traits of the biological parents. Though genetic diversity is a factor in determining the potential health of a person, it would be a huge mistake to make that the only issue and stereotype all mixed race folks as real-life Wesley Snipes Blade characters. To some degree, these stereotypes make it hard to address very real health issues facing many mixed race people, especially children. A very tragic reality is that when it comes to blood diseases like leukemia for boys and girls, the national bone marrow donor registry is not exactly overflowing with donors of mixed ancestry (or donors of Asian, Latino and Black heritage for that matter). As (for the most part)* a person’s potential match is most likely to be from someone of similar racial/ethnic background, it’s important for folks to clear away the cultural stereotypes when it comes to these issues.

Now of course if you follow the news link and to the company’s website that stirred all this press, you’ll find that their aim isn’t “wow, i’m curious about what [my dog] is!” but rather legitimate health concerns over certain dog breeds which an owner with a mixed dog who doesn’t know the background of the dog would have no way of knowing which then would seemingly go against everything I just said. Actually, I think it just reinforces the importance of challenging stereotypes be it those that people have of dogs or people because in any case, perceiving something as a “mutt” and then falling into stereotype isn’t exactly a good idea.

And finally. Seriously, was it really necessary to use the line “Who’s your doggy’s daddy?” with this story? Does this seem a little racist and woman-blaming to anybody else? I realize that this is supposed to be completely tongue-in-cheek but the real world stereotypes about real world people, specifically mixed race people, is that they just don’t know who their fathers are (because, you know, mixed race=black and white and we all know that black men just run off after white women get pregnant, right?). Was there no other possible title than some Jerry Springer show paternity test prompt in which the women are all castigated for not knowing “daddy”? Which reminds me of a story. A multiracial friend of mine recently told me an exchange in which her boss, upon learning that this friend of mine was mixed race with a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother, remarked with all incredulity, “Oh, you know your father?! Wow!”

The point isn’t that the way in which people talk about dogs is exactly the same in which people talk about race and mixed race issues but it’s an interesting jump-off point to consider because for dogs it’s been a staple term in our language whereas for mixed race men and women, it’s largely been an insensitive one at best, a cover-up meant to denigrate mixed race folks through racist stereotypes. And because it’s language and culture, there’s always an inevitable…overlap of the two (yes, I refrained from saying “mixing”).

*As far as I know, a similar racial/ethnic background can significantly increase odds of finding a match but it is in no way a 100% sure bet. There is the possibility that a Latino man can be the perfect donor match to an Asian woman, for example.