The Tragic Mulatto Myth Debunked: Holding Tight to All of Our Roots

By Guest Contributor Aisha Schafer, cross-posted from Clutch Magazine

I’ll admit it. I absolutely hate the word mulatto. Along with a few other such terms like “jungle fever” and “swirling.” It brings forth no romanticized, nostalgic sentiment for my multi-racial ancestry when I hear or see it. Mulatto.

Let me list a few of the main reasons why I loathe this word:

  • The word mulatto is derived from the Old Spanish word mula meaning mule—the crossbreed offspring of a horse and a donkey. It is an outdated term used to label people with relatively equal White and Black ancestry. And, yes, while it may be true that my Black ancestors were enslaved and often bred to labor as such, they were not animals. Any language that dehumanizes them or their descendants so that they potentially are viewed as comparable to a mule is problematic to me.
  • Since the term mulatto was formed as a label to be applied to those people of equal White and Black ancestry, I, along with many others, don’t quite make the cut. My mother is Black American and my father is biracial born from a Japanese mother and White American father. The term mulatto excludes anyone who has other multi-racial heritage outside of the Black/White binary in addition to having Black and White ancestry.
  • Now, this one may be a personal hang-up, but I cannot seem to see the word mulatto on paper (or computer screen in our modern tech-infused culture) without connecting it to the adjective tragic, as the two words are often observed in cahoots with each other.

Throughout my twenty one years, as various people have approached me with questions —“Why are your eyes so chinky?” or “Why does your father look White? Are you adopted?” or the all-time favorite “What are you?”— I have been forced to contemplate my multi-racial heritage and, from that, build my ethnic and racial identity. I, Aisha, identify as a Black-Mixed woman. In that order. If people want to know more I will tell them that I am of Black, Japanese, and White descent.

“Black-Mixed” is the term I use for myself and is not one I wish to impose on any other individual. The beauty of self-identification is that you create it for yourself. I encourage all mixed-race/multi-racial persons to form their own racial and ethnic identity free and unbound by the subjective opinions of others, including parents, family, friends, neighbors, etc. In writing this article, I seek not to influence the usage of a specific term, or any term with which an individual may or may not wish to identify.

The idea of the “tragic mulatto” comes from an idea, grounded in Euro-centric ideology, that multi-racial people are so troubled by a persistent state of confused racial self-identity, that the resulting inner turmoil leads to a tragic life. Bullshit. Closed-minded and intolerant individuals of all races and ethnicities are what trouble us—persons who are consistently treated as the other, at certain points in our lives. I want to emphasize again that intolerance is evident in all ethnic communities.

I recall my mother and other Black American members of my family scoffing at Tiger Woods as he publicly stated that he was “Cablinasian”—of Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian descent. My family members, like many other Black Americans, saw this statement as a rejection and denial by Woods of his Blackness. I did not see it the same way. Wanting to acknowledge all of your roots does not equal denying one in favor of the others. Yet, this idea has been ingrained into many mixed-race people, including myself, when it comes to any inclination to lean towards either a Black or mixed identity.

For the 2010 Census, my mom called me at school to strongly suggest that I only check the box for “Black” in regard to the question of racial/ethnic identity because, as she reminded me, “President Obama only checked Black.” I decided to go against her wishes, as I often seem to do, and proceeded to check all of the boxes for Black, White, and Asian-Japanese.

My father, of White and Japanese descent, has been such a fundamental figure in my life that I felt that if I neglected to include the ancestry that I have inherited from him, it would be, in part, a denial of the crucial role he has played in my life. This denial of my father’s ancestry, as requested by my mother whom I love and adore, is one I believe to be more damaging than Tiger’s inclusion of all of his ethnic ancestries.

Again, a self-identifying statement from a multi-racial person with Black heritage—which includes his or her various racial and ethnic heritages—is not automatically evidence of his or her desire to remove Blackness. It is completely acceptable for me to make the true statement that I love my Blackness. It is less acceptable to claim the same for my White or Japanese ancestries, which not only helped to shape the curl of my hair and the slant of my eyes, but also were essential in my cultural upbringing.

Why must an individual choose one identity from two parents whom they love? The math simply does not add up. Is this thinking partially a residual effect of the Untied States’ historic one-drop rule? Furthermore, is that rule an aspect of a greater ideology that we, as people of color, wish to support in its persistence?

Thoughts are very much appreciated and welcomed.