When the Pejorative Becomes Hip and Trendy: Finding New Descriptions for Biracial People

Perhaps the conversation has been happening for years, even decades but because I only recently came out as multiracial / Biracial after more than four decades of identifying as Black, they probably went over my head.

Because race is fluid, how mixed race people self-identify is a complex topic, which we base on a number of factors, and sometimes, as is clearly the case with me, they have little or nothing to do with looks—despite what many monoracial people may believe.

Although monoracial people often feel compelled to put us in boxes that make them feel comfortable—again not taking into account how complicated and fluid race is—multiracial people use a variety of terms to self-identify..Very curious about how multiracial people self-identify, I created a survey and asked 50+ people to participate. The responses were so incredible. If you are curious about the questions I asked and the responses I received, click on the infographic I had created.

How-do-Mixed-Race-People-Self-Identify-1024x667

I was fully expecting descriptions like mixed race, Biracial, multiracial, Hapa and Hafu, and for some to identify as monoracial.

One descriptor gave me great pause; so much so I have been chewing on it for weeks.

Mulatto

How is it that words that were once pejorative have become hip and trendy, and how some Biracial people actually choose to identify?

I absolutely get that people whose parents are Black and White are searching for a term that immediately identifies them as such. Why not? There are terms like:

  • Hafu
  • Hapa (although originally intended to describe anyone of mixed heritage, in recent times it is associated with those who are half Asian and half White)
  • Blasian
  • Blaxican
  • Afro-Asian
  • Eurasian

So why can’t someone who’s half Black and half White self-identify as Mulatto? I got some flack when I intentionally omitted the term Mulatto from my infographic. I was accused of policing and it’s true. I will cop to it.

“MixedRace is boring! I want my own label that identifies me as half Black and half White," said one survey respondent.

I get that, but I am left to wonder if parents are still teaching their kids our history and why this isn’t a cool and hip term. Or if parents are and because kids are so far removed from the days of White Europeans and slave owners using derogatory words to describe people of African descent, it loses its meaning.

The term mulatto (mulatta for women) was first used in 16th century Spain and Portugal to describe someone of half European and half African descent. And it was anything but a pretty description: Mula in Latin means mule. (A mule is the offspring a female horse and a male donkey.)

From the book Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide Educators’ Guide, written by academic writer and mixed race scholar Shannon Luders-Manuel, Just as race designations have been fluid throughout American history, so have mixed-race designations. In the 1600s, the term mulatto became a social category, differentiating mixed-race individuals from Blacks. “Mulattoes, both free and slave, were seen as a third class, elevated above the status of Black Americans” (Bost, 2003). In the eighteenth century in Virginia, a mixed-race individual was considered White if he was at least three-quarters White, and in 1850, mulatto appeared on the U.S. census. However, between 1850 and 1915, White society became anxious about the increased mixed-race population. “Judicial, statutory, social, and scientific debates about the meaning of racial difference coincided with disputes over frontier expansion, which were never merely about land acquisition but also literally about what complexion the frontier would take on” (Raimon, 2004). By 1930, mulattos were considered Black according to the law.

Along with Mulatto, some mixedrace people use octoroon and quadroon to self-identify.

These were terms used by slave owners to determine how much African blood remained in someone. Octoroon meant someone was 1/8 Negro and Quadroon indicated a slave was ¼ Negro.

I think most Americans who’ve studied their history know that favoritism was shown to lighter-complected slaves. Although we’re no longer slaves, clearly we haven’t evolved much as a society, because it’s still the case.

Not Policing or Shaming…

The point to my blog isn’t to shame or police anyone but see if we can come to an understanding.

Rather than adopt terminology that evokes images of mules, favoritism and “passing,” and continues to pit darker complected PoC against light-complected and mixed race PoC, perhaps it’s time to come up with new terms?

I leave you with two videos. One was made in 1986 and narrated by Esther Rolle of the 1980s American sitcom Good Times. Although it’s an hour long, it’s something that is well worth your time—especially if you believe strongly in your lineage and culture. It delves deeply into the origins of words like Quadroon, Octoroon, Half-Breed, Mammy, Uncle, Pickaninny, Sambo, Coon, Jigaboo, Spook, Spade, Nigger (and all its derivatives) and of course, Mulatto / Mulatta.

The other is considerably shorter and drives home my point about the origins of Mulatto. Created by Lindsay C. Harris, “Evoking the Mulatto” is a transmedia project exploring black mixed identity in the 21st century, through the lens of the history of racial classification in the United States.