Opinion: Nobody’s Mulatto in America
Since Sunday night when I saw the CNN documentary “Who’s Black in America?” which will be re-aired this Saturday at 8 p.m., I haven’t stopped thinking about its subject matter: the racial definition and self-definition of a large number of Americans as well as the prejudice based on skin color among African Americans themselves.
The documentary’s host is Soledad O’Brien, the recognized reporter and anchor of the morning show Starting Point at CNN. She is the daughter of a black Cuban mother and an Australian of Irish descent father. To us she looks Latina. A beautiful mulata clara, typical of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the muse of many a song or poem.
However, she defines herself as black. She says her mother told her once, “don’t let anyone tell you you’re not black.”
Throughout the whole program, several of the interviewees, mostly children of bi-racial couples, made the point that being black has nothing to do with the color of your skin. Almost all said they felt offended whenever anyone asked “What are you?”
The word mulatto, which refers specifically to a person whose parents are one black and the other white, is never mentioned in the documentary. Here African Americans consider it an insult due to its origins that go back to the times of slavery.
And with good reason. The word mulatto (from the Spanish mulato) allegedly refers to the mule, a hybrid animal resulting from the crossing between a horse and a burro. Due to racism and the subordinate position of slaves, mostly Africans, the burro was seen as the black person and the horse as the white.
Not that in Latin America we have overcome racial conflicts imposed by colonization – far from it – but at least in the Caribbean, with the passage of time, the word mulato has been losing its rancid smell of rejection and congenital inferiority. It has almost become a symbol of the “cosmic race,” the wonderful mixture that is essentially Latin American culture.
But unlike the United States, in Latin America many turned a blind eye to light skinned mulattoes and eventually accepted them as white. That’s what the well-known saying “Where’s your grandma?” comes from – meaning that you just had to dig a little around the roots of anyone’s family tree to unearth a black grandmother or great-grandmother.
Here, in a country with a growing multi-cultural and multi-racial population, there’s an obsession to define everybody and everything in just black and white terms, which leaves many young people of mixed background in a traumatic racial identification limbo.
Perhaps it’s time for the children of biracial parents, such as President Obama and Soledad O’Brien, to rescue the word mulatto, just like gays have re-appropriated formerly pejorative terms such as “queer” and “dyke” and thus removed the stigma attached to them. By saying with pride “I’m a mulatto” they would also acknowledge each of their white and black parents.