Thoughts On ‘Mulatto’

Categories: Racism
Comments: 4 Comments
Published on: 2014.10.01

Yesterday was the first time I heard the word “mulatto” spoken aloud in at least 10 years. This time it was reference to my children, used as part of a compliment:

“Mulatto children are … [huge pause] … so beautiful. I have always thought so.”

(Old white guy in Central Texas, with a noticeable German accent. Probably a lifelong resident, originating from one of several German-speaking communities in the area.)

Hearing it made me think about it. It’s not used much any more. I did a little research this morning and read that preferred terms for people with both black and white ancestry are “mixed” or “biracial”. I don’t like either of those terms any more than mulatto. Both imply that there’s something inherently separate about people of differing features or skin colors, like strawberries and bananas going in a blender to make “mixed fruit”.

Because humans are all one species. This is well-established. Genetically, it’s more like two strawberries of differing characteristics going into a blender.

Mulatto wasn’t always an offensive term, from what I’ve been able to glean from the history of the word, and in fact was eschewed by racist southern politicians in the early 1900s when they began moving to the “one-drop rule” and the idea that you’re either entirely white or (if you have a drop of black blood in you) black. Even today, only “some” consider the term mulatto offensive in the U.S., while it’s used freely and without negative connotation in some other countries.

Likely derived from the Latin word for mule (the sterile offspring of a horse and donkey), the term does seem in and of itself offensive to me. Horses and donkeys are two separate species, with a different number of chromosomes, rather than two variations of the same species. Using the term to describe humans of mixed-ethnic backgrounds is therefore a horrible comparison, implying that black people and white people aren’t the same species.

From the American Anthropological Association (here, 1998):

“With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species”

There is more genetic variation between “white” people than there is difference from “white” to “black”.

Consider this. There are more than 7 billion people in the world. Have all of them stand in a row, arranged from darkest to lightest. Compare the first one to the fifth one. They look exactly the same, right? Compare the fifth one to the 100th person; they also appear identical. You have to go a long ways down that row of humanity before you can pull one out of the row, stand them next to the first one and say “these two look different”. But everyone in the row would seem identical to the ones standing adjacent to them. There is no cutoff between “white” and “black” in this row. It’s a scale with no clear breaking points. (Unlike this makeup chart of skin color.)

The same would be true if you lined up all humans by height or weight or eye color or amount of body hair (or any other physical feature). There are no clear groups with gaps between them. There’s just a very long sliding scale, like a gradient. Any attempt to arbitrarily determine a break between “races” is a farce at best.

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Any breaks or vertical lines you can see in the gradient above are either optical illusions or the inadequacy of your screen. Imagine that same gradient spread over miles. (To line up all humanity side-by-side would require more than 2.5 million miles. If one end was on the Earth; the other end would be 10 times as distant as the Moon.)

Here’s one point where biblical creationists can agree with scientists: all humans share a common ancestor. For the former, it’s Eve. For the latter, it’s some unknown woman much further back.

Think about it the next time you hear someone characterized as “mixed” or “white” or “black”.


4 Comments
  1. Sharon says:

    Well said!!! I used to teach Anti-Racist practices to teachers in my school district (this was afterschool and usually after a long hard day of teaching my real students). You’ve written what I taught. You GET it!! Not too many people do.

  2. I know I am being idealistic, but wouldn’t it be great if one day instead of calling us black or white, they could just call us by our names.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Yes it would, if the names are known. Or just say: “Your kids look great.” Or, “Wow, those kids got the best of your genes, didn’t they?”

      (I hold nothing against this particular man, and neither does my wife. We’ve seen him now four times in four years and he’s always been polite, helpful, and friendly. We’re certain he was simply using the most accurate word he could think of. I do wonder if the long pause was because he suddenly wondered if it was the best word.)

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