That word and the binary view of race in America were the subjects of “Evoking the Mulatto,” a panel discussion held Thursday night at YouTube Space NY. The panelists evoked their own experiences as mixed-race Americans, addressing the question of what it means to be of mixed heritage in a 21st century nation seduced by the duochromatic convenience of black and white, a legacy of the last two centuries.
The discussion itself, sponsored by the National Black Programming Consortium and live-streamed over You Tube, reflected the “Rashomon” aspect of discussing one of the more loaded words in the American racial lexicon. The panelists brought their different viewpoints on this anachronistic misnomer used to describe a growing segment of the American population.
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“I identify as black and Mexican,” said Judy Pryor-Ramirez, who directs civic engagement for The New School and whose parents are from Texas and Virginia. “The word I heard is ‘mulatta,’ an older generational word to describe a mixed-race person. The word that I knew growing up and [which] my mother used to describe us was ‘trigueña,’ a word basically derived from the word ‘trigo,’ which is [Spanish for] wheat. It’s about the coloring of the skin, about the gradations of skin tones that we use in Spanish to describe people.
“That’s how I came to understand some language I heard used to describe my sisters and myself,” she said. “That’s how I became aware of language to describe who we were.”
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GIOVANNA FISCHER, an early childhood educator who grew up in Los Angeles and Venice, Calif., recalled when she first encountered the word “mulatto” -- ”I remember I was playing with a friend of a friend’s daughter when I was like 8 or 9. She saw my mom and said, ‘you’re a mulatto.’ I went to my mom and said ‘what’s this word?’ My mom ... I remember she didn’t like the word and I remember knowing immediately that that’s not a word we were gonna use.”
The panel pushed back against the trope of “the tragic mulatto,” a 19th-century stock persona applied to mixed-race persons presumptively assumed to be absent of clear ethnic identities.
“For me the issue of the term ‘tragic mulatto’ is more that it’s placed upon us than we place it upon ourselves,” said Lise Funderburg, the author of “Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity.” “The larger question of how do we have larger conversations about race ... we have to be willing to allow for differences of opinion. I think there’s a real sense of regimentation about this thing race, which most people now agree doesn’t exist. And yet ... we’re so invested.
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“For me, growing up the way I did, what became really clear was my lived experience was distinct from the way people saw me,’ Funderburg said. “There’s that complication. Conversations that are gonna get anywhere and operate on any kind of a sophisticated level have to allow for that multiplicity of factors in everybody’s situation. And it’s really hard, because it’s also human nature to look for your tribe, whatever that tribe may be, and also decide whether people are friend or foe, and how do we recognize that? We stereotype people a lot.”
For Pryor-Ramirez, what’s necessary is “a willingness to fail and make mistakes and trying to understand. It’s very difficult ... our schools don’t allow for these kinds of critical conversations.”
Funderburg spoke of the “interesting evolution” of America’s quantification of racial identity, a numbering that started in practical terms with the Census Bureau’s decision, begun with the 2000 Census, to offer survey options for those identifying as multiracial. “There’s a larger population, there is more intermarriage between groups who used to stay separate, there’s more intermarriage between non-white-black mixes,” she observed.
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HARRIS NOTED that, while there may not necessarily be an internalized default racial identity for mixed-race Americans, there’s often a way to get to “claiming blackness” that’s as much a matter of choice as societal pressure.
For her, it’s a special navigation of matters of the soul, something that requires knowing “how to move in and out of claiming multiple identities, black being one of them.” She said it’s something “I’ve gone in and out of. I can present more black or less black, but it’s also a solidarity thing and how do I acknowledge that part of me.”
Matters of the heart are something else again. Fischer has a sure sense of the identity of the object of her desire. “I’m stronger in what I know to be true,” she said.
“I experience more comfort in dating people of color,” Fischer said, owning “the comfortability of it not feeling like this science experiment ... There’s something about being able to identify with this experience in this country of being a person of color that has been more comfortable for me.”
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Fischer’s lived that disconnect. “People assume I’m Ethiopian or Eritrean over anything else, and that’s how I’ve been read most of my life, and that’s not even my identity at all,” she said.
Pryor-Ramirez dealt with misidentity too. “I was raised mostly by my mother, I was raised in Richmond, Va., and there I knew I was black. I identified as black. When I moved to New York 12 years ago for graduate school, that’s when I encountered ‘are you Dominican, are you Puerto Rican, are you Cuban, are you Panamanian?’ The list went on and on.”
“I did acknowledge and at times would claim an Afro-Latino identity. I can feel solidarity with and understand the diaspora of the Latino community,” she said. “For me the point of place is huge, how we’re racialized based on context. ... I wonder what my experience would have been like if my mother was black and my father was Mexican.”
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IF IT’S TOUGH for adults, the experience for children is no less complicated. Is it problematic raising kids mixed instead of black? Earlier this month, the African American actor Taye Diggs escalated this issue, which trended mightily on social media, when he said he wants his 6-year-old son, Walker, to embrace both sides of his heritage without pressure to choose one or the other. Walker’s mother is the Broadway singer Idina Menzel, who is white and Jewish.
“I would hope that Taye Diggs would allow space to acknowledge and celebrate the blackness in his child and in the family, and his white side, and be open to that dialogue,” said Pryor-Martinez, whose 9-year-old son is of Dominican, Mexican and black ancestry.
“One thing that’s really important [for] parents of mixed-race kids: it’s helpful for them to recognize that their task is different from their children’s in terms of how they form an identity to go through the world,” Funderburg said. “The colorblind idealism of parents, while it’s great, is sometimes not in the best service to their children,” she said. “They cannot go back and take shelter in a homogenous group the way the parents can.”
To Pryor-Martinez, letting mixed-race children know where they’re from is crucial to them knowing where they’re going. “I find it really important to share family history and talk about where we come from, and use simple terms, those terms that our children can understand,” she said. “They’re far more ready for these conversations than we think.”
Correction: The panel discussion was held at YouTube Space NY, not the New School; the piece has been changed to indicate that. My bad. Image credits: Top image: Screenshot from “Evoking the Mulatto” film series created by Lindsay C. Harris. Harris and Funderburg: National Black Programming Consortium. Taye Diggs and son Walker: Getty Images.