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.”