The term “Mulatto” has been used for hundreds of years to define a specific combination of racial combination. The term dates from 1593 and has two general meanings according to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary: 1 : the first-generation offspring of a black person and a white person 2 : a person of mixed white and black ancestry.
Mulatto was originally used to describe a person of mixed race with white and black parentage. The term first appeared on the U.S. Census in 1850 as an alternative to the “white”, “slave” and “other” categories. “Other” was a catch-all for “Free Coloreds”, mixed race, Chinese, Turkish or other Middle Eastern people. Census records noted Mulatto status with the letters “MU” next to a person’s name.
The second definition of the word opens the door for more terminology to delineate ancestry. For instance, Quadroon describes a person with one quarter African heritage and three quarters Caucasian, and Octoroon describes a person with one eighth African ancestry and seven-eighths Caucasian. All of these terms refer to blood and do not refer to race, because race is determined by the four genes received from either parent, regardless of the mix of the parents.
Jefferson Fish, PhD., discusses the conflicting notions of “blood” and “race” in historical U.S. Census. He attempts to shed light on how the concept of blood over-rode the notion of race in the United States, and how that notion is still coloring Americans’ take on the race issue (pun intended).
“Suppose that there are eight genes for race, so that a mulatto has four black genes and four white genes, a quadroon has two black genes and six white genes, and an octoroon has one black gene and seven white genes. Now suppose that a mulatto man and a mulatto woman have a lot of children. Each child would get half its genes from the father and half from the mother. One child might get all four white genes from each parent and be 100% white, another might get all four black genes from each parent and be 100% black, and other children might wind up with all the other possible combinations of white and black genes. However, American culture views mulattos as black (e.g., President Obama); and believes that two blacks cannot have a 100% white baby. This is why the folk concept of blood does not act like genes…Blood is actually another word for ancestry. Mulatto is an American cultural term for someone with one parent who is culturally classified as black; quadroon is an American cultural term for someone with one grandparent who is culturally classified as black; and octoroon is an American cultural term for someone with one great-grandparent who is culturally classified as black (or two great-great-grandparents, etc.).” (The Census and Race—Part III— Reconstruction to the Great Depression (1870-1940), Evolutionary Psychology, July 20, 2010, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/looking-in-the-cultural-mirror/201007/the-census-and-race-part-iii-reconstruction-the-great-dep )
Therefore, the notion that Mulatto describes blood relations and not genes is important in the discussion of terminology. Mulatto was originally used to describe people who had black and white parentage, but then became a term that generalized everyone who had black and white ancestry, regardless of their genetic make-up. This was seen broadly in the South in the 19th century, when Census workers used their own discretion at determining a person’s race, based on appearance.
Census workers during this time noted that Mulattos were seen most often in urban settings. This occurred for several reasons. “…Mulattoes were not evenly distributed through the South; they were concentrated in the cities, and especially among freemen. According to the 1860 census, 39 percent of freedmen in Southern cities were mulattoes. Among urban slaves, the proportion of mulattoes was 20 percent. One out of every four black people in a Southern city was a mulatto. The travelers who noted a high proportion of mulattoes in the South evidently had much more contact with city populations, and freedmen... But 95 percent of the slaves did not live in the cities.” (http://www.etymonline.com/cw/mulatto.htm)
Racial terminology on the Census has changed over decades and centuries, making the tracing of family lineage a convoluted process due to the discretion of Census workers. Census workers were expected to use their best judgment when interviewing families and sometimes checked different categories for family members based on the appearance of skin or hair. A lighter-skinned child would be considered mulatto within a family of dark-skinned slaves, and a child with black wiry hair might be considered black within a family of lighter-skinned siblings and parents who were classified as Mulatto. The subjective use of the term has made the tracing of ancestry difficult for people whose roots go back hundreds of years in the Southern states. In these cases, it becomes necessary for researchers to consider the circumstances of the person in question: was the person a slave or slave owner? Could there have been a child of a union outside of marriage? Was the location rural or urban? By answering some of these questions, the ancestry of a Mulatto person can more easily be traced.
By the late 19th century the term Mulatto came to be considered offensive and derogatory because of the association of slavery, colonial and racial oppression. People of black and white parentage stopped using the term because of its offensive connotations. More politically correct terms gained popularity, and people chose to self-identify as multi-ethnic, bi-racial, multi-cultural or mixed race. This was done for many possible reasons, some of which are:
1. It became too complicated to explain the diverse nature of one’s bloodline as mixing became more and more common;
2. People didn’t want to self-identify as Black because of the negative connotations associated with African-American descent;
3. There were so many different mixes of Americans by the late 19th and early 20th centuries that it was unwieldy to name each and every variation of possible mixed bloodlines. It was easier for government workers and society at large to lump all people of mixed heritage into one vast pool.
In modern times, the word Mulatto is seeing resurgence in common vocabulary because people searching for a word that accurately describes them shun the ambiguous terms multi-ethnic, bi-racial, multi-cultural or mixed race. More and more bi-racial people of African and Caucasian parentage that are searching for an accurate way to define themselves are calling themselves Mulatto as a matter of pride and precision, because the term defines their specific parentage and differentiates them from the multitude of other multi-ethnic people of the world. The word is no longer considered derogatory when used in context, though it is respectful to ask how another person self-identifies before making any assumptions.
written by Sara Harris, October 21, 2010
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