Yo, I'm a mulatto. And I have to tell you, it's great. I was black for most of my life, which is also great, but the thing is I look white and, coincidentally, my dad's also white (he's great too), and after a while I needed a word that offered me a better fit, and acknowledge my father and his whole family's impact on my life, which was also a big part of my identity. So I converted to mulatto, which I see as a subset of the larger African American experience.
I actually love the word mulatto. I love it for its rolling linguistic sound — moo-lah-toe — sliding off my tongue the way Lolita did for Humbert Humbert. But I also love mulatto for the illicit pleasure of watching the uncomfortable cringe the word sometimes elicits from others, even when I say it to describe myself: an African American novelist who just happens to look like a washed-up Latvian rugby player. The discomfort is a response I've encountered from black people, from white people, and even sometimes from many mulattoes — or rather, I should say, "first-generation mixed people of black and white ancestry." That inelegant mouthful is what mulatto means, but I can't shorten it without saying "mulatto," because there is no other word in the English language that captures that meaning while connecting it with the larger sociopolitical history of North America.
The word mulatto is at some level absurd: Of course it's absurd; it's an antiquated relic of a racist past. Just like the reductive racial classifications of black and white, which are equally absurd in the face of the overwhelming complexity of ethnicity, caste, and historical context.
I know that many people, they hear mulatto, and they think of the word mule. This is often the first complaint I hear about mulatto: that it derives from the hybrid product of breeding a donkey with a horse. Yeah, mules, smelly, brute, beasts of burdens. I get it. This is extremely offensive, I agree, sure. Thing is, it's also probably not true. Mulatto most likely finds its roots in an Arabic word, muwallad, meaning person of mixed ancestry; the word mule came later. Which means, instead of mulattoes being named after mules, mules may be named after us. While this is still offensive, I've met a few mules, and I found them to be quite pleasant, and am willing to forgive them.
Still, one could argue that, erroneous or not, this negative perception still hangs over the word mulatto. That the stank of history demands that it be abandoned. Fine, but it's not like the two other words commonly used in America instead of mulatto, mixed and biracial, are devoid of wackness. Mixed, as in mixed-up, confused, disoriented, crazy. Mixed emotions, as in: displeased, unhappy. Biracial is based around the word race, which of course doesn't truly exist. Racially, mulattoes in America are considered black, but the recent re-emergence of mulatto identity isn't about race, it's about actively acknowledging a multiethnic reality in a simplistically racialized world. Instead of a person of black and white parentage simply accepting the racial classification of black as their self-identification — and thereby shoving their white parent into the closet — mulatto identity is an attempt to move beyond black and white. Which is why the "bi-" in biracial is as jacked up as the "racial" part. Many African Americans also have some Native American ancestry, making the word "biracial" insufficient, even on its own terms.
The biggest problem with "mixed" and "biracial," as opposed to mulatto, isn't even their negative correlations—all words have negative attributes, that's the nature of language—it's their overwhelming vagueness. The words don't really say a damn thing. Yo — mixed with what? Biracial with whom? The larger mixed community isn't simply defined by people of African American and European descent; it comprises people descending from all kinds of hookups. Whether mixed people are combinations of Asian, black, white, Native, or Latino ancestry, each of these hybrid backgrounds comes not only with its own culture, but with its own racial history in America. Mixed works great as a generic term for the larger group, but not in specific terms.
Using the fairly new descriptions "mixed" and "biracial" in relation to black/white American identity also runs the risk of being ahistoric in nature. There's not a damn thing new about being a person of African and European descent in America. In fact, this describes the vast majority of African Americans, who average three-quarters African and one-quarter European DNA nationally (and 0.8% Native American, which accounts for the phrase "I got Indian in me"). What is new about today's children of interracial unions is that we are born into a social reality in which they have the privilege to publicly connect with all of their ethnic heritages. For people of African and European heritage, this acceptance of dual identity is heavily weighted by the racial denial of the American slave past, when most mulattoes in America were born to captive black women, often as the products of rape. And that is the poltergeist in the room. Within this larger context, first-generation mulatto identity can be seen as a subset of a larger African American experience; and the African American experience, a multigenerational mulatto story.
So hello, I'm a mulatto. I even celebrate Loving Day now, honoring Loving v. State of Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage — watch out, we even got our own holidays. Hell, I wrote a whole mulatto novel in the holiday's name. So for now, mulatto is an in-group word, something that can be said by mulattoes, something me and Drake can goof about when we're chilling at Blake Griffin's house. But the word serves a real purpose, offering clarity and context where right now there is linguistic evasion. So I'm going to keep using it, until it finds a new life. And if you don't like that, you can kiss my mulatto ass.
Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Pym, Drop, and Hunting in Harlem, the nonfiction novella The Great Negro Plot, and the comic books Incognegro and Dark Rain. He is a recipient of the United States Artist James Baldwin Fellowship, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. He is a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, and his new novel, Loving Day, is out May 2015.
To learn more about Loving Day, click here.