The Mulatto Millennium

Rethinking blackness in a multiracial world

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Strange to wake up and realize you're in style. That's what happened to me just the other morning. It was the first day of the new millennium, and I woke to find that mulattos had taken over. They were everywhere. Playing golf, running the airwaves, opening restaurants, modeling clothes, starring in musicals with names like Show Me the Miscegenation! The radio played a steady stream of Lenny Kravitz, Sade, and Mariah Carey. I thought I'd died and gone to Berkeley. But then I realized that, according to the racial zodiac, 2000 is the official Year of the Mulatto. Pure breeds (at least black ones) are out; hybridity is in. America loves us in all of our half-caste glory. The president announced on Friday that beige will be the official color of the millennium.

Before all of this radical ambiguity, I considered myself a black girl. Not your ordinary black girl, if such a thing exists. But rather, a black girl with a WASP mother and black-Mexican father, and a face that harks back to Andalusia, not Africa. I was born in 1970, when black described a people bonded not by shared complexion or hair texture but by shared history.

Not only was I black, but I sneered at those by-products of miscegenation who chose to identify as mixed, not black. I thought it wishy-washy, an act of flagrant assimilation, treason-passing, even. I was an enemy of the mulatto people.

My parents made me this way. In Boston circa 1975, mixed wasn't an option. "A fight, a fight, a nigga and a white!" echoed from schoolyards during recess. You were either white or black. No checking "Other." No halvsies. No in between. Black people, the bottom of Boston's social totem pole, were inevitably the most accepting of difference; they were the only race to come in all colors, and so there I found myself. Sure, I got strange reactions from all quarters when I called myself black. But black people usually got over their initial surprise and welcomed me into the ranks. White folks were the most uncomfortable with the dissonance between the face they saw and the race they didn't. Upon learning who I was, they grew paralyzed with fear that they might have "slipped up" in my presence, that is, said something racist, not knowing there was a Negro in their midst. Often, they had.

Let it be clear—my parents' decision to raise us as black wasn't based on any one-drop-of-blood rule from the days of slavery, and it certainly wasn't based on our appearance, that crude reasoning many black-identified mixed people use: If the world sees me as black, I must be black. If it had been based on appearance, my sister would have been black and my brother Mexican, and I Jewish. Instead, my parents' decision arose out of the black power movement, which made identifying as black not a pseudoscientific rule but a conscious choice. Now that we don't have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege.

Some might say my parents went too far. I remember my father schooling me and my siblings on our racial identity. He would grill us over a greasy linoleum kitchen table, a single bright lightbulb swinging overhead: "Do you have any black friends? How many? Who?” And we, his obedient children, his soldiers in the battle for negritude, would rattle off the names of the black kids we called friends.

Something must have sunk in, because my sister and I grew up with disdain for those who identified as mulatto. A very particular breed got under my skin: the kind who answered, meekly, "Everything" to that incessant question, "What are you?" I veered away from groups of them-children, like myself, who had been born of interracial minglings after dark. Instead, I surrounded myself with bodies darker than my own, hoping the color might rub off on me.

One year, while working as an investigative journalist in Hollywood, I made up a list, evidence I've long since burned. Luckily for my career, it was never published. It was an exposé of who is passing in Hollywood, called "And You Thought It Was Just a Tan?" There were three categories:

Black Folks You May Not Have Known Are Black

  • Mariah Carey
  • Jennifer Beals
  • Tom Hanks
  • Carly Simon
  • Slash
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Johnny Depp
  • Michael Jackson
  • Kevin Bacon
  • Robin Quivers
  • Elizabeth Berkeley
  • Paula Abdul

Black Folks Who May Not Know They Are Black

  • Mariah Carey
  • Jennifer Beals
  • Tom Hanks
  • Carly Simon
  • Slash
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Johnny Depp
  • Michael Jackson
  • Kevin Bacon
  • Robin Quivers
  • Elizabeth Berkeley
  • Paula Abdul

Black Folks You Kinda Wish Weren’t Black

  • O.J. Simpson
  • Michael Jackson
  • Gary Coleman
  • Robin Quivers

Needless to say, my list wouldn't have gone over too well with the Mulatto Nation posse (M.N. to those in the know). It was nearly published in a local newsweekly, but the editors balked at the last minute. I bet they're thanking their lucky stars now; in this age of fluidity, it doesn't pay to be blacker than thou.

These days, M.N. folks in Washington have their own census category—multiracial—but the extremist wing of the Mulatto Nation finds it inadequate. They want to take things a step further. I guess they have a point. Why lump us all together? Eskimos have 40 different words for snow. In South Africa, during apartheid, they had 14 different types of coloreds. But we've decided on one word, multiracial, to describe a whole nation of diverse people who have absolutely no relation, cultural or otherwise, to one another. In light of this deficiency, I propose the following coinages:

Standard Mulatto: White mother, black father. Half-nappy hair, skin described as "pasty yellow" in winter but turns caramel tan in summer. Germanic-Afro features. Often raised in isolation from others of its kind. Does not discover "black identity" till college, when there is usually some change in hair, clothing, or speech, so that the parents don't recognize the child who arrives home for Christmas vacation ("Honey, there's a black kid at the door").

African American: The most common form of mulatto in North America, this breed, seldom described as mixed, is a combination of African, European, and Native American. May come in any skin tone, from any cultural background. Often believe themselves to be "pure" due to historical distance from the original mixture, which was most often achieved through rape.

Jewlatto: The second most prevalent form, this breed is made in the commingling of Jews and blacks who met when they were registering voters down South during Freedom Summer or at a CORE meeting. Jewlattos often, though not necessarily, have a white father and black mother (as opposed to the more common black father and white mother). They are likely to be raised in a diverse setting (New York City, Berkeley), around others of their kind. Jewlattos are most easily spotted amid the flora and fauna of Brown University. Famous Jewlattos include Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet (and we can't forget Zoe, their love child).

Mestizo: A more complicated mixture: Either the black or the white parent claims a third race (Native American, Latino) in the parent's background and thus confuses the child more. The mestizo is likely to be mistaken for some other, totally distinct ethnicity (Italian, Arab, Mexican, Jewish, East Indian, Native American, Puerto Rican) and in fact will be touted by strangers as a perfect representative of that totally new race ("Your face brings me right back to Calcutta").

Cultural Mulatto: Any American born after 1967.

Blulatto: A highly rare breed of "blue-blooded" mulattos who can trace their lineage back to the Mayflower. Females are legally entitled to membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. Blulattos have been spotted in Cambridge and Berkeley but should not be confused with Jewlattos. The Blulatto's mother is almost always the white one, and is either a poet or a painter who disdains her WASP heritage. The father is almost always the black one, is highly educated, and disdains his black heritage.

Cablinasian: An exotic breed found mostly in California, the mother of all mixtures: Asian, American Indian, black, and Caucasian. These show mulattos have great performance skills; they will be whoever the crowd wants them to be, and can switch at the drop of a hat. They do not, however, answer to the name black. If you spot a Cablinasian, contact the Benetton promotions bureau.

Tomatto: A mixed or black person who behaves in an Uncle Tom-ish fashion. The Tomatto may be found in positions of power touted as a symbol of diversity in otherwise all-white settings. Even if the Tomatto has two black parents, his skin is light and his features mixed. If we ever see a first black president, he will most likely be a Tomatto.

Fauxlatto: A person impersonating a mulatto. Can be of white, black, or other heritage, but for inexplicable reasons claims to be of mixed heritage. See Jamiroquai.

The categories could go on and on, and perhaps, indeed, they will. Where do I fit? That's the strange thing. I fit into none and all of the above. I have been each of the above, or at least mistaken for them, at different moments in my life. But somehow, none feels right. Maybe that makes me a Postlatto.

I've learned to flaunt my mixedness at dinner parties, where the guests (most of them white) ooh and aaah about my flavorful background. I've found it's not so bad being a fetishized object, an exotic bird soaring above the racial landscape. And when they start talking about black people, pure breeds, in that way that before the millennium used to make me squirm, I let them know that I'm neutral, nothing to be afraid of. Sometimes I feel it, that remnant of my old self (the angry black girl with the big mouth) creeping out, but most of the time I don't feel anything at all. Most of the time, I just serve up the asparagus, chimichangas, and fried chicken with a bright, white smile.

From the book Half and Half, edited by Claudine O'Hearn. "The Mulatto Millennium," copyright © 1998 by Danzy Senna. Used with permission of Pantheon Books.