The Mulatto Millennium

Rethinking blackness in a multiracial world

| September/October 1998

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.