Coffee Hour

Renouncing the Tragic Mulatto

In recent weeks the issue that has blown up on social media is the idea that mixed-raced people can’t speak on black issues – unless their winning – because they’re not ‘really’ black,.

Being mixed-raced, or ‘bi-racial’, as is the more acceptable term these days, comes with its own set of problems – some against us, other issues, we cause ourselves.

As a mixed-race person, I feel all sorts of ways about this. On the one hand, I’m fighting against the urge to use that totally redundant and guilt affirming line ‘not all of us!” whilst also understanding that all of these ideas, both for and against mixed people being admitted into the black community, all stem from a much broader and complicated history that social media is never going to admit to.

One of the new things now, during these times where black identity and pro-blackness is being increasingly tested, is for bi-racial people to pick a side; to be black and black alone, or denounce their blackness and be, whatever their other half is. But it’s impossible for a mixed person to solely identify as non-black because the post-European colonial world is trained to spot blackness from generations away and be prejudiced against it, so its not a heritage that we can ever really get away from. Additionally, Anglican white/American culture is so globally normative, thanks to Hollywood and the Empire, that it is the standard by which all other cultures measure themselves. Therefore, someone who is a mix of both the standard and the ‘Other’ will usually gravitate towards the side that has been ‘Othered’ because is what makes them unique. And it’s easier for a lot of us to cling to our black side because as humans we tend to gravitate towards the side of us that’s more marginalised as that marginalisation can cause greater and more frequent emotional reactions than anything the non-black side can produce.

But if you have two strong positive cultures, why should you have to choose? If your black and something non-western, mainstream white, like Mexican or Russian, two strong cultures, with strong cultural roots, what then? Are you supposed to just not call yourself Mexican or Russian? That doesn’t make sense, you need to allow mixed people to be both black and something else, and not shove them into the category of bi-racial, because the term bi-racial is devoid of the uniqueness that being mixed gives you, and reduces you to a classification, rather than a person made up of different ideas and cultures.

And for those of us who don’t exhibit anti-black or pro-white supremacy behaviour, it shouldn’t matter that we’re only half black. There is black in us; therefore, we are part of the black community. We may be a different type of black person, but we are black none the less, and that is still utterly valid because blackness is not monolithic. And you can’t dictate to me what I should identify as.

But then it turns into an issue of mixed people being able to switch between their two sides, and the argument is, ‘well if the rest of the black race can’t run from their problems why should you be able to?’ And if you do run, then you’re not black’.

And whilst I completely agree that a mixed person who does not stand for the rights of all black people should have no right to benefit from black culture, you can’t make the assumption that because someone is mixed that they WILL run. There are, without a doubt, mixed people who do this, but if a mixed person has shown themselves to be with the black community you can’t denounce them based on their mere ABILITY to switch – you can only condemn them if they ACTUALLY switch.

If people like Lewis Hamilton, Jessie Williams or Emma Dabiri have proven that they identify with black people and black issues, then they need to be allowed to call themselves black and not merely bi-racial.

But the issue over ‘sides’ is only one result of the multi-faceted issue of colourism and preferential treatment being given to those of white heritage. And as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to historical colourism, the issue that causes many of the above arguments, bi-racial people as a whole – once again, not all, but as a whole – cause their own alienation from the black community from the inception of slavery up until the present day.  Prior to the solidification of slavery laws, children of mixed heritage inherited their white fathers free status. Consequently, they were allowed to take advantage of the freedom their colouring and blood gave them and could own slaves. And even after the law changed to make mixed children inherit the status of their slave mother, we all know mixed people tended to be in higher positions because their lighter skin and straighter hair, brought them closer to the white ideal. Often they snubbed their darker counterparts being broken in the fields and, if they were fortunate, they might have been able to ‘pass’ as white, again, leaving their darker counterparts behind.

And whilst it can be argued that, given the punishment for being black at the time, you can’t blame these people for wanting to have a better life, there really was no excuse for these behaviours to continue after the abolition- but continue they did. After the emancipation, people of mixed heritage and generally lighter skin tones remained the ones in power, and they scrambled to establish themselves as the true free blacks, as opposed to the upstart dark-skinned, country folk who were starting to flee plantations. Historical black colleges and churches also excluded people based on skin colour and hair texture by using ‘light brights’ as the criteria for acceptance, and techniques like the paper bag test and the comb test to reinforce this criterion- all put in place by light-skinned and mixed-race black people themselves.

So being mixed wasn’t merely a ‘beauty standard’, but it was a by-word for wealth and better breeding- and this is an idea that mixed-people themselves have consistently endorsed to keep their positions of superiority. And we’ve all come across this behaviour in certain people around us. People who remind you that they are a ‘lightie’ every chance they get, who make fun off, and emasculate dark skin women, or claim that dark-skinned people hate them because, as a lighter/ mixed-race person, they are more attractive than dark-skinned people – we have all heard these lines.  

These behaviours are playing out the role of the Tragic Mulatto, a trope, much like the trope of  Uncle Tom, Mammy or Mandingo, which appeared in books and plays to exploit the divide that white supremacy had created to weaken us. The Tragic Mulatto was a mixed-raced character tragically outcast because they fit into neither the world of the whites nor that of the blacks. But today, this separation does not come from any real superiority, but an arrogance and investment in colourist and white supremacist systems, over the fulfilment of a unified black race. But then they cry out that no one wants them and that the black community hates them when they have made no attempt to integrate themselves with the most oppressed of our community. From my experience, I can honestly say, that black people are generally open to accepting anyone who sympathetic to them – but if you bash your own race for being further away from the white standard than you are,  then you are not eligible for the role of the tragic mulatto. You weren’t tragically cast out of anywhere – you exiled yourself based on your own conviction of the fact that because you are physically closer to the white ideal that you are somehow superior.  

What makes a mixed-raced person beautiful is the wideness of their reach; their potential ability to understand a broader range of people and to be a part of, and connect with, different cultures. But simply being mixed, does not make you unique. You can’t complain that the black community is insisting that your only bi-racial when that’s the only title you cling to.

There are so many issues that come with being mixed: identity issues, body image problems, language barriers and confidence knocks. And a lot of them are imposed upon us by a history that our blood entitles us to but which we didn’t ask to be a part of. And judging a bi-racial person based on history, without knowing that person’s behaviours, values, asking them not to identify with their other half, and assuming that blackness is monolithic, is not fair.

But mixed people, you can’t be both black and superior to black people. You’re either with the whole community or your not. Your black half rightfully entitles you to be a part of the black community, so you need to accept that you’re on the same level as the entire black race, not only the few that you deem acceptable.  Do not complain that the black community has done you dirty if you have consciously lived on your light skin privilege, ignored the struggles of those who look like you or your family, and then call yourself black only because you want to be able to say the N-word in a song.

And please, please, please, if you really want to discuss the plight of the mixed person, don’t do it when BLM starts to gain traction or when other black people as a whole are facing oppression. The Tragic Mulatto was used to make fun of the fractured nature of the black community or give people a means of empathising with black people only through the lens of white sympathy- and that in itself is so wrong. As a mixed person, you embody a privilege, specifically designed, and in early cases specifically bred to, damage the race- so it’s up to you what you do with that privilege. And using it to make the world feel sorry for you and ignore other black voices is not the way to claim your affiliation with your black side.

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