As a kid, I remember the subject of race coming up twice in our family. The first time was when my brother began checking out the white girls in his grade. The second was when I began checking boxes for race on college applications. “Black/African-American” was what my mother told me to choose and we didn’t discuss the reason even though we both knew that if I claimed my Blackness on the application I would get a better financial aid package. It’s still strange to think about that now.
It took me and my mother another thirteen years to begin talking about race. Growing up in an extremely white town in the very white state of Rhode Island in the quite white region of New England, the only social infrastructure for Black women and girls seemed to be assimilation. I came to know what it was like to be the token Black kid in the classroom and the gymnastics gym and at birthday parties. I came to know it well. By the time I reached high school, my whitewashing was so deeply programmed that I didn’t see the need for the Students of Color group meetings. I was still mentally caged by the “colorblind” culture of the 90s, an approach that reflected the racial dynamics at play in our home. I simply didn’t understand what it meant to be Black.
My father insisted my brother and I use the term “African-American” instead of “Black.” It didn’t matter to him that the word “Black” had been reclaimed during the Black Power Movement in the 70s and was an increasingly unifying identity in America. When he was a kid, he was chastised by his cousins, only a few shades lighter than he was. They would call him “blackie” and he internalized the colorism. I don’t blame him.
Once I left my sheltered bubble in that extremely white town in the very white state in the quite white region, I began to understand the struggles around the intersection of “Black” and “woman.” There were no Black women in my life with whom I could validate my experience. I realized that I was the only Black woman in my nuclear family, that I had drawn the short end of the privilege stick as far as race and gender were concerned. With this revelation came the onset of a racial melancholia I had no words for. It would take me years to even begin to understand it.
In the summer of 2016, I drove from the east coast to the west coast for a relationship that fell apart weeks after my arrival. When my ex ghosted me post-breakup, I was devastated. I rented a room that turned out to be a scam and then rented another room where I was terrorized by one of the roommates’ girlfriends because she thought I was sleeping with him. My next living situation was with a coworker who appeared to have her shit together and turned out to be an alcoholic and addict. I had medical bills piling up and by the summer of 2017, I was on my way back across the country, shedding tears through each state, to live with my parents in an extremely white town in the very white state of Massachusetts in the quite white region of New England.
I was completely pissed off. I made an appointment with a Black therapist before I even arrived on the east coast. It was bad enough that I was moving back in with my parents as a college-educated 29-year-old. Nevermind that I was surrounded by Trump supporters in retirement with boats, Teslas, and drinking problems. Coming of age among the Black, Mexican, and Korean neighborhoods of Los Angeles had helped me understand the power of my Blackness and Black womanhood and it made me sick that these newfound, beautiful, melanated parts of myself would be swallowed up by a rich white hole. It’s not that being around an ethnically diverse group of people solves racism, but to grow up with the absence of people of color disconnected me from so much of what was actually going on in the world. Why my father chose to spend his professional years teaching at private schools in New England surrounded by mostly white students, faculty, and administration I will save for another narrative essay.
My saving grace that year was The New York Times. My mother decided to treat herself with a subscription to the Sunday Times, providing us with a plethora of updates and reports from beyond the small town to consume from one Sunday to the next. I inundated myself with books and articles, essays and think pieces written entirely by women of color. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Dr. Jeffrianne Wilder’s Color Stories: Black Women and Colorism in the 21st Century, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. I was beginning to find answers despite being unable to form the questions. I was beginning to understand the context, the reasons for my racial confusion. I finally felt understood and if anyone challenged me, I could point to the text and let it speak for me. At a certain point, I felt empowered to share this literature and these thoughts with my mother. It was risky to go there with her because I was in a period of deep depression. If she even looked at me the wrong way after talking to her about race, regardless of her intention, I might shut all the way down and dig deeper into my solitude. However, I knew I could leverage her love for me to get her to understand more about intersectionality and systemic racism.
Then on February 10, 2018, one day before my father’s 62nd birthday, an opinion editorial written by Anna Holmes was printed on smooth grey paper and delivered to the doorstep. It was entitled, “Black With (Some) White Privilege” with a large pixelated photo of a young woman with similar hair and complexion to mine covering the entire top fold of the page. This was the first time in my nearly thirty years on this earth that I came across a piece of writing that addressed having one Black and one white parent. I was flabbergasted and then immediately astonished that this was so new to me. Even though it’s been 52 years since the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which overturned the law that made interracial marriages illegal, apparently that is not enough time for America to be ready to acknowledge the experience of mixed-race or biracial people. The article highlighted the Topic documentary called “Loving Generation,” a short docuseries interviewing about twenty different mulattos born from the mid-60s through the mid-80s comprising the first generation of “legal” mulattos. I was deeply moved to hear their stories and see my own racial identity reflected in this way.
A couple months later, I was reading Issa Rae’s book The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and she mentioned something about the “tragic mulatto” trope being outdated. Tragic mulatto?” Is that a thing? I wondered to myself, and lo and behold, it was. As a kid I had been called a mulatto and it didn’t feel good. “Mulatto” is like the N word’s less offensive cousin. As a young adult, I didn’t feel accurately represented by identifying as mixed-race or biracial because of the ambiguity of those terms. Just because we’re mixed, we’re all thrown in the same category instead of identifying our actual ethnicities and calling them by their names? “Mixed” seems to be spoken from a specific set of lips belonging to a colonialist mouthpiece. It seems to imply that I could have been white, but unfortunately my whiteness got mixed with something else and now I wear a scarlet “M” on my chest.
Reading this word “mulatto” as an adult got me thinking. Through a swift Wikipedia search, I learned that the term “tragic mulatto” refers to a person born to one Black and one white parent and who is perceived to be desolate because they will never completely fit into either the Black or white world. Learning about this idea changed the game for me. After years of distress, repression, depression, therapy, and pharmaceutical drugs, I finally came to realize my sadness is societal; it has a name and there is a reason for my immense feelings of loneliness. It was like experiencing a bodily pain for decades that no doctor could diagnose and then finally being offered a simple and sensical explanation for the ailment. My second thought was Issa Rae isn’t a mulatto so how would she know if the “tragic mulatto” trope was outdated?
I’ve got to thank Issa Rae one day for her misguided conclusion. Ever since the spring of 2018, I have been on a mission to reclaim and represent the identity of “mulatto.” At first, I was timid about it and had trouble even saying the word out loud. Then it felt weird to say in front of white people. Now I don’t care what anyone thinks. Don’t get it twisted, I proudly identify as a Black woman. However, I am aware that my lighter skin, Euro-centric features, and the way that I speak provide me with advantages that are not afforded to those with darker skin or less white-sounding names. I understand that if I lived during times of the enslavement of Black people, I would be working inside the house and not out in the field and it feels right for my racial identifier to reflect that.
I benefit from white privilege in nuanced ways and at the same time, I have a fully developed Black American consciousness. This is mulatto. To know that you are Black while acknowledging that you’re also white, despite the strict rules of the One Drop. I almost let this dichotomy drive me to insanity.
Now I’m starting to channel my anger and use my privilege. I’m learning how to take care of my needs and protect myself as a Black woman. I’m healing from whiteness, from my mental, spiritual, and emotional colonization and ignorance. I’m sharing my experiences instead of shamefully holding them in. It’s taken me a long time, but I am finally accepting myself as a tragic mulatto and all of the wisdom and understanding that comes along with it.
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