Mulatto millennium

Since when did being the daughter of a WASP and a black-Mexican become cool?

Published July 24, 1998 6:33PM (EDT)

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 up to find that mulattos had taken over. Playing golf, running the airwaves, opening their own 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. According to the racial zodiac, 2000 is the official Year of the Mulatto. Pure breeds (at least the black ones) are out and hybridity is in. America loves us in all of our half-caste glory. The president announced on Friday that beige is to be the official color of the millennium. Major news magazines announce our arrival as if we were proof of extraterrestrial life. They claim we're going to bring about the end of race as we know it.

It has been building for a while, this mulatto fever. But it was this morning that it really reached its peak. I awoke early to a loud ruckus outside -- horns and drums and flutes playing "Kum ba Yah" outside my window. I went to the porch to witness a mass of bedraggled activists making their way down Main Street. They were chanting, not quite in unison, "Mulattos Unite, Take Back the White!" I had a hard time making out the placards through the tangle of dreadlocks and loose Afros. At the front of the crowd, two brown-skinned women in Birkenstocks carried a banner that read FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED JEW BOYS WHEN THE NEGROS AIN'T ENOUGH. A lean yellow girl with her hair in messy Afro-puffs wore a T-shirt with the words JUST HUMAN across the front. What appeared to be a Hasidic Jew walked hand in hand with his girlfriend, a Japanese woman in traditional attire, the two of them wearing huge yellow buttons on their lapels that read MAKE MULATTOS, NOT WAR. I trailed behind the parade for some miles, not quite sure I wanted to join or stay at the heels of this group.

Mulattos may not be new. But the mulatto-pride folks are a new generation. They want their own special category or no categories at all. They're a full-fledged movement, complete with their own share of extremists. As I wandered at the edges of the march this morning, one woman gave me a flyer. It was a treatise on biracial superiority, which began, "Ever wonder why mutts are always smarter than full-breed dogs?" The rest of her treatise was dense and incomprehensible: something about the sun people and the ice people coming together to create the perfectly temperate being. Another man, a militant dressed like Huey P. Newton, came toward me waving a rifle in his hand. He told me that those who refuse to miscegenate should be shot. I steered clear of him, instead burying my head in a newspaper. I opened to the book review section, and at the top of the best-seller list were three memoirs: "Kimchee and Grits," by Kyong Washington, "Gefilte Fish and Ham Hocks," by Schlomo Jackson, and at the top of the list, and for the third week in a row, "Burritos and Borsht," by a cat named Julio Werner. That was it. In a fit of nausea, I took off running for home.

Before all of this radical ambiguity, I was a black girl. I fear even saying this. The political strong arm of the multiracial movement, affectionately known as the Mulatto Nation (just "M.N." for those in the know), decreed just yesterday that those who refuse to comply with orders to embrace their many heritages will be sent on the first plane to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where, the M.N.'s minister of defense said, "they might learn the true meaning of mestizo power."

But, with all due respect to the multiracial movement, I cannot tell a lie. I was a black girl. Not your ordinary black girl, if such a thing exists. But rather, a black girl with a Wasp mother and a black-Mexican father, and a face that harkens 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 (and here I go out on a limb), but I was an enemy of the people. The mulatto people, that is. I sneered at those byproducts of miscegenation who chose to identify as mixed, not black. I thought it wishy-washy, an act of flagrant assimilation, treason, passing even.

It was my parents who made me this way. In Boston circa 1975, mixed wasn't really an option. The words "A fight, a fight, a nigga and a white!" could be heard echoing from schoolyards during recess. You were either white or black. No checking "Other." No halvsies. No in-between. Black people, being the bottom of the social totem pole in Boston, 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 found myself. Sure, I received some 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. It was white folks who grew 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 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, my brother Mexican, and me Jewish. Instead, my parents' decision arose out of the rising black power movement, which made identifying as black not a pseudoscientific rule but a conscious choice. You told us all along that we had to call ourselves black because of this so-called one drop. Now that we don't have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege.

- - - - - - - - - -

My sister and I grew up with a disdain for those who identified as mulatto rather than black. Not all mulattos bothered me back then. It was a very particular breed that got under my skin: the kind who answered, meekly, "Everything," to that incessant question "What are you?" Populist author Jim Hightower wrote a book called

"There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos." That's what mulattos represented to me back then: yellow stripes and dead armadillos. Something to be avoided. I veered away from groups of them -- children, like myself, who had been born in interracial minglings after dark. Instead, I surrounded myself with bodies darker than myself, hoping the color might rub off on me.

I used to spy on white people, blend into their crowd, let them think I was one of them, and then listen as they talked in smug disdain about black folks. It wasn't something I had to search out. And most white people, I found, no matter how much they preach MLK's dream, are just as obsessed with color and difference as the rest of us. They just talk about it in more coded terms. Around white folks, I never had to bring up race. They brought it up for me, and I listened, my skin tingling slightly, my stomach twisting in anger, as they revealed their true feelings about colored folks. Then I would spring it on them, tell them who I really was, and watch, in a kind of pained glee, as their faces went from eggshell white, to rose pink, to hot mama crimson, to The Color Purple. Afterward, I would report back to headquarters, where my friends would laugh and holler about how I was an undercover Negro.

There had been moments in my life when I had not asserted my black identity. I hadn't "passed" in the traditional sense of the word, but in a more subtle way, by simply mumbling that I was mixed. Then the white people in my midst seemed to forget whom they were talking to, and countless times I was a silent witness to candid racism. When I would remind them that my father was black, they would laugh and say, "But you're different." That was somewhere I never wanted to return. There was danger in this muddy middle stance. A danger of disappearing. Of being swallowed whole by the great white whale. I had seen the arctic belly of the beast and didn't plan on returning.

I'm no longer a black girl. At least according to my new driver's license and birth certificate. The "black" has been smudged out and the word "quadroon" scribbled in. I told the woman at the DMV -- auburn cornrows, vaguely Asiatic features -- that I wasn't comfortable with that term "quadroon." I told her, as politely as I could, that it reminded me of slave days, when they used to separate the slaves by caste. She just laughed and told me to be happy I got "quadroon." "You don't know how lucky you are, babe," she said, puffing on a Marlboro and flipping through her latest issue of Vibe magazine. "They're being picky who they let use that term. Everybody's trying to claim something special in their background -- a Scottish grandfather, a Native American grandmother. But the M.N. is trying to keep it to first-generation mixtures, you know. Otherwise things would get far too confusing." Then she had me sign some form, which I barely read, still reeling from my night before the video monitor. It said something about allowing my image to be used to promote racial harmony. I left the DMV in a daze.

These days, there are M.N. folks in Congress and the White House. They've got their own category on the census. It says, "Multiracial." But even that is inadequate for the more extremist wing of the Mulatto Nation. They want to take it a step further. I guess they have a point. I mean, why lump us all together as multiracial? Eskimos, they say, have 40 different words for snow. In South Africa, during apartheid, they had 14 different types of coloreds. But we've decided on this one word, "multiracial," to describe, in effect, a whole nation of diverse people who have absolutely no relation, cultural or otherwise, to one another.

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 used to make me squirm before the millennium, 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.

By Danzy Senna

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