I was thinking how old-fashioned the word mulatto seemed. According to Phil Herbst's The Color of Words: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (the book that got me started on this blog; see early entries if you're interested in the origins), the word comes from the Latin mulus, a "mule" or hybrid. "In early ethnic discourse," he says, "the term loosely meant a person of mixed descent, especially someone half African, or someone half Native American and half black, but typically now and almost always white and black." As with many of the entries in Phil's book, the discussion is extended, and extremely thoughtful (honestly, it's an amazing resource), but I will not present the whole thing here.
The reason I was thinking about this at all was a recent article in the New York Times about young people who identify as mixed race, noting that the percentage has gone up. As the article notes,
Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”This seems to me to be a good thing. Anytime I have an opportunity to resist or overcome or see beyond categories that have been externally invented, I feel that I grow as a human being. I actually do feel my mind expanding. So, one young woman describes herself as Japanese and Irish. A young man, as African-American-Portuguese-Haitian. Another as Ghanaian/Scottish-Norwegian. One as Japanese/Spanish. One as Black/German. You get the picture. These are complex human combinations that I for one might not have ever before imagined. Because of the human genome project and the ability to identify genetic ancestry, we now know (or can know) far more about our hybrid ancestries. Which brings me back to where I began
“Are you mulatto?” asked Paul Skym, another student [mentioned in the Times article], using a word once tinged with shame that is enjoying a comeback in some young circles.