‘Mulatto’: Racial Slur or Socially Acceptable?

I was perusing the want-ads section for freelance projects when I stumbled upon an add calling for ”mulattas” to model in a local hair show. The title ”Azafatas Multatas para eventos 16, 17, 18 de Septiembre” caught my attention immediately and I clicked on the posting curious to know who was behind the advertisement. From what I could tell it was an afro-latino hair show calling for Cubanas, Columbianas and… mulattas.

Ouch!

There is that word again. I was taught that it was a “derogatory term that came into use during slavery when referring to the bi-racial offspring of African slaves and most often, their white European slave masters.” I was raised believing that mulatto was just as bad as the n word and to see it boldly written in a title for an ad was jarring, to say the least.

Anyone using that term in America would be liable to get smacked upside the head or at least a good tongue lashing, however here in Spain, and Latin America at large, mulatto is a socially acceptable term. I have had the word tossed at me a few times when discussing the possibility of future offspring with my Spanish novio. Conversations that went from cute and cuddly to terse when someone said mulatto babies.

‘What? Excuse me? Did you say, mulatto?‘ I said in my best educate them because they’re ignorate voice.

I explained that where I come from it’s not ok to use mulatto because of its historical usage in slavery times. I always received in return a fast rebuttal of ‘So sorry,  I had no idea but the term isn’t racist and in fact, it just refers to mixed-race people.’ Then, thats when I have to go even further and explain that most linguists or lexographers agree that the word “mulatto” comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word for mule, which is written the same way but pronounced moolay. Now knowing what a mule is, a cross between and horse and a donkey, the comparison is quite ugly. Most academics that have studied the origin of the word are quite certain that word has its roots in Spain’s  prominent role in the slave trade and their need to brand people based on the amount of white European blood running through their veins. These are same people that began the custom of patting the tightly curled afros of black children because it supposedly brought good luck.

So, what to do? Do I just let the word slide and get used to people using it in their lexicon. It was in job positing, for goodness sakes! Should I just grin and bear it when someone brings it up in context of my future kids? I can only imagine an extended in-law from my Spanish novio’s side of the family making some wise-crack about the cute little brown mulattos. Am I giving the word more power by hating it?

What do you think? Tell us your opinion on the use of “mulatto” in a comment below.

Last 5 posts by Espana Fly

  • Creole Kid

    They should be called creole, because that’s what they are. Creole Defined: is a mixed race person of either, European, African, Spainsh, Indian of French ancestery. Any mix of these races. In earlier years Blacks where called “N” words we now know that is wrong. Same goes to Mulatto’s. If you can’t call me white or black then call me Creole. Because my mom or my dad is neither horse or donkey nor do they look like one.

  • Tmoe

    Should have know it only came up, because he didn’t have a sister. Mulatto, mulatto, mulatto, ugh!

  • Roy Applewhite

    This word doesn’t sound “bad” like the “n” word. I am a Black American and it upsets me when other ethnicities use the “n” word around me as though I’m suppose to be accepting of this and it’s usually the younger generation using the “n” word so loosely in public. What aren’t we teaching the younger generation?? Their not being taught history at least “African American” history and RESPECTING others across the board. How did it get this bad?? Why aren’t parents being held accountable for their out of control and disrespectful children?? Americans we need to fix this. I’m done!!

  • AG

    I came here looking for verification. I recently got upset due to someone referring to me as a mulatto. This wasn’t the first time though. Just the most recent,lol. I have always hated that word. Placed it right up there with mixed/half breed and the “N” word. Yet, I will say…this article and the comments posted below has got me thinking. It said the word was derived from the Spanish for mule. I always said, “I’m not a mule!” Just like I’m not a BREED. I think I hate that one the most. Then reading that a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey. That saying whites are the horses and blacks are the donkeys. WOW! So I probably became a little more perturbed by that word after reading that. Then I scroll on down to the comments. I always love to read the comments to any article/conversation. I agree that by having to select one or the other, we have not been accounted for. It’s like we don’t even exist. Smh. Sure, they have it today where you can select EVERY race you are but it’s still not the same…kind of. I agree we are our own people and we shouldn’t have to pick one or the other. A lot of people overseas are ok with it. It’s not a racist term to them. I wonder…is the history of their country/Island similar? Or is it just strictly meaning “of mixed race”? It just makes you think. It’s always good to learn about other cultures and in our case, other nationalities around the world and how they view mixed race people. Ya’ll have opened my eyes a little.

  • ZSAZSAKNOWSBEST

    Projecting. YOU are projecting your own dislike of the fact that you are a combination of two different races, and somehow interpret that as being lesser.
    The term may be antiquated (the majority of words are), but it’s not racist in most of the world. USA being one of the racist countries in the world may have skewed it’s meaning by folk lore of some kind for the word to become racist in America…but, although it relates to race, it is NOT racist. It can only be accused of being descriptive. It’s not ‘gutteral’ (guttural), only in America is it ‘insensitive’, not ‘disgusting’ and cannot be equated with being called a ‘Mutt’ or a ‘Half-breed’. You are not telling the truth when you say “especially in Canada or the states, you ARE going to offend a mixed race person.” I was born in Canada, live in Canada, have lived in Canada all of my life, used the term ‘mulatto’ all of my life to describe a descendant of one black parent, and one white parent (a term I was taught by my parents in childhood), and not once have I even solicited a raised eyebrow. I think those offended by the word are younger and have been brainwashed into thinking that the term is derogatory (that there is something WRONG, DIRTY, or CONSPIRATORIAL) about the word, when in reality it is the only word I know to accurately describe the offspring of a black parent and a white parent. Some things in life are just as simple as that.

  • superman999

    Your language is atrocious and you shoul wash your mouth out with soap, especially using the lord’s name as you did. You lost any credibility you could have had, when you speak like that. It’s far more offensive than the n-word!!!

  • pugwis

    PC again. Mulatto describes someone with white and black parents. Now what are the PCs going to do? Call them something else that means exactly the same? We went from nygger, to nygroe, to colored, to people of color, to black, and they all mean exactly the same! Now we are looking at changing “mulatto” to . . . what? Mixed? Bi-racial? Blite? Why is one word less acceptable than another with EXACTLY the same definition? I’m caucasion. I’ve been called offal, pinky, white boy, and on and on. So what? That’s what I am. Jeez. Grow up.

  • pugwis

    Wrong. That is the ONLY way I’ve ever heard black/white called in California, Oregon, and Washington. I don’t know about other places except for Louisiana; they call them mulattos as well.

  • Marv Sannes

    Sounds to me like you’re looking for a pissing match over – not sure what – bad words? I had this discussion with a friend who’s white and has 3 kids with a black – the kids are strikingly beautiful. She said “mixed-race” is proper. However, race is a myth and we’ve known since the gnome map 15 yrs. ago – we are all, not only brother and sister, twins. No genetic variation – skin color no more significant that hair or eye color or body type. But, we cling to “race” – why? Why cling to words? Same thing.

  • Crystal

    I appreciated reading this article and the conversations in the comments. I am white and first heard the term “mulatto” from my dad when I told him that I was going to marry my (black) boyfriend. The way he used the word held so much disgust, so it has always held a negative connotation to me. I’ve actually never heard it again in my life, in any context. I have many close friends and family of different races, including mixed races, and the term has never come up. I’ve lived in Georgia and Maryland, and it never came up anywhere. I grew up and currently live in California and have two children with my now-husband of 10 years. We call them black and white, mixed, or biracial, but never use the term mulatto. I just came across the terms quadroon and octoroon, which are categorized in the same group as mulatto, and all were associated with slavery. In my experience, I haven’t come across anything positive about the word…until I read the comments in this article. I am still not comfortable with using the word for my children – I felt it was their first exposure to racism, and they weren’t even born/conceived yet!! I really think its appropriateness is determined by the context in which it is used. In my experience, my father used it as a derogatory term. That moment still haunts me to this day. But if others use it as genuinely descriptive and an embracing of their identify, more power to them. If my kids decided they wanted to embrace the term (after being informed about its history and the varying definitions), then I would be fine with that. (I couldn’t say that before reading these comments) It is their identity, and I will do whatever I can to help them feel whole, beautiful, accepted, special, and perfect as they are.

  • buckeyemom

    it is derogatory (i am a biracial black woman), and you really need an editor.

  • JDAarnold

    I find calling Mr. Obama “Black’ to be HIGHLY racist, as his mother was White. And by the way, MANY linguists say the origin of Mulatto is from Arabic “muwallad”—a person of mixed race.

  • “MaxxFordham”

    How do you figure? You’re not a mind reader.

  • “MaxxFordham”

    Hehe, good point, huh? Thanks for standing up against that as well.

  • “MaxxFordham”

    Yeah, beause any mortal person who says “no one thinks…” or “nobody likes…” or “no one cares…,” without ASKING all 7 billion of us, is an idiot who thinks he or she is a mind reader even though we know they’re not one.

  • “MaxxFordham”

    You don’t know that nobody has. You’re not able to observe all 7 billion of us.

  • “MaxxFordham”

    That’s one of many versions of biraciality (not capitalized, by the way), but it’s not the one that describes B/W people specifically.
    Heh, speaking of “B/W,” for people who don’t like the term “mulatto,” why not just say “black and white,” the same as old non-color TVs and copy machines?

  • “MaxxFordham”

    For people who don’t like the term “mulatto,” why not just say “black and white,” the same as old non-color TVs and copy machines, etc.?

  • vanda hembree

    My children do have the freedom to choose for themselves, but it’s also my responsibility to help them navigate the current disparate power structure in a post-colonial world . Knowledge (and words) are powerful. My oldest identifies as “black” and “African American” while my youngest is a self-proclaimed “girl-boy” (race doesn’t enter into the equation for my youngest). Both girls are supported in their identities and they are free to explore more as they grow older. If ether one woke up tomorrow and said she wanted to be identified as “white” or “negro,” we would discuss the implications and potential challenges and then we would find ways to support their voices. V

  • TMack

    I am still researching this, but the etymology That traces mulatto back to the Arabic “muwallad” makes more sense to me.
    Either way, I like to use the word mulatto because it gives people like me (black/white) an identity. I especially like that it was widely used during slavery because it dates us all the way back to then in this country. We’ve been around for centuries. We have a place in the history of this country. It gives me a sense of belonging and identity that I didn’t always get when I looked around at the people around me.

  • jeffreyhughesnc

    I’m a white English/French speaker so I can’t say with any authority but “mula” is the Spanish word for mule and not “mulatto”. Weather adding tto to the word is a typical Spanish way of dressing a word, I don’t know but I’ve heard that linguists are not 100% sure if the intent was to be derogatory. That said, I find the word to be beautiful and pardon the pun – colorful. Mixed-race sounds too clinical and does not fit such beautiful people. Mulatto rolls out of the mouth in a nice gentle wave.