‘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

  • Sheryl Ada

    Hmmmmmm, it has always been a word I knew as simply describing ethnicity…no different from Hispanic, black, white, Native American, etc. Now however after reading this I feel incredibly awkward for having used the word at all. Intent means a lot in language to me more so even than the words said. No ill intention or awareness in the past. That said, I will prob never say it again. If it has a potentially hurtful background…it shouldnt be used.

  • John Rigas

    I grew up in montreal half the time and the other half in the bronx and NEVER did any mulatto friend ever complain or say its the same as the n word i dont know where u grew up but in the bronx or in montreal canada we describe people who are of mixed between black and white ,I imagine u probably were born in the 80s or later cus only people born in the 80s or later have this politicaly correct shit .GIVE IT A BREAK U LIBETURD

  • Club Sessions

    I think the word has a duel purpose because it was brought into Spanish diction on one hand to be used as an adjective to describe mixed race and on the other hand to to put down a group of people in the social class status. Therefore I believe you must distinguish whether or not it is a racist term based on who is using it and the manner in which they use it.

  • Liz Sorochan

    How should I refer to someone who is half Caucasian and half African then?

  • Marina Rios

    Ask Spanish mixed race people what they think about it and go with that, since they’re the ones who have to live with it.

  • Nina

    “ignorate”?

  • attomul

    As a man of black and white parents, amongst other contradictions, it’s my inspiration and I feel responsibility to detach from the historical positives, negatives and atrocities of either ‘side’. All words and names of course have their origin but when WE attach their history to the current use and let that preside over the intent with which they are voiced then I believe we perpetuate those associations to our ‘halves’ which as ‘whole’ individuals and bridges between divide I hope wish to end.

  • Kathia Tessier

    I’m French from Canada and it was perfectly fine 20 years ago to say my teacher was “mulatre”. Is it something that has changed over time? How else would you describe someone of obvious mixed parentage without sounding like a lexicon?

  • Elyn

    In my country it is considered an official term for mixed blackXwhite people. We even studied as such in school, along with shit ton of others for all the mixed people.
    What word do you use, if this one is racist?

  • Blinky

    Of course you give the word its power by hating it. Words are only offensive because the person being offended “agrees” that it’s offensive. This applies to every derogatory word out there. They’re not a big deal until someone is directly trying to offend you, which is a gesture that doesn’t need a specific word because it’s just the gesture that counts.

  • Blinky

    I’m almost completely sure that every word we use was derived from another word that could be somehow described as negative. Also, there could be a different explanation for the whole “Mule and horse” thing. How about the fact that mules and horses are like the only 2 species that successfully procreate together?! Because of this fact, they’re probably the *only* comparison one can make between a bi-racial couple and ANY-thing else in this world. We humans have always liked making words based on comparisons between other words, I don’t think it’s meant to be derogatory. Also, I think I meant to address this to the person above you. Anyway, I could be wrong, but even if the word is derogatory I think the person above me makes very good points.

  • Lorraine MacGowan

    In my opinion, for what that’s worth, these types of terms while not initially thought of as a derogatory per sae, do separate us in ways that generally lead to discriminatory attitudes.
    Truth be told I believe the ratio of any person of 100% single race would be extremely low if put to the test. We are all members of the human race. We are and should strive to be human kind.
    FYI There are several species that blend and produce young. Coyote, dogs and wolves come to mind.

  • Benjamin Peterson

    This is literally the funniest thing that I have ever read. Round one goes to Charlene!

  • Kate Ryan

    I live in Portugal and see so many mixed races, usually African or Brazilian mixed with European….they are so beautiful”! But how can I refer to them in English? I find half cast horrible. Of mixed race? I’d love to find a clear translation. My husband is known as moreno….such a beautiful word.

  • Kate Ryan

    Agree 100 per cent. Until tonight I never knew the meaning of mulatto..I think it’s a horrible expression. People just ARE. P.S. I respect mules.

  • Kate Ryan

    I forgot to add that my son is English-Italian…yet there is no word to express what he is except for the one I said. I’ve always loved the mixing of cultures.

  • Esme S

    Your explanation as to the origin of the word FUCK is an urban legend (but rather clever, heh heh).

  • Git_Yor_Gunz

    I understood that the term ‘mulatto’ is a derivation of the Arabic ‘muwallad’ used to describe a person of mixed ancestry (usually a combination of Arab and non-Arab). Given that Granada and the Iberian Peninsula (which, at that time, included most of modern-day Spain and Portugal) was under the rule of Muslim Moorish kings for three centuries, it stands to reason this derivation is most likely accurate. Arabic language was influential amongst the Christian and Muslim Spanish elite, and the prevalence of Mozarabic (Arabic-influenced Romance dialects) was found in surrounding areas.

    Muladí (Spanish), muladi (Portuguese), and muladita (Catalan) are terms derived from muwallad to describe locals of mixed Arab, Berber, and Iberian descent. Given the historical influence of Arabic on the Spanish-Portuguese languages, and the fact that each term signifies mixed descent, I’m more inclined to think that the present-day term, mulatto, simply means mixed descent and not mule.

    There are an abundance of reasons to continue world-wide battle to end disparity and it’s ugly consequences. Let us not waste time and effort tilting at windmills.

  • Mike

    Well technically every race and nationality has been enslaved before; so therefore we’ve all been slaves. That is, if you wanna play it like that. Your ancestors or even great great grandparent being slaves doesn’t make you a slave, it doesn’t make you a victim. It’s like a rape victim’s grandbaby saying it was raped by the same person because their grandparent was.

    I dunno, maybe I’m ignorant. Also, I know many bi-racial people (I myself am white) an aren’t offended by the term ‘mulatto’ and use it themselves.

    Whatever, words can’t hurt you in my opinion.

  • Mike

    I meant who, not an. My fucking keyboard is on crack

  • rh

    I think it’s important to stress that many “agree” upon the possibility of the origin. The Possibility. The etymology of the word is widely disagreed upon, with a lot of fingers pointed towards Arabic origins- many don’t know.
    With this mind, if the word is simply a finer form of nomenclature to signify “mixed”, I see nothing wrong with this. You can’t persecute someone for using a word whose history is hotly disputed and widely unknown.
    The shortening of the word hemophilia, for instance, actually implies the Opposite of the condition, and the words feisty and pumpernickel are actually rooted in reference to flatulence. Not every word is bound in virtue and meaning to it’s Inspiring history- not defining history.

  • Eric

    The true problem is that we look on the outside of all people. We should immediately look into people and to see their hearts. We all bleed red. We all cry the same color and our actions speak volumes of who we are. Concentrate on who we are, not what we are. The Federal govt has to get rid the question what color we are. It’s racist for all people. The press is terrible at this and fans the flames on this fire. Be objective and look at the context of any person’s situation. God created all of us. Therefore, we get our image and color from Him

  • Jill McCoy

    Wow, thanks for that info B.E.I.G.E.!
    Seriously.
    I always hear that I’m racist because I’m white. And I’m female. I am often naive even though I work hard not be! But I’m really not racist. I approve of class, disapprove of classlessness… I’m not as uptight as some, but I definitely have standards.
    Everything you said made so much sense to me, and even made some sense out of my own personal knowledge, limited as it may be, regarding black and white culture in America. Because I don’t ever want to offend ANY person, race, culture… I’m white, so I’ve accepted being told that I have had all the privilege I will every need and more than “you” for sure…
    Not all whites do that.
    I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older and grown up… in my adulthood (because, let’s face it, when we’re teenagers we are still just a shadow of whatever it isn’t are and we may or may not understand what that is… Yet.)
    My first boyfriend was the forbidden fruit. Only I was that naive, I didn’t get that I was his forbidden fruit: I was a prize, a trophy. He broke my heart, as I learned later could’ve and would’ve probably been any guy that was my first. He cheated on me! Lol *eyeroll* classic boys! Notice: I still don’t think it had anything to do with race. He was funny and fun and I fell in love by working with him every day. Friends of HIS warned me that he was a player, but as I said, I’m naive. I never listened. I learned the hard way.
    Around the same time, I became really good friends with a very outcast girl… Everyone made fun of her and called her some terrible things. She was a couple years older than me, recently married, and pregnant. She was white, her husband was black.
    She was dear to my heart. She helped me thru my first “break up”. She called her baby a beautiful Milato boy. And he was! I was in love again: with that baby! And even daydreamed of my own had my one true love (at the time, lol) been true to me… My point is, 20 plus years later if that’s first time I’ve ever heard of “mulatto” being like the N word… Because I would never!
    I didn’t Mary or have children with a black man. But I have dated probably every ethnicity and been friends with as many if someone is taking note, because to this day I am still what my parents called naive back then: meaning I see people. And when any race thinks that I’ve offended them, I’m shocked and appalled… But this word is an example of what races and their culture need to accept: one person’s works may never cross yours… How would I know? How would you? Assume the best in people… PEOPLE! OTHER HUMAN BEINGS.
    I don’t think it’s my place to use the word mulatto anymore, but it’s okay if my friend does. But I wouldn’t get angry at someone for using a word unless they were using it in hate. And that common sense should be the common ground. Love vs. Hate. I can’t pretend to unite all that might offend you culture whatever it might be… But as every person of a different color and culture I’ve ever met and befriended has proved: it’s really not about our differences. It’s about the common ground we find, however small.
    I’m a boring old mom now, and explaining any of the “race wars” in America to my kids is so not great! But I figure they don’t need verbal explanations… They will be fine and find like minded PEOPLE just like I did… By being themselves… With class, kindness and compassion.

    Anyways, hope that makes sense to someone and thanks for your post -4 years ago! Lol – it was eye opening. ✌️

  • Sharon

    This is a lot of fuss about nothing. The origin of the word mulatto is NOT from the word mule. I’ve investigated this word deeply and discovered that it actually comes from a very old Arabic form that means a person who is a half breed. In Spanish it’s called mestizos and is in common usage. It is not derogatory; it is exactly what it says — generally it means someone who is half white and half black, although it is often applied to people who are half Indian and half black. They are classified as black because they are not white, so the one-drop categorizing is still alive and well. Someone who is a quarter black and three quarters white is termed a quadroon (quad meaning 1/4), and someone who is 1/8 black is termed an octoroon (octo meaning 1/8). There is, by the way, a very famous play by Dion Boucicault entitled The Octoroon. When I was a child, black people of all mixes were called colored people, darkies, or negros (which simply means black); then they expressed their desire to be called black, so the white community followed that line, then they decided they wanted to be called African American (God knows how that could be applied to a black person in any country other than the U.S., but the white community acquiesced again. I’ve agreed to use it ONLY if they refer to me as European American. Now it has changed again and they want to be called people of color. How is that different from colored people? It seems to me that they want two conflicting things: they want history to be erased as if it never existed, all language that denotes racial indicators abolished, and, at the same time they want the current generation of white people to be punished for what black people consider social injustices of 150 years past. I’m tired of jumping through hoops. I’ve never owned slaves, and I didn’t invent segregation. My ancestors never owned slaves; they were citrus farmers who worked the groves as a family with no help. So why don’t we just live together without rancor?

  • Shaun

    Good for you! That is a very intelligent and logical opinion. The word is not derogatory; it simply means half white and half black. You’re a very wise young man.

  • Adela

    Mulatto is NOT derived from mule. Do your homework before you make silly statements like this.

  • elliott

    OMG, these are just words. Most young people have know idea what the word means, until you of course bring it to their attention as being offensive. Why am I not offended by the word “Master?” well because no one has made a big deal out of how oppressive and cruel these slave owners were. Its jus how our language evolves. Let it be. Focus your attention on something more important.

  • jules

    Very well said

  • Stanley W. Carter

    My wife’s heritage is Spanish, African American, Irish and American Indian ; I just think she is beautiful!!

  • Jeanne

    I always called him Mulatto. I never understood why they said he was the first black president when he was Mulatto.

  • Xavier Negron

    the word is in fact offensive it even appears in uncle toms cabin a mid 1800’s book about a slave

  • Thanks

    LMFAO so ignorant…. The word mulatto comes from the Latin word “Mula” which is the term for a donkey and horse mixed offspring. The term was used even in Rome to describe offspring that are infertile. For those in the American Colonies that were still educated in Latin, the term came into use for the sterile offspring of mixing different species of man. The term mulatto was then brought into common use among less educated people which obviously still have no clue about the origin or meaning. For anyone truly interested, I strongly suggest you do proper research on the poor health statistics, grossly high infertility rates, and stillbirth rates as a result of mixing different species of mankind.

  • Brie Danielle

    I’ve always thought it was a beautiful sounding word, and never understood why it was considered offensive. I had no idea that it may or may not have been derived from “mule.” That said, as a wordsmith, it rubs against my grain to say “mixed race” when there is a perfectly good word with that meaning one could use.

    It seems people go out of their way to look for things to be offended about. Especially in this day and age, people are far too sensitive. It must be exhausting.

  • Karl Rudder

    The only “race” is the Human Race! I was taught to not be sensitive to the stupid, racist inquiries of, “Which one of your parents is Black and which one is White?” by letting the person know that in my family I always referred to my father as Dad and to my mother as Mom. I always quickly returned the question by asking,”How do you address your parents?” if not asking if they had been allowed to be aware of Dr. Martin Luther King being very noble in expressing one of his Dreams to be, “One day having my children judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin!” Racism will continue to be expressed in these “United States” as long as applications for a job or even medical assistance finds it necessary to ask American citizens to identify themselves in a racist category! To end racism I will quote Malcolm X when he openly asked, “Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?”

  • Romy

    Oh. Wow. This is the first I’ve heard that it’s a slur, I thought it was just… the technical term for a mix of european and african heritage. I’ve been using that for ages. Yikes. *strikes it from mental list of acceptable words*