‘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.