The Mulatto: an unspeakable concept

The Mulatto: an unspeakable concept

Working Papers on the Web
Department of English Studies at Sheffield Hallam University
Volume 5 (September 2003) (Racial Disciplines)
ISSN: 1478-3703

Julian Murphet, Senior Lecturer of English
The University of Sydney

The discourse of race has necessarily produced its own supplements; and there has been no more intriguing categorical supplement to racial discourse than that of the ‘mulatto’. In this essay, I explore some of the meanings of this supplement as it was produced, accepted, and then retracted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—first as a legalistic and sociological category, and second as an ideological signifier in the domain of fictional and autobiographical literary genres.

Shifting and stuttering between a ‘both/and’ and a ‘neither/nor’ binary logic of racial identification, the mulatto is a peculiarly homeless signifier that hesitates in the no-man’s-land between monolithic racial alternatives and casts an immanent doubt upon both their houses. As early as the 1910s, meditation on the mulatto would precipitate speculation that, far from being an isolated ‘problem’, the ‘man of mixed blood’ was the springboard of societal progress: ‘the advance of civilization is dependent upon this process of racial intermixture’, which could be spotted everywhere across Europe and the rest of the world. As racial discourse has evolved in a myriad of directions and forms according to the structures of the political and sexual economies in which it operates, this supplement has of course known various, often incompatible applications. Nowhere, perhaps, has the supplement been as ‘dangerous’ as in the USA, for reasons, and with results, which will be discussed in this essay. Nevertheless, if there is a consensus of opinion about this supplement today, it would seem to be that it is unspeakable. The ‘strategic essentialisms’ employed by the various Black peoples since the 1960s in the name of civil and human rights have finally settled all doubts in favour of a performative ‘one drop of blood’ rule whose essentialist origins are, precisely, those of the ultra-racist American South. As a recent article on the subject in Australia has put it, ‘When “self-identification” was introduced in the early 1970s as the means by which Aboriginality would be determined, it was a repudiation of all those racist notions of half-caste, quarter-caste, and “quadroon” which had been used to deny indigenous people their culture, their land and their children … [P]eople could claim Aboriginality if they fitted three criteria: indigenous ancestry, self-identification and community acceptance.’  The presumptions here are as perplexing as they are inescapable: the notion of the ‘mulatto’ or ‘half-caste’ is a racist one, that has been superseded by a new performative identity which nonetheless contains an appeal to a dualistically conceived ancestry. There are Aborigines and there are white people, and this is notracist. Only the supplement is.

The unspeakableness of ‘mulatto’ today is, of course, an index of its historicity—our retrospective distaste for it springing from its contamination by an essentialist doctrine of races, from which we have emerged into the broad light of ‘culturalist’ day. Any such transcendence of nineteenth century racialism, which invariably decodes for us as racism, is surely a boon of the great modern revolutions in ethnography, biology and social science. What is less clear, however, is how, in the context of a specifically American state-racism, this concept in particular once helped to open a loophole in the dominant ideologies of racial identity, and uniquely contributed to the development of our very ‘culturalist’ paradigm of race; and how, in that same context, the mulatto has always been unspeakable anyway: a dirty secret or scandalous aporia to be resolved back into the imperturbable binarism of black and white (which is rather a different binary from that of Negro and Caucasian)…

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