Tragic Mulatto/Mulatta

From Wikipedia: The Tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries. The “tragic mulatto” is an archetypical mixed race person (a “mulatto”), who is assumed to be sad or even suicidal because he/she fails to completely fit in the “white world” or the “black world”. As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society he/she lives in, a society divided by race. Because of society’s reluctance to acknowledge ambiguity in racial classifications, this character is particularly vulnerable…

Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories:

  • A woman who can “pass” for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a bi-racial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy.
  • A woman appears to be white. It is believed that she is of Greek or Spanish descent. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, she loses her social standing.
  • A woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.

A common objection to this character is that she allows readers to pity the plight of oppressed or enslaved races, but only through a veil of whiteness — that is, instead of sympathizing with a true racial “other,” one is sympathizing with a character who is made as much like one’s own race as possible. The “tragic mulatta” often appeared in novels intended for women, also, and some of the character’s appeal lay in the lurid fantasy of a person just like them suddenly cast into a lower social class after the discovery of a small amount of “black blood” that renders her unfit for proper marriage…


Please visit the Tragic Mulatto Myth site at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University.

Comentary by Steven F. Riley

The social stigma of ‘race mixing’ and the social upheaval which it was believed to have caused, was firmly imprinted into the American mindset with the publication of the 1842 anti-slavery short story, The Quadroons by Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880).  Child, a Unitarian abolitionist and women’s rights activist, introduced the world to the archetype that would be known as the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ that would last well into the middle of the 20th century.  There are various trajectories for the ‘Tragic Mulatto’, but generally he (or usually she) is a person of mixed race, who passes for white and in doing so, becomes extremely successful in some endeavor (usually love).  Inevitably, the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ is exposed and rejected by both racial groups, and the story ends — as one might guess — tragically.  Though it was not Child’s intent, the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ archetype was yet another tool (this time literary) used to preserve white hegemony.  It did this by: Firstly reinforcing the notion of  “white purity” that anyone not 100% ‘white’ was not white at all; secondly, further denigrating non-whites by implying that they all somehow secretly wished to be white and escape their lot in life; thirdly, effectively isolating mixed race individuals from both the whites they allegedly “wished to be” and the non-whites they wish to allegedly “wish to flee”; and fourthly, It leveled scorn upon those interracial unions that would bring such “hybrids” into the world.

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