Halle Berry and the Resurgence of the Tragic Mulatto
The furor caused by Berry’s assertion that her daughter is black reminds us how confused Americans remain about race.
Halle Berry’s recent comments in Ebony magazine have brought up the complex subject of racial identity, which still seems to confuse many Americans. Asked if her daughter, Nahla, is African American, the Oscar-winning actress answered, “I feel like she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory.”
Blogs raged, and suddenly everyone was an expert on dissecting the social construction of race. Even many black websites roared that Nahla wasn’t black. It was as if a chapter from an Alex Haley book had come to life on the Web.
Berry has never used the words “mixed” or “biracial” to describe her racial identity. She identifies as a black woman. Similarly, President Barack Obama, Faith Evans, Jasmine Guy and even the late, great Bob Marley all embraced having a white parent — but didn’t identify by degree of blackness. Apparently, they subscribe to the belief that either you are black — or you are not.
In 2011, black is no longer praised as beautiful; everyone wants to be “multi.” People proudly run through their race, ethnicity and nationality as if it’s a résumé. “Mixed,” “multiethnic,” even the deeply offensive word “mulatto,” are resurging as the hottest labels around. Here’s another new term I recently heard: “double-raced.”
The stretch to be “mixed” allows people to remove themselves from the discriminatory world of blackness. Think Tiger Woods. If he can identify as a “social construction combo” — well, then, no one should call him a nigger, but they have. No one should make jokes about him being lynched, but they have. Woods rejected being labeled the first black golfer to win the Masters and has actively divorced himself from the black community — even when he has benefited from being one of few blacks in golf.
Another example: the amazingly talented Mariah Carey, who, at the beginning of her career, ranted that she was mixed with a pinch of black. But when record sales spiraled downward and she began to lose her pop audience, Mimi found her blackness. Some reports claim that Carey’s ambiguous racial identity in her early career was at the insistence of her record label.
Today everyone wants to be a tragic mulatto, not knowing the history. The mulatto is a classic stereotype that first made an appearance in 19th-century American literature. Eventually this archetype became box office gold for films like 1934′s Imitation of Life and 1949′s Pinky.
Deeply troubled characters stumbled through life in a racially tortured turmoil. Were they black? Were they white? No one accepted them. They were eternal victims, all because Mommy and Daddy didn’t stick to their own kind. Although these characters lived tragic lives, at the same time they were praised as an “exotic” mix and somehow revered as being better than plain ole black.
Most important, “mulatto” is a slave word, the result of the mating of a donkey and a horse, which creates a mule — and mules are sterile. Race psychology, which was developed by pseudoscientists to perpetuate intra-racial divisions within the black community, still functions today. “Mixed” and “biracial” are simply remixed versions of terms like “mulatto,” “quadroon” and “octoroon.”
In America, your experience as male, female, black, white, gay, poor, middle class, Muslim and so on shapes who you are. Take me, for example: My father is black American and my mother is white. I have never identified as biracial, which is a term that didn’t exist when I was born in the late ’70s. Even today, “biracial” is not a legal racial identity; it’s a pop-culture identity.
The concept of the biracial identity popped up in the mainstream sometime in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In many ways, being “biracial” is viewed as a step up from blackness. As actress Paula Patton, the daughter of an interracial union, has said, “I find [the term] biracial offensive. It’s a way for people to separate themselves from African Americans, a way of saying, ‘I’m better than that.’ “
My experience is being black in America, as someone who has endured incalculable amounts of racism. I was never looked at as a half-and-half slash. Moreover, once I understood race, I was never “confused” or had racial-identity issues. I knew I was black, and so did my family.
The rant that Nahla is not “full black” shows how behind we are in understanding race. No black Americans are full black. (No white Americans are “full white,” for that matter.) There’s no such thing as any of us being “full” any race. Lesson number one in black studies: Being “mixed” is consistent with the black experience.
Many people want to turn me and others of my background into the classic tragic mulatto. I’m not tragic with my racial identity. This isn’t a scene from Imitation of Life. My theme song isn’t Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World,” with me running to a casket screaming, “Momma!” This isn’t an excerpt from Queen, and I will not be hollering, “I’se nig’ra! I’se nig’ra!”
Race is not an individual choice; it’s a social choice. The key question is, “Do you or do you not have white privilege?” If you don’t, then you are a black person in America. If Nahla Ariela Aubry were white or could truly exist in this country under the imaginary label of “biracial,” then this volatile discussion about her color wouldn’t have started. As Halle told Ebony, “I had to decide for myself, and that’s what she’s going to have to decide — how she identifies herself in the world. And I think, largely, that will be based on how the world identifies her. That’s how I identified myself.”
I do understand the need for people who have different-race parents to live under racial duality; in many ways we all do. Again, no one is pure black or white, but terms like “mulatto,” “quadroon” and “octoroon” failed for a reason. America does not need another divisive racial category, like “biracial,” for people to push themselves into. When separate labels and regurgitated identities are cherry-picked, they only pacify, misinform and silence.