The Untragic Mulatto

I remember, vividly, on a certain Martin Luther King Jr Day during my childhood—back before schools regularly observed the federal holiday—when my kindergarten teacher passed out coloring pages of Dr. King’s portrait which the class was to fill in. Not a minute after I began coloring brother Martin’s face the same color as my Afro-Filipino father—brown—I noticed all but two or three of my white classmates were coloring the page with black crayons.

When I asked my friend why he was using that particular shade of crayola, he replied with an undisturbed confidence in what he felt was obvious.

“Because: he’s black.”

BLACK—the same color as non-galvanized steel—was and still is perceived by many people in America as one end of the spectrum of human diversity.

My world shifted at that very moment. I was just a child; I wasn’t old enough to understand the vexed, traumatizing complexities of the American Identity and had yet to live through anger and frustration while developing “Racial Impostor Syndrome.” And yet, I remember feeling a very distinct tug behind my sternum. A line was drawn that day between me and the rest of world with a black crayon.

Identity is a heavy word. Not because of the weight of information it presents about any given individual, but because of the magnitude of the exformation shed via the process of understanding oneself. As a child, the lines of separation between you and all the bits of the world do not exist. A child interacts and reacts almost instantaneously with his or her surroundings. It’s in the development of the proverbial Ego when one psychologically detracts their immediate existence from the world surrounding their encapsulating bubble as ‘me-ness.’

One begins to realize that they have an image, a face, a voice. They realize that their pain is not immediately felt by others, nor is their joy. As time progresses, it becomes subconsciously ingrained that their sentience is dependent upon the mind’s ability to differentiate everything from the skin-down as a universe owned and operated by the sole user. This process of understanding oneself within the context of the world forces us to makes choices. Do I consider myself an extrovert or introvert? Do I engage in the world optimistically or pessimistically? Am I fat or skinny? Toned or soft? Am I white, black, latino, or asian?

Am I none of the above?

There are many arrangements of identities pre-figured by those who came before us that we are able to latch onto as we develop our sense of self. For many people, this is the easiest method for forming their identifiable baseline, sticking not just in their minds but, more importantly, in the minds of those with whom they identify. Naturally, such identity is accepted as true identity, and a term such as ‘white’ is adopted as shorthand for ‘one of us.’

However, I would like to refute this idea that identity is affirmational of the given individual’s qualities, racial or otherwise. Instead, identity is a negation from what has been qualified as ‘not like me.’ After all, the first key step in understanding what one is is defining what is not like the person one sees in the mirror. In this light, identity can be conceptualized as a blank canvas—a nihilistic taunt that demands you fill its void with contents that differentiate you from others both acutely and obtusely. However, despite the success this method of understanding identity in America, there remains a significant conceptual flaw: If one grows to examine their baseline qualities as too different to fit into any one category, there comes a psychological stalemate in self-assessment which ultimately leads to alienation and depression.

The ‘tragic mulatto’ is an archetypal entity of American literature that was born during the 19th and 20th centuries, one that requires a historical lens in order to fully understand its significance. As slavery existed in colonial and post-Revolutionary America, abuse and rape of the enslaved populations was everpresent. Men like Thomas Jefferson regularly fathered children ‘born on the wrong side of the blanket’ of mixed blood. Such forced—and to some extant, consensual—interracial childrearing was so prevalent, in fact, that laws were created in order to clarify who could legally be constituted as a free man versus an enslavable one. Thus came about the One-Drop Rule that made any man and woman enslavable so long as there was at least one provably African ancestor in their familial history. ‘Half-breeds’ or ‘mulattoes’ were then enslavable while retaining a certain affection for their lighter complexion, which made them more accepted within a slave owner’s household rather than forced to break their backs on the plantation.

Conceivably, a person with skin lighter than my own tanned, olive complexion could be enslaved so long as there was provable records of their great, great grandmother’s West African roots. What this law did was so powerful that we are today dealing with its ramifications within American legality, sociology and philosophy.

First, it made the assumption that genetics could be boiled down into simple arithmetic, not taking into account the vast physical differences that can occur between an ‘interracial’—an increasingly meaningless term in a global-conscious society—couple’s offsprings. Second, it pitted mixed men and women against their own dichotomous heritages; while they were classless slaves, their unfair treatment within the households made them targets for those who bore the whips under the scorching sun. The result was an alienation worse than slavery itself: it made people believe there was a real, discernable, scientific difference between whites, blacks and those caught in the middle. And those caught in the middle bore discrimination from both their white and African ancestors alike.

Today, this alienation continues as children struggle with basic formation of identity. For those who are of an immediate mixed heritage, they must eventually choose a side with which to identify. If one is light enough, they may as well just call themselves white. If they retain dark enough physical traits, then they may choose to call themselves black. But for those that are mixed outside the historically inflammatory binary system, there is no easy choice to make. And, increasingly, it is becoming painfully obvious that it isn’t the individual’s choice at all.

When Barack Obama first ran for president in the 2008 election, the news media couldn’t decide whether he was black or biracial. And though it is still too early to tell how history will label his identity, he has been more widely accepted as America’s first black president than its first mixed president—despite Former President Obama’s categorically ‘white’ upbringing, the mere complexion on his body overruled an equally encompassing white label. To this day, the One Drop Rule undermines a globalist’s perception of race and identity. (Just try asking anyone if they consider Barack Hussein Obama a white man, and then immediately follow up by asking if they consider Rashida Jones a black woman.)

But just as mulattoes bore the unfair discrimination from both sides of their heritage back in the day, there still exists a sort of jealousy of brown people whose traits are coveted by both whites and blacks alike. Their incredibly distinct features—a woman with freckled olive skin, green eyes and tightly curled tawny hair is no longer considered unusual but strikingly beautiful—as well as the misconceived ease they have in traversing their racial boundaries at whim, creates a stark divide between the tragedies their darker ancestors had and continue to endure on a daily basis and the white privilege for which whites wished they didn’t have to thank slavery, assimilation and genocide.

But, make no mistake, there is nothing easy about being defined as ‘OTHER.’

Being a man of an immediately diverse heritage—my father is half Filipino, half African American, and my mother is half second-generation Italian and half composite of Germanic, British, and Jewish descent—I do not have the luxury of fitting anywhere on the racial scale of American Identity. My life has been more or less dominated by an endless parade of proving myself to everyone, while simultaneously casting aside each of my easily calculable parts. Yes, I was composited of these ready-made identities, but none of them truly fit me. And while I openly cried at the stories of the Civil Rights Movement, my peers would remind me how of I was unable—perhaps even undeserving—to share the grief and the tragedies that my African ancestors endured. It seemed my identity was not one that exuded any sense of clarity but rather mirrored the world in complete, nihilistic opposition.

I was a black hole. A chameleon. An alien born from an un-alien world.

Thus the tragic mulatto archetype is born—a person caught in the endless cycle of negation while trying to find a baseline for the formation of their entire identity as a human being. And this feeling of isolation wasn’t just an internal perception; my friends while growing up—white, black, asian and latino—often reminded me of my ‘weirdness,’ how I ‘looked Mexican’—as if that were an insult—or that I wasn’t black enough for that necklace, nor white enough to not stick out in a crowd. That constant feedback of being too different creates an incredibly negative self-image. It eviscerates any inkling of an affirmative identity, creating a constant unease when trying to attend Black Student Union, Filipino Student’s Group, or when articulating the intricacies of Affirmative Action.

Despite all this, however, there remains a silver lining.

The ‘tragic mulatto’ is only tragic within a very specific context in which racial categorization dominates society as a tool of measurement and class assessment—sound familiar?—wherein the societal constraints alienates those who fall outside the categories entirely. I learned after twenty years of being both subconsciously and consciously aware of this underlying pain that none of our identities are affirmational. The colors on our skin are not identities so much as they are simply identifiers. To put it in prose: we are not the paint that is brushed onto the canvas; rather we are the canvas itself, open to the strokes we acquire throughout the duration of our lives.

In other words, ‘black’ and ‘white’ are not realities. They are concepts.

Our familial histories are not blood-accounts of physical characteristics; they are moving dramas, comedies and tragedies, each as influential as the next. The reason I have been at odds with myself for twenty seven years is due to confusing my physical traits with inner understanding. Such a misfire in self identification is easy to do in America, considering the trauma rippling from our nation’s historical roots. But from this nihilistic vacuum of identity comes an unfathomable opportunity to create our own identities from the ground up. We do not have to push away certain aspects of our histories, but rather we can embrace them all, tending to each branch of our ancestry as one would keep to a flourishing garden.

But as I’ve mentioned, this is not central to the multiracial person’s nihilistic endeavor of defining themselves. ‘White’ is such a damningly simple misnomer of an incredibly diverse fair-skinned populous. My own nephews have skin as fair as their mothers and eyes of jeweled hazel, silvery blues—does that mean they have no ancestral lineage to the slaves that built this nation, or to the Southeast Asian Pacific Islanders who endured Spanish colonialism, or to the Greek and Roman harbingers of modern politics, ethics and philosophy? Calling people ‘white,’ ‘caucasian,’ ‘black,’ ‘middle eastern,’ or ‘asian’ separates an extremely diverse, historically complex and intricate species into bureaucratic, boxed categories. These labels are nothing more than entrance examinations for those looking to join the various clubs of America as much as they are measuring sticks to keep the unwanted out of Jim Crow’s Ritz Carlton.

But as the world continues to evolve into a globally awakened society, we’re seeing such various in-groups widen their acceptance rates, if not fade away entirely—albeit not without the occasional uproar—while those who have been challenged to endure this ultimate journey of cultivating their identities as outsiders to a world of categories are increasingly leading the conversation on what it means to be American.

‘Mixed’ men and women are progressively necessary in defining what it means to be human beings.

This is not to say, however, that I am an assimilationist. I do not advocate nor believe all of humanity’s diverse physical traits should or even could meld into one beige conformity. To push for such a homogenized human race is as damaging as it is to be a Black Separatist or a Klansman. Imagine an ironic yet equally painful world in which same-race marriage and childrearing were illegal, where families and lovers would be torn apart for the endeavor of merging human diversity into one swatch of racial characteristics. How odd it is that a sentiment of peace and unity can ultimately become an agent of divisive scorn.

No, what I am saying is that racial identity is a purposely created illusion. It is a way to differentiate each other toward ultimately negative ends, and in that regard, racial identity is only as powerful as the individual allows it to be. It does not have to define who you are at your core, nor does your identity require stereotypically racial components. You may choose how to act, talk, strut and laugh. You can celebrate or ignore however many ancestral practices in your family tree as you like. Your attraction is not limited to physical tropes. Your pride is not confined to the paleness or darkness of your skin.

My own journey has taken me through anger, depression and now to here. I do not know if my current understanding is flawed or misguided—perhaps it is—but what I have found fundamentally different is that I am no longer trying to prove myself to anyone. Contrarily, I am thrilled to form my identity through complexity, often times in all-out opposition to the American binary mentality. I am delighted to think of myself as undefinable in that it makes me irrevocably diverse. I rejoice in knowing that I am not the paint, but I am the whole composition and the canvas beneath it.

I have learned to reconnect with parts of my ancestry of which I have told myself I was undeserving. I very much plan on teaching my children—who will look drastically different than I—where they come from, what blood runs through their veins, and that they are a person of and for the world.

A color is a color—just a color. It’s the canvas and the brush strokes you paint that really matter in the end.

C.A. Davis is a filmmaker, editor and writer based in Chicago, IL. Learn more about his work at Read other articles by C.A..