"Are You a Mulatto?": One Afternoon In the Life of a Mixed-Race Woman

When my parents -- a Czech-American news producer and an African American news anchor -- decided to get married and have kids, I doubt they wondered, “Will our daughters be approached by strangers on the streets of New York City and asked to explain their racial background?”
Publish date:
December 11, 2012
racism, race, mixed race

When my parents -- mom, a Czech-American news producer from the South Side of Chicago and dad, an African American news anchor from Harlem -- decided to get married and have kids in the suburbs of Boston, I doubt they wondered, “Will our daughters be approached by strangers on the streets of New York City and asked to explain their racial background?”

Perhaps they should have.

Kidding. But the fact that I’m mixed does come up a lot in my life, at least more than one would expect. The following story outlines one of my “mixed-up moments,” a.ka. when the fact that I’m biracial is brought to my attention. Some “mixed-up moments” are more significant than others. A few are blatantly rude comments, others are ignorant jokes, many are moments of flattery and some are instances of confusion or laughter.

At times these are moments that make me feel so honored and blessed to be mixed; others are waves when I just want to crawl in a hole and hide. But big, small, positive, negative or just plain weird, I like to take note of them all as I grow up and explore my identity -- blah blah blah. Insert cheesy music here.

This story is one of the just plain weird ones.

Walking down 14th street toward Union Square on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I prepared to spend money that I did not have on sweaters that I did not need. My natural curls were bouncing up and down and my purse was swinging by my side. A newbie in NYC, I was ready to put my bargain hunting skills to the test. Operation: Nordstrom Rack was a go.

But an outing that started as a frivolous shopping trip was interrupted by yet another “mixed-up moment.”

As I made my way down the sidewalk, I looked over to see a tall man trying to get my attention. I paused and made eye contact -- mistake number one. He shouted, “You look half black, half white. Are you a mulatto?”

Wait, did he just use the word mulatto? Has anyone used it since the Reconstruction era? I scoffed in my head, thinking back to the days of history lessons on race and popular culture. What was once just the topic of a lecture on a word that was (and in some ways still is) an offensive slur used to describe someone with one black parent and one white parent was right in front of ME, here in 2012. There were so many things wrong, hilarious and intriguing about that moment.

I mumbled an awkward, “Um. Yeah. But I don’t like that word?” and kept walking by. I crossed the street, and 12 paces later I started to process the interaction. Classmates had asked me, “What are you?” and acquaintances had guessed I must be Cuban; strangers had even pointed out my mixed heritage on the street before. However, no one had ever referred to me as a mulatto.

I flashed back to junior year of college when I wrote the essay that inspired my further study on the topic of mixed race in the media. The paper was on Imitation of Life (1934) and Pinky (1949), films about biracial women passing as white in the late 1800s and early 1900s. THAT is what I thought of when he used the word mulatto. The notion of the “tragic mulatto” stereotype: a woman who intentionally ignores half of who she is in order to survive and who goes on to struggles with her decision.

I jolted back to reality and decided that I still wouldn’t be offended by this stranger’s use of the word -- if I took everything I heard on the street seriously, than I would own 5,000 fluorescent pashminas and would be a front row center ticket holder to every New York City comedy show. But if I could go back in time, I would be more direct with that gentleman on the street. Based on what I think of when I think of the word, NO, I am not a mulatto.

As always, the moment stuck with me and made me think. Although I am not living a life with struggles close to those that the characters in these black-and-white movies dealt with, I can relate to their identity crises in some ways. Although this moment is not the worst “mixed-up moment,” it reminds me of others.

Like when I was pulled aside in grade school and asked if I was “fitting in okay” since I was “different.” And the many times when someone has learned that I’m mixed and responded, “No, really?!” Or when I had to fill in standardized testing bubbles and was forced to choose “African American” OR “Caucasian.”

I’ve heard comments on both sides, and this one is neither. But hearing the word “mulatto” does bring the old conversations to surface. Sometimes I do feel that I have to pick one or the other -- most of the time, I hear that I’m too light to be black, but every once in a while I’m told that I’m a little too “tan” to be white.

Sometimes it’s a guessing game -- who can figure out Olivia’s race? Other times it’s just weird, cool or noteworthy that I am both. And although our society has come so far in so many ways, I believe that this is one in which we can come a lot farther. I can’t wait for the day that it’s no big deal that I’m mixed because everyone knows someone that’s mixed. When a little girl can grow up and see a family that looks like hers on TV -- all different shapes, sizes, colors and mixes under the same roof.

But just as quickly as I’m flooded by these emotions, memories, scholarly flashbacks and pilot TV show pitches, I try to push them away and focus on this moment. This guy is clearly just odd. He may or may not have been insane. And I am not a mulatto. Although I do have identity struggles, I am neither the girl in Imitation of Life nor the lead in Pinky. I’m not passing as anything other than myself. I’m me, Olivia. Recent college graduate, former field hockey player, and lover of Pixar movies, romantic comedies, my family, friends and a good old chocolate and vanilla soft serve cone. I just happen to be mixed, too.

I wrap up my “mixed-up moment.” I shake it off, remind myself that this man cannot, and will not distract me from my afternoon goals to $pend, $pend, $pend.

But just as I approach the Emerald City that is Nordstrom Rack, I spot an ice cream truck. I gear up for my shopping bonanza and fuel with an ice cream cone. Just like I’ve been doing since I was a kid, I order a chocolate vanilla twist, because it’s just like me.