The Complexion Chronicles
Why America Loves & Needs Her ‘Tragic Mulatto’
By TaRessa Stovall @taressatalks
One of the biggest hurdles that Mixed-with-Black people in the U.S. have to navigate is this country’s love of and addiction to the “Tragic Mulatto.”
Definition: The “Tragic Mulatto” (abbreviated as TM) is a literary and cultural trope created by White folks—and sometimes perpetrated by Black folks—to represent either Mixed-with-Black people OR very light-skinned, White-looking Black people whose lives are defined by misery and confusion because they’re so-close-to-but-not-really-White. You know, almost-humans tainted with what a famous book and movie call “The Human Stain.” In other words, Blackness as crucifixion and curse.
The popular old-school representation of the TM in pop culture is a girl or woman who passes for White with tragic results. A crowd-pleasing favorite is the film “Imitation of Life,” of which there are at least two versions, based on a novel by Jewish author Fannie Hurst, who reportedly supported Black Civil Rights as well as feminist and other causes.
Despite some advances in a few of our nation’s racial dynamics, the TM remains the most visible and enduring symbol of Mixed-with-Black identity throughout arts and culture. Though many depictions of Black people have—overall—evolved since the early part of the 20th century, the TM endures. Today, the TM is represented less by the desire to deny Blackness and/or pass for White than as someone who is routinely rejected and/or racially bullied by one or both of the groups in their DNA.
Why is this?
America NEEDS Mixed-with-Black people to be portrayed as confused about and/or ashamed of their heritage because we symbolize that thing that was never supposed to exist. During centuries of enslavement, we were tragic accidents from White men routinely raping Black and Mixed-with-Black enslaved women—our only value to expand the free labor pool. We weren’t supposed to exist for the roughly half-century of more consensual Black/White race mixing, even after interracial marriage became legal in all 50 states. The age-old rallying cry to protest these consensual unions has always been: But what about the children? That question alone suggests unspeakable horrors, heartbreak and, of course, tragedy as the only possible outcomes for such a being.
Simply put, we mess up the racial binary upon which the USA is built. Everything in this nation related to identity grows from the concept of Whiteness as conceptually pure, elite and superior, even when that is not factually the case. And all other identities—meaning People of Color—are created and maintained based on their proximity and relation to that Whiteness. Blackness is at the opposite end of the spectrum. That binary creates a perpetual either/or dynamic that rejects the notion of a Black/White Mixed person fully existing as an “and.” Because that “and” might be common, as it was during slavery, or increasingly popular, as it is now. But it can never be viewed as normative, because that threatens the superiority-inferiority architecture of identity that informs every aspect of our lives.
White and Black people are equally attached to the notion of the TM. The idea of a Mixed-with-Black person who is proud of being Mixed is inconceivable to most folks. And though Mixed-race identity is being discussed, examined and dissected in the public arena as never before in this country’s history, it is usually non-Mixed folks talking about us. And when we DO speak up, when we DO try to enter the conversation—when the topic is us—our voices and our views are not always welcome unless we represent the TM.
This has happened to me a few times, and when I asked myself why, I realize that voices like mine are so unfamiliar that people simply are unable to process them as valid or viable. What could this Mixed-with-Black person possibly have to say of value—even when they are the topic of discussion? How dare they insert their voice to challenge what we are thinking, feeling or saying about them? What would possess them to think that anyone wants to hear about their experiences anyway, unless, of course they weigh in on the “woe-is-me” TM tip.
I make some folks uncomfortable because I don’t “assume the position” of the TM. I’m too outspoken about my sense of racial identity agency and too quick to challenge identity policing whenever and wherever I encounter it (including among Mixed folks, because we do it too). A few Black people have chastised me for my “tone” when asking questions about identity policing or stereotyping us as tragic. White people tend to center themselves in the conversation, or challenge my right to self-identify on my own terms.
It’s too disruptive to everyone for a Mixed-with-Black person to be proud, happy, and well-adjusted. We’re aberrations, after all. How dare we thrive in a society reluctant to acknowledge our racial agency? How dare we think we have the right to create our own identities? This is unsettling. Because if we have a healthy sense of self, we’re disrupting the notion that to be Mixed-with-Black equates to a toxic stew of misery, rejection and confusion. If we push back against those who insist upon restricting us to the confines of their prejudicial assumptions, we’re problematic. And because we are People of Color, of course we must be “put in our place.” The TM handily checks all of those boxes.
Two recent depictions of Mixed-with-Black characters on popular Black sitcoms spotlight the 21st century TM. The best known is the character Rainbow, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, on “Black-ish.” In the third season, Rainbow reassured audiences by delivering the requisite speech on growing up confused about her identity, lest anyone think she had a strong racial sense of self. Many folks celebrated that episode, because it reinforced Rainbow as a TM who needed her White father to help her resolve her identity issues, even though she is a 40-something doctor and mother of five. But what’s worse is that Rainbow’s live-in mother-in-law (played by Jenifer Lewis), consistently slings micro-aggressions at Rainbow about her heritage and identity—always played for laughs, of course. At NO point does Rainbow clapback, challenge the attacks, speak up for herself or request any modicum of respect. Nope. Nor does her Black husband (Anthony Anderson) stick up for her. She remains firmly and comfortably tragic, playing her role as inferior with pained expressions of resignation.
A similar dynamic was at play in the short-lived “Carmichael Show,” where Maxine (Amber Stevens West) portrayed the live-in girlfriend of the main Black male character, Jerrod Carmichael. His mother (Loretta Devine) consistently put Maxine down for being Mixed—with the same passive-aggressive “comedic” style seen on “Black-ish.” And while Maxine’s character seemed very outspoken on most other topics, she—like Rainbow—bore the attacks with mute resignation, as if they were simply the tax she was born to pay.
I’m not sure whether there are any Mixed-with-Black writers for either series, but I’m guessing that the Rainbow-Maxine characters as victims of their identities are viewed as more progressive than the old-school TM defined by rejecting their Blackness.
These characters (interestingly, both written as having Black mothers and White fathers) reinforce the notion that it’s cool and funny for Black women in particular to be passive-aggressive to Mixed-with-Black women who are involved with their Black sons, in a manner that is overtly hostile and disrespectful. It also potentially serves as an outlet for the frustrations of colorism without honestly addressing that complex form of destruction. Thus far we see no depiction of the Mixed women speaking up or standing up for themselves. No suggestions of them finding common ground or any kind of solidarity with the Black women, no chance of honest exchanges or reciprocity.
The message: we deserve to be mistreated because we’re too much of this and not enough of that. Which is the theme song of the TM.
Even President Barack Obama strategically played the TM card by referring to himself as a “mutt” in his very first news conference after his 2008 election. He knew he had to make all races comfortable by reassuring them that he knew his place in the binary and would not upset the status quo. He could be proud of being a Black man/husband/father/politician. But he couldn’t risk seeming happy about or comfortable with his Mixed-ness.
America can’t grant us racial agency because that makes us unpredictable and therefore dangerous. What’s interesting is the rise in the number of Mixed-race children being born today, along with the growing movements to explore and express healthy Mixed identities. Nobody—including many Mixed people—is entirely comfortable with these expressions, but I believe they hold the seeds of possibility.
No, we and our journeys are in no way the antidote to racism, so let’s please get past that foolishness once and for all. But as we begin to interject our very diverse and often divergent voices and views into the public discourse, perhaps there is the possibility of enough critical mass to at some point be taken seriously. Respected. Represented. Actually seen and heard.
Until then, the USA will continue to nurture her precious TM, because the underlying notion of tragedy is required to maintain racism’s status quo. I look forward to the day when we free ourselves from the constraints of the TM and allow fully nuanced representations of our lives to burst forth in the Multi-colored, Multi-cultural, Multi-dimensional glory that is the full spectrum of our actual truth. Then perhaps our lives won’t be viewed as “imitations” any more.