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.

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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.

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