(mʊ-lăt'ō, -lä'tō, myʊ-) pronunciation
  1. A person having one white and one Black parent. See Usage Note at octoroon.
  2. A person of mixed white and Black ancestry.

[Spanish mulato, small mule, person of mixed race, mulatto, from mulo, mule, from Old Spanish, from Latin mūlus.]


The word ‘mulatto’ is derived from the Arabic muwallad, which originally referred to persons who were not ‘genuine’ Arabs, especially individuals born of black-white ‘misalliances’. With the beginning of the transatlantic African slave trade in the fifteenth century, the word mulatto first found its way into Portuguese, and then into almost all European languages, as the term for offspring of mixed European (Caucasian) and African (Negroid) parentage. (Only Afrikaans used the word ‘Bastard’ for such persons.)

The social position of these ‘half-breeds’ varied from place to place and over time. On the sugar plantations of Latin America, in several Caribbean colonies, and in southern and western Africa, where white masters faced an overwhelming number of black workers in bondage to them, the mulatto and his or her descendants formed a buffer zone between blacks and whites that was indispensable for maintaining the authority and prosperity of the Europeans. Colonial masters assigned members of this group certain tasks that they would not themselves assume, but could not entrust to blacks, and in exchange granted to mulattos privileges which were denied to black workers on principle. As a result, such ‘half-breeds’ lost almost any incentive to ally themselves with blacks, while at the same time they sought to move closer to the white ruling class, which purposely permitted them such approaches — although always ranking them according to their ostensible percentage of ‘white blood’. Much as would later be the case with Jews in Nazi Germany, sang-mêlés were classified by degree of mixed parentage. A ‘quarter-white’ was thus a sambo, a mulatto was ‘half white’, a quadroon was ‘three-quarters white’, and a mestizo was ‘seven-eighths white’. In the French colony of Saint-Domingue there were 128 such categories! People of ‘mixed blood’, who believed that, despite discrimination, such a system contained at least the promise of equality with Europeans for their descendants, and who therefore intentionally chose ‘whiter’ mates in hope of bearing ‘fairer’ children, of course found themselves disappointed. Entry into the caste of whites was prohibited to the offspring of mulattos even after many generations; a person whose blood contained a ratio of 127 white ancestors to one black was still a sang-mêlé, still a ‘coloured’. As the intermediate class between blacks, with whom they did not want to be linked, and whites, with whom they could not be linked, people of ‘mixed blood’ thus achieved social permanence.

On the North American continent, in contrast to the aforementioned regions, there was no separate intermediate class of ‘coloureds’. Here the whites enjoyed such a preponderance that they could dare to assign people of ‘mixed blood’ the same social and legal basis as their slaves. To be sure, there was a differentiation according to the amount of ‘mixed blood’, but its aim was to eliminate from the ruling caste of whites all ‘half-breeds’, even those with a truly minuscule portion of black ancestry, and thus incorporate them into a work force held in bondage. The word ‘mulatto’ has thus never been common usage in the US, and the word ‘coloured’, although a widespread term until the middle of this century, was synonymous with ‘black’, which even today includes all shades of the African-American population, from ‘racially pure’ blacks to almost ‘racially pure’ whites. Reports of ‘white’ slaves, male or female, have always been able to arouse the latent sadism in some people. (In contemporary Australia, Pauline Hanson and her ‘One Nation Party’ have taken the opposite tack and in order to further the interest of their white countrymen want to recognize only ‘pure bloods’ and ‘half-casts’ as true Aborigines, thereby depriving all others of any reparations by the Commonwealth of Australia.)

In Europe, with its ample reservoir of white labourers — in contrast to colonies dependent on enforced labour of imported workers or ‘natives’ — not only the ruling class but also the entire society tried to remain unsullied by ‘black blood’. By the end of the nineteenth century, the constant threat of mass unemployment served as the background for the campaign against admitting members of ‘alien races’ as a ‘ruinous contamination of the white race’, and the number of mulattos was considered a measure of physical and psychological decay. Predicting the fall of Western civilization, right-wing ideologies in all parts of Europe proclaimed that the several hundred ‘half-breeds’ born of ‘coloured’ French auxiliary forces during the occupation of the Rhineland (1919-29) were the catastrophic result of a ‘blood warfare’ analogous to a ‘gas warfare’ and directed not only against Germany, but against the whole of the white race. Hitler, too, constantly referred to the ostensibly imminent ‘peril’ of a ‘mulattoization’ of Europe; after 1933, his party saw to it that corrective measures were taken: the ‘Rhineland bastards’ were forced to be sterilized.

— Peter Martin