Several months ago I attended a retreat for progressive multiracial activists. For three days I was surrounded by strong mixed-race men and women, queer, and straight, of all different ethnic, racial, class, and social backgrounds. The only thing we had in common was our mixed-race heritage interest in imagining an inclusive mixed-race anti-racist movement.
Now, when you have a whole bunch of mixed-folks together, one of the first questions is one of the lexicons used to refer to ourselves. Many of the people present didn’t like the use of the term “race,” as they argued that the word represents a white-supremacist notion that was used to project themselves at the top of racialized hierarchies. Clearly, this became a problem when trying to identify ourselves and experiences as different from what we affectionately referred to as “Euro-mutts” that entire weekend…
…which brings me to the point of this post. I’ve been thinking about the terms that people use for us mixed folks and see an interesting trend. People become violently upset at being called a mutt (generally used to refer to a non-pure bred dog), or mulatto, which, of course, stems from the Spanish mulato meaning mule; the hybrid of a horse and a donkey.
At the retreat, there were a couple of vegetarians, former vegetarians, pescatarians, and excuse-atarians, but no one who was really ready to willingly engage in the speciest and unproductive nature of becoming uncritically angry when likened to a non-human animal.
One of the most common hassles that mixed-folks have to deal with is a sense of “hybrid-vigor,” an idea that breeding across difference, as in the case with dogs, creates a stronger, and more attractive breed. Mules are said to have the strength of a horse with the intelligence of a donkey, inheriting each parent’s best characteristics. Even “America’s Next Top Model” tries to recruit models from “diverse backgrounds,” because of this idea of hybrid vigor and mixed-beauty.
Now, I understand that folks of color tend to be unwilling to identify with animals because of the intertwined legacies of racism and specieism in this world. I’ve spent some time thinking about what an anti-specieist analysis of the use of animal-derived terms to refer to mixed-folks would look like. I’m no biologist, but my conclusion has come to this:
Horses and donkeys are different species. Hell, dogs breeds are even called “species.” In the case of mules, their parents are different enough that together they can’t create a functional reproductive system; mules can’t bare offspring. Mixed-breed dogs might be able to reproduce, but a Chihuahua giving birth to a Great Dane’s offspring might not be so functional, if even possible. Humans, however, are Homo sapiens. Using animal names referring to mixed-SPECIES animals to refer to mixed-”race” people just becomes another example of the ways in which white supremacy functions to perpetuate a white-washed notion of worth and value. It’s you’re not human, you’re not valuable. If you’re not white, you’re not quite as human.
Just another instance of how specieism and racism operate in tandum, I suppose.