Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Mutt, Mulatto, Mule? July 24, 2008

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.


16 Responses to “Mutt, Mulatto, Mule?”

  1. johanna Says:

    Oooh, very interesting, especially to me as another mixed person. Thanks for posting.

    I’ve never heard of dog breeds being referred to as different species, tho’. Interesting.

    Side note on the mutt thing — the other day a coworker was talking about how she wanted to see the recent film Mongol, except she couldn’t remember if that was the title or if it was called Mongrel (!!). Her excuse for thinking it might be the latter was “because he [Genghis Khan] was such a bad person.” Which, wow. I haven’t run into the idea of “mongrel” as an insult for a bad person in years, & it kinda made my mixed self twitch a little.

  2. Just wanted to chime in on what a thoughtful and insightful post this is. I’ve often referred to myself as a mutt and, I must admit, I’ve got a soft spot for the un”pure” breeds of the dog world (there’s another loaded term–pure!). But it’s the link between speciesism and racism (and the links between all oppressions) that makes me understand why someone would have a problem being called any animal name. Some of the most insulting things you can be called as a human are animal terms.

    Johanna, that’s some crazy talk but it sadly doesn’t surprise me.

  3. […] Vegans of Color – Mutt, Mulatto, Mule? 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. […]

  4. Glossolalia Black Says:

    It kills me every time I have to remind someone what “mulatto” means and why I don’t particularly like it.

  5. danni Says:

    Oh man, check out the comments on this one at racialicious. speciesism, yay!

  6. […] so, while I appreciate the take by the Vegans of Color blog, that the words typically used to describe mixed people — particularly those of African […]

  7. coco Says:

    i think the human-animal comparison is problematic because it is applied to only one type of racial classification and not the rest. reserving the animal-based name for mixed race people implies that they are somehow not as human as the non-mixed human races where their racial designations are based on geography, culture or appearance.

  8. […] Mutt, Mulatto, Mule? [Vegans of Color] Amalgamated looks at the history of the word mutt and shows how people of color are referred to as non-human animals and how non-human animals are considered lower than humans. […]

  9. Royce Drake Says:

    Just thought I’ point out Ingrid Newkirk sending a letter to Obama to adopt a mutt to represent the melting pot.

  10. Will Says:

    Ran into this post after trying to find more information on President elect Obama’s recent “gaff”. Not to excited seeing the future President referring to himself as a Mutt. Not only does it give the false impression that this is the right word to use to describe someone like myself but also it is the Presidents responsibility to show some sensitivity to others concerns on race. I would never expect him to use the N word or mulatto amongst other things because of their historic context in “race wars”. Mutt is a word that obnoxious kids used to say to me because they didn’t know what ethnicity I was. It was never used in an enduring fashion. Its too bad that half the groups I’ve stumbled upon talking about this issue seem to endorse his use of the word. This will do nothing to improve the ethnic relations in this country.

  11. Abram Says:

    I can understand the aversion some mixed-race people have for terms originally used to describe animals of mixed parentage, especially if we insist on thinking of ourselves–human beings–as separate from and above other animals. It is this very thinking that has allowed humans to degrade other humans by associating the other with the animal.

    The real issue, I think, rather than the human/animal one, is the notion of purity so fundamental to racist (based on religious) thinking that tries to sort the world into a neat dichotomy of us and them, white and black, good and evil, [insert name of religion] and non-[insert name of religion]. Since the world in this kind of thinking must fit into a neat dichotomy, and the ‘we’ in the discussion is obviously pure, it follows that ‘they’ are impure. Anything mixed, then, is tainted. Racial mixture, or miscegenation as it used to be called, was therefore anathema. Colonialism, of course, took this thinking with them all over the world. And the disdain for the products of mixed unions is equally evident when such people speak of mixed animals. Think of dog shows…

    Because the notion of purity is capable of such harm and is an integral component of racism, some people, myself included, have developed an aversion to the very notion of purity. We hold suspect anything categorically deemed pure or impure. We prefer the mutt and the mongrel to the ‘purebred’. We identify with em. We celebrate mixture or hybridity. It is a strength. And there are many forms of hybridity–racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, economic, social, etc. Some people, in defiance of the colonialist pure/impure dichotomy, assertively appropriate terms such as mutt and mongrel.

    I smiled when I heard Obama say he might get a mutt, ‘like myself’, for his daughters. To me his use of and identification with the term implied a defiance of the notion of purity, the notion that mixture is impure, tainted, and inferior.

  12. breezeharper Says:

    In reading both Will and Abram’s take on the word “mutt”, I’m wondering if “white” people collectively have a “positive” meaning with the word “mutt’, versus people of color collectively, at least here in the USA. I’m thinking of people who are “mixed” but can pass as “white” versus people who are “mixed” and do not pass as “white” who live in certain societies in which whiteness is the norm. Sorry if I’m not making any sense, but I just finished reading Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen for class this term and wonder if they would find the usage of “mutt” as “empowering” to them, based on when and where they were living. Judging from their writing, I got the sense that being “purely” black or being “mixed”– but still “of color”– were both problematic within a society in which being “white” was the norm…

    Please let me know if I’m making any sense, as I’m always wondering and curious about “emotional” and “visceral” experiences with certain words or phrases among “racialized” or “ethnicized” groups across space and time.


  13. Abram Says:

    Breezie, terms for mixed beings such as mutt and mongrel have been uttered with disdain by whites historically, and one still hears people, generally, use the word mutt as if it is somehow dirty. A mutt or mongrel is seen as impure and less desirable. As for a visceral reaction to the term mutt, I suspect you are right that the further a person is, visibly, from the normative whiteness, the more likely they would be to react negatively. I think the appropriation of terms for mixture may be easier for people who, as you say, could pass as white. But in any case, the appropriation of a term used negatively by the oppressor is more of an intellectual exercise, and a political act, if you will. It is appropriated despite the visceral reaction. I think of the words queer, fairy, fag, etc. While these terms were used to hurt people who were not straight, gay people assertively appropriated them despite their initial emotional reaction to them.

    In the time that Hughes was writing, I don’t think those terms would have been empowering. Appropriation seems to occur only once there is a certain amount of power gained or progress made in standing against the oppressor. In other words, I think the resistance to oppression has to be organized and consolidated enough before people would feel comfortable using terms used to deride them to refer to themselves. I hope I’m making sense. A certain amount of progress has to be made before people feel empowered enough to appropriate terms meant to hurt.

  14. Adam Says:

    Breezie, I think I understand what you are saying. Maybe I can address your inquiry from theorists I’m more familiar with:

    Purity is a loaded idea. It is tied to essentialism as well as taboo. As Mary Douglass wrote in _Purity and Danger_, transgressions of purity are often simultaneously sanctified and reviled. Those that contaminate a culture’s categories, challenge that culture’s world view. Transgressing boundaries, thus, can be very liberating to some while very threatening to others. Johnathon Haidt, a moral psychologist, believes that purity is one of five moral values prized by “conservatives” (versus the two values “liberals” hold). The value of purity is in a sense derived from obedience to authority.

    Therefore, to those who seek to challenge essentialism and be truly revolutionary, transgression is “good.” But to those who are skeptical of this post/late-modern tendency and embrace essentialism (whether it be human exceptionalism and/or afrocentrism), transgression is threatening because identity is a powerful means of uniting a people and justifying pride and privilege.

    I’d expect those who are already privileged (like white and/or college educated middle-class people) to more deliberately accept transgression of identity because they aren’t threatened by the destabilization of the categories. Whiteness seems to be a sort of non-identity, non-culture. Through transgression they (attempt to) mark themselves as having an identity as that defies mainstream whiteness. Those who do not have the privilege of choosing their identities in a white patriarchal society will be more skeptical as their membership within *any* human community has historically been in constant question.

    In short, it seems people respond differently to animal analogies based upon their knowledge of history, past experiences, and future expectations of whether such analogies will result in mediating or squashing their liberation.

  15. red Says:

    hey everybody. I gotta tell you I’m white. In fact people don’t get much paler then me but I am a mother of a bi-racial daughter. I would never dream of calling her a mutt and the thought of someone labeling her as such sickens me. I on the other hand call myself a mutt since I have Irish, Swedish, Welch, Scottish and a plethora of other ethnicities in my past. I guess I’ve confused myself with my own ambiguity. I’ve always known my daugther is just as much part of me as she is part of her father and I hope she can embrace all the parts of her heritage.
    —The whole reason I found this website is that I’m a grad student studying Southern Reconstruction and I happened across an article written in the 1990’s and it used the term Mulatto to describe bi-racial people and it bothered me. I found it to be an offensive term and was looking around to see if I was overreacting. So thank you everyone for speaking so eloquently about such a vexing issue.

  16. Melissa Says:

    I’m a 30-year-old biracial woman who has gladly called myself mulatto for years. I prefer the term.

    A word and its root are not necessarily the same thing. To call someone mulatto is not to call him or her a mule. There’s no need to fuss over an archaic meaning when a contemporary meaning is so clear.

    I like the word because–by most definitions–it refers to a person with one black parent and one white parent. Unlike mixed-race, biracial, or multiethnic it’s precise, so I find it ideal to describe myself.

    Besides, I like animals so mules are cool with me. No insult there.

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