Mixed Race Identity in the US and Cuba

The term “mulatto” is one of the third rails of US racial politics — an anachronistic and offensive term that holds animalistic connotations for many Black people, although the etymology of the word is still contested. In the video “Evoking the Mulatto,” an interviewee says that the term seems antiquated, and that “it doesn’t really apply anymore, like, come on, we’ve moved on.” It’s clear that many view the term as a signifier of a more racist past.

However, in many parts of Latin America, the Spanish equivalent mulato is a neutral and widely accepted term that simply refers to someone of mixed European and African ancestry. Examining the different meanings of this term in two sites of the African diaspora — the US and Cuba — demonstrates the distinct ways mixed-race identity has been conceived of and recognized, and the different racial regimes of these respective countries.

Americans generally think of the official recognition of mixed-race identity as a relatively new phenomenon, corresponding to the push to allow mixed-race people to identify as such on census forms, which became an option only in 2000. However, in Cuba, mulato has always been an official category on the census, and Cubans draw a hard distinction between mulatos and negros (Black people), largely based on skin color. The Cuban vernacular also includes other racially identifying terms to refer to people of African descent such as jabao — someone with very light skin whose phenotype indicates other markers of African descent, like kinky hair.

In the absence of a rigid Black/white binary — such as that institutionalized in the US by the one-drop rule — Cuban society has always offered more categorical differentiation between people of African descent. The island nation also had no corresponding push for all to identify as "Black." However, it might surprise people to learn that the US racial regime was not always defined in terms of hypodescent — the assignment of mixed-race people to the more marginalized category of the two racial groups (i.e., Black instead of white). “Mulatto” was an official term used in the US census between 1850 and 1920, and both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington were of mixed race and referred to as “mulattoes.”

As outlined by sociologist C. Matthew Snipp, 1850 was the first census not only to collect more detailed information about enslaved people but also to include a “mulatto” category. This categorization continued until 1890, when the census further subdivided the mulatto population into “quadroons” and “octoroons,” reflecting the influence of eugenics and scientific racism. The 1900 census did away with this subdivision but continued to distinguish mulattos from Blacks, even though notions of hypodescent were fully in place by the end of the 19th century. It was not until the 1920 census that the “mulatto” category was dropped, about which Snipp states, “Although the evidence is scant, the decision to abandon the subdivisions of the Black population might be seen as the triumph of politics over science — Jim Crow over scientific racism.” Thus, the term “mulatto” and the differentiation of mixed-race people from Black people also has a history in the US, and it wasn’t always considered to be an offensive term.

While segregation was never officially enshrined, racism is still pervasive in the Cuban racial regime. Many Latin American countries built their nationalist discourses around the notion of mestizaje (racial mixture), insisting that racism can’t exist in countries with large mixed-race populations. Race scholars of Latin America refer to this as the “myth of racial harmony/democracy,” which in Cuba was termed “racelessness.” This discourse predated the emergence of “color-blindness” rhetoric in the US by about a century.

Racism takes on a distinct form in places like Cuba, where the differentiation between mulatos and negros results in rampant colorism, which has both social and occupational implications. Cubans often refer to each other in terms that specifically highlight one’s racial identity: people with notable features of Chinese ancestry are referred to as “el chino”/“la china” (the Chinese guy/girl), despite the fact that many also have African ancestry. Unlike in the US, this wouldn’t be considered racist in Cuba, as Cubans of African descent often have nicknames like “el negro” (the Black guy) or “el jabao.”

The more explicit marking of racial identity in Cuba relates to the absence of the “political correctness” regime that reigns in the US. Instead of the implicit bias and microaggressions that often take the place of explicit racism in the United States — that is, until President Donald Trump was elected — racist ideas are expressed more openly in Cuba. The most commonplace racist notions target Black people, and are even expressed by people of African descent, without any fear of critique. For example, in expressions like “she’s Black but has good hair” imply that a physical feature approximating whiteness offsets the presumed ugliness of being Black.

Moreover, many Blacks and mulatos openly profess the desire to “adelantar” (improve the race) by marrying someone white or lighter-skinned to produce lighter-skinned children. Few in the US would state this publicly, although some may hold that wish privately.

The different regimes of racism in Cuba and the US do not reflect a “milder” form of white supremacy. While Cubans express racist notions more openly, the island is a vastly more integrated society, largely because of the income redistribution undertaken by the Cuban Revolution — a situation that has shifted as Cuba has introduced elements of capitalism since the 1990s — but also because of a long history of non-criminalized intermarriage between Blacks and whites. However, there are also commonalities between the two countries with respect to race-related social indicators: Black Cubans are disproportionately poor and/or incarcerated and underrepresented in positions of power.

The different racial regimes in the US and Cuba (and other Caribbean and Latin American countries with large Afro-descendant populations) can be particularly tricky for Afro-Latinx people in the US. They might have grown up being called or referring to themselves as mulato only to be called “Black” in the United States or worse, accused of being anti-Black because they don’t identify as such. And while it’s true that the colorism in Cuba is ultimately based in anti-Blackness, Afro-Latinx who identify as mulatos aren’t necessarily anti-Black; they might view this designation as retaining a part of their cultural/national heritage.

This is an issue I reckon with personally, as the white mother of two mixed-race children whose Black Cuban father refers to them as mulato. Following my husband’s lead, my bilingual almost-7-year-old son refers to himself as mulato. Anticipating that his friends/classmates might misunderstand this, I’ve already begun to speak with him about the different possibilities he has for self-identification, and he knows that “Black” is an option.

Although different racial regimes are in effect in the US and Cuba, anti-Blackness and colorism are global phenomena. Perhaps more important than which term Afro-descended people use to identify themselves is the recognition that not only was “the color line” the defining problem of the 20th century, but the 20th century wasn’t able to solve it.

About the Author

Rebecca Bodenheimer is an Oakland-based freelance writer and cultural critic who publishes on a range of topics. Her work has been published at CNN Opinion, NPR, Pacific Standard, Mic, Poynter, The Lily, and more. She’s also a scholar of Cuban culture and society with a PhD from UC Berkeley who has written extensively about the island. She is author of the book Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba.