Exploring the history and experiences of mixed heritage persons and inter-racial relationships across the world

On Mules and Mutts

November 30th, 2010

MuleUsing the word Mulatto to describe a mixed white and black individual in the English speaking world is very likely to be met with some disdain, if not downright outrage.  This is because most people believe that the word’s origins are said to derive from the old Latin word for mule.  There is some argument as to whether this is in fact true since the Arabic word ‘muwallad’ meaning ‘of mixed ancestry’ is a possible candidate and may have been imported into the Portuguese and Spanish languages with interactions with the Arab world particularly the Moors.  Outside the English speaking world both Mulatto and Mestizo seem to be interchangeable and acceptable.

It is hard to work out why the mule generates such objection.  These animals are described as “more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses, and they are considered less obstinate, faster, and more intelligent than donkeys”.  They have been bred for centuries for those very traits and have contributed greatly to the development of the human condition.  Maybe the objection is because they tend to be infertile due to the fact that horses and donkeys are different species, but a fact that is not strictly true as a small percentage of females can be fertile.  The fact the mixed humans can breed should suffice to counter any hint of infertility.

muttMixed race US President Obama’s comments about being a mutt and describing African American people as a sort of ‘mongrel race’ raised more than many eyebrows even though he used the terms in a non-derogatory manner.  Mongrel and mutt mean the same thing and are mainly used in a friendly, affectionate manner more than as a derogatory slur.  The objection may stem from the fact that there is the incorrect assumption that mutt refers to the offspring of two purebred dogs, which is correctly, a crossbred dog.  It is the purebred and the crossbred that is unusual as they are specifically bred by humans for particular traits.  Mutts are generally regarded as more social, healthier, cleverer and tend to live longer than purebred or crossbred dogs;  traits not unlike those claimed for mixed race individuals due to what is known as Heterosis or hybrid vigor.

Whilst I have yet to see a case of mulatto or mestizo used as an insult, I admit that mutt or mongrel can and have been used as such but then so can many other words.  The word ‘coloured’ was originally was a polite way to refer to non-white people and its use in the UK in such a manner still occurs, although only by elderly people, but morphed into an unacceptable term in the US and some parts of the Caribbean.   The term is proudly claimed by mixed race communities in Southern Africa where the term kaffir is very derogatory, as bad as the word nigger in the USA.  Kaffir which is an Arabic term for ‘non-believer’ is proudly borne by a mixed ethnic group in Sri Lanka. 

The word nigger is a case in point about the metamorphosis of racial terms.  It is now being used in a different context within the African American community itself.  In fact, it is used within the community in a derogatory manner as well as a general reference to American black people.  It has yet to get to the point that it is acceptable for non-black people to use it in this manner, though.

I once believed that French did not have derogatory words.  It was the manner in which the word, like dog, was said that determined whether it was intended as affection or as an insult.  As internationalisation occurs, it is worth remembering that other countries and languages may not have the same hang-ups about some words that we do.  I read a great quote the other day, “It is not what you are called that matters, but what you respond to.”

As for the mules and mutts, I think there are worse creatures to be called than after them.