Is There a “Mulatto Escape Hatch” Out of Racism? Scholars Argue “No”

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The term “mulatto escape hatch”coined in 1971 by U.S. historian Carl Deglerdescribes the intermediate social position held by Brazil’s mixed-race population in Brazil’s racially stratified society. Over the past 50 years, scholars have used the term when comparing race relations in the U.S., Brazil, and other nations. 

On April 27, Fordham Law’s Center on Race, Law and Justice—in conjunction with Fordham Black Law Student Association, Fordham Latin American Law Student Association, Feerick Center for Social Justice, and Fordham Leitner Center—hosted a virtual discussion titled, “Is There a ‘Mulatto Escape Hatch’ Out of Racism?: A Reflection on Multiracial Exceptionalism During a Time of #BlackLivesMatter.”

Ralph Denton Professor of Law John Valery White, from William S. Boyd School of Law at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, spoke with Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law Tanya K. Hernández, author of Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination (new in paperback January 2021) and SUNY Old Westbury Professor of American Studies Jasmine Mitchell, author of Imagining the Mulatta: Blackness in U.S. and Brazilian Media (2020).

Hernández’s book looks at series of court cases to demonstrate how multiracials often face the same types of discrimination as other racial groups. Mitchell’s book focuses on the critical role of mixed-race femininity for national identity construction as reflected in popular culture in the U.S. and Brazil.

By anchoring the conversation in the discussion of Hernández’s and Mitchell’s timely works, the three examined how Degler’s term has been considered a transnational concept for exploring the topic of multiracial exceptionalism during the time of Black Lives Matter.

Multiracials and the Law

One of Mitchell’s interests lies in studying how media imagery is instrumental in managing and disciplining Blacknessespecially through mixed Black women’s bodiesin Brazil and the U.S.

“Media becomes the site of one of these ways of managing and containing Blackness, with the hopes of eventually having a whiter nation,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also explained that the idea of the “mulatto” has become “proof of racial democracy” in Brazil. “But, what that’s actually not really revealing is this idea of whitening the nation,” she continued.

“Whether it be through mass media, or whether it be through the law, representation matters in who we see and how we think about what the future of the nation will be,” she added.

Tanya Hernandez

Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law Tanya K. Hernández

Hernández said she wrote Multiracials and Civil Rights after she noticed a growing trend in both public and academic discourse that automatically presumed discrimination experienced by multiracial-identified people differs radically from that experienced by single race-identified people.

“There is the presumption, that our existing civil rights laws are inadequate to address this,” she said. “In this discourse, the presence of mixed-race racial identities within allegations of discrimination are described as an emerging issue that necessitates legal reform about what is viewed as our dated civil rights laws, [which]were presumably built upon a foundation of a binary whiteness and Blackness.”

Hernández argued that the criminal justice system operates in a white versus non-white binary. This, she said, is not based on an individual’s personal identity, but instead on his/her non-white appearance.

“The excessive force case is a very particular scenario that has been on the minds of us all,” Hernández said. “Multiracial persons experience being viewed as inherently suspicious based on their non-white racial appearance like so many countless non-whites do.”

She added, “There is no ‘mulatto escape hatch’ out of racialized police violence when African ancestry in any way is visible or presumed to be visible.”

Embracing Blackness

Hernández believes today’s thinking needs to be adjusted and that a shift must be made to recommit to socio-political perspectives on social justice.

Mitchell agreed that there is no “escape hatch” out of racism and that there is “no climbing up this ladder.” However, she remains hopeful.

“I think there is more of a pivot towards embracing Blackness, even within the multiracial imagery we’re seeing on television and film [and]the way celebrities are permitted to talk about themselves,” Mitchell said.

“It’s no longer something to shy away from, but actually something to embrace.”

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