Many are shocked when I mention this phrase. The tortured, or tragic, mulatto is a stereotype that describes the situation of mixed race individuals. This classic racism highlights their unique place between groups, and assumes that existing at this unique intersection is problematic, impossible, and results in psychological distress based both in social expectations of intergroup relations as well as individual processes of belonging and self-esteem. They are thought to be between two worlds, and “without a home.” In fact, the official recommendation from the American Psychological Association was to simply “pick one” until the mid 1970s.
Check out the “Racial Draft” on The Chappelle Show (2004); when Chappelle-as-Tiger-Woods is recruited by the Black delegation, he says, “This is a tremendous opportunity for me. Finally be part of a race, have a home. Been so confused, if I’m Caubaclasian or… so many things! So long fried rice, hello fried chicken!” (2:00).
As soon as I started reading the stories of Elliot Rodger, the phrase seemed unfortunately appropriate. There are many different factors and theories that contextualize the situation of this young man and the situation of race in America, including misogynistic extremism and expectations of White privilege. However, it is clear that this young man was lost within his own ethnic identity, and had yet to truly develop an integrated self; he despised his own Asian heritage (his mother is of Malaysian descent) and externalized this hate into a hatred of women. He identified as half White and expected to receive the privileges that come along with it, including white women; he was infuriated by seeing Black or Asian men with White women and believed that he was far more attractive than them. He attributed his lack of romantic success to the women who rejected him, without considering his own personal issues, including, but not limited to, an integrated self-concept; i.e., a tortured mulatto.
Although not all mixed race individuals may experience the stress described earlier, all can relate to the experience of regularly being asked, “What are you,” thus disregarding one’s humanity in the interest of categorization, or having other people tell you how you should identify. Rodgers expressed that his personal identity did not synchronize with his experiences; this was reinforced by the reaction of police to his parents’ concerns*. Most importantly, he was unable to get others to engage with him a manner that he felt was appropriate. As mentioned above, this can come from social interactions, interpersonal interactions, and self-identity.
I have known many who are perpetually struggling with themselves. So much of our identity is based on finding communities with which we can belong, and multiracials complete self-concepts can be delayed because of this intersectionality. Non-Black mothers may have a difficult time dealing with their daughter’s Black hair; the desire to emulate one’s parents during social development may be impeded by discrepancies in appearance; other’s may even question parenthood when walking with mixed race children in public.
Regarding issues of beauty and social acceptance, I too have been convinced of my own unattractiveness. As a media researcher, I am intimately aware of the relationship between media representations and self-concepts, but none of that mattered when I was in high school and desperate for the boys to like me. In the 1980s, there was a lack of multiracial beauty in mainstream media, which led me to believe that multiracial people were not beautiful. I distinctly remember when the “stereotype” emerged that “mixed race people are attractive” in the late 1990s; it suddenly gave me hope for the social acceptance of my own physical appearance.
I unfortunately can empathize with the situation of Rodger and his frustration with being lost in a world that is focused on attractiveness and social acceptance. I am grateful to come from a long line of multiracials. I am grateful that I look like my mother, even though my head is covered in corkscrew curls and her hair is straight. Having said that, I am sorry to see another young multiracial person never achieve this integrated self-concept, and I am sorry that he had to take the lives of others during a process that many multiracials know intimately.