This, I wrote to a correspondent of mine, in a personal letter via e-mail. It was not intended to be published, but the various race issues that are popping up on the forum here and there make it relevant. The context of the e-mail was my friend's use of the word "mulatto".
[quote]You mentioned Jean-Claude Duvalier's "disreputable mulatto wife". This is racist talk. What is a mulatto in your view? Going back to colonial times, a mulatto was the son or daughter of a white and a black. As far as I know, Michelle's father and mother are not white, how could then Michelle be classified as "mulatto"? I have even often heard the absurd and equally racist reference to Mildred Aristide being a mulatto. To me, that is a despicable, class-ist, racist way to refer to people, that is quite common in Haiti. as a direct result of slavery. I do not e
xpect more enlightened people to perpetuate it.
Why would you not just use "fair-skinned" as opposed to the word "mulatto" in your writing? Some would accuse me of trying to push political correctness with my remarks. They are wrong. In fact, I am well ahead of the politically-correct folks, because I have not seen any of them espouse this particular cause. Maybe some day they will. My stance comes only from a thinking position. The world "mulatto" in Haiti is widely used by Haitians but it is void of any objective or scientific value. What is a mulatto in the eyes of a person is not in the eyes of another.
Arbitrariness runs deep in the words used by Haitians to designate not only differences in COLOR, but, unmistakably, differences in CLASS as well, and to make matter worse, that arbitrariness is often mischievous, with the express intention of using politically charged code words that have had a pernicious effect during Haiti's long 200 years of social and political struggle.
don't know whether you were able to discern this: When Haitians refer to Michelle Duvalier as a "mulatto", they want to emphasize not so much that she was fair-skinned, but that she supposedly belongs to a class of people that her father-in-law Papa Doc oppressed terribly, in reaction of course to his own victimization (and that of his class and dark-skinned relations') at the hands of the traditional bourgeois mulatto class. Those subtleties may easily escape a foreigner, even one who has lived in Haiti for a number of years. Our vocabulary reflects, once again, not simplistic notions of race and color differences, but of our long and complex class struggle as well.
Same thing can be said with respect to Aristide's wife. Implicit in referencing her as a mulatto, is the implication that Aristide has "betrayed his class", that somehow he tried to marry up, and in doing so he distanced himself from his base. I am not kidding you here. This is powerful stuff that runs in the conscious or subconsc
ious of practically every Haitian that I know. Haitians, like other people, are of course the product of their history and environment. So we use (innocent sounding) but powerful reaction-inducing code words in our language. In fact, I have heard a few people, but I will tell you one specifically (xxxxxxx xxxxx, on the Corbett List!!) who have stated that Aristide has vainly tried through his marriage to Mildred to become one of them, but that he could never, since such distinction is reserved to upbringing and birth rights which Aristide "obviously" did not possess. So, on one hand, some people resented that Aristide distanced himself from them to marry up to the class of which he used to denounce the predatory ways, and on the other hand, the bourgeois class in Haiti resented Aristide for his alleged social aspirations. So in that context, I can assure you that the "mulatto" status of Mildred does not simply conform to the degree of darkness of her skin.
It's all very complicated. And historic
ally, the term "mulatto" in colonial ways, referred only to the children of white men with their female slaves. But of course, those "mulattos" later married between themselves (very often) or married other blacks, and their "descendants" also loosely adopted the designation of their parents (or several other "more precise" or imprecise distinctions, if one does believe that there can be any precision to the designation of race or that there really is any truth to the concept of pure races). In the end, however, I do believe that the class struggle in Haiti, more so than the color determinant, dictates the choice of words to use as always for political effect.
That is the reality of Haitian culture. And I consider that component of it vastly unfortunate. At some point, Haitian people should begin to realize the pathetic social games that they are playing. You should not carelessly fall in the trap of using words the way some Haitians wish to perpetuate them for traditional purposes of promoting d
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