The mulatta serves as a strategy of containment of Blackness through logics of racial management.
“Racial mixing does not solve racism and we do not need to hope for a distant future of racelessness.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Jasmine Mitchell. Mitchell is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Media and Communication at SUNY Old Westbury. Her book is Imagining the Mulatta: Blackness in U.S. and Brazilian Media.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Jasmine Mitchell: Imagining the Mulatta illustrates how antiBlackness, state violence, and racial disparities and death (as amplified by COVID-19) stem from the contradictions of illusionary racial progress, the denial of racism, and enduring legacies of slavery and colonization. We still have to be wary of how myths of progress obscure and naturalize antiBlackness and look at how these myths are perpetuated in mass media. While the media texts from Imagining the Mulatta precede our present moment, the book shows how antiBlackness and patriarchy are not aberrations but rather symptomatic of the Americas, in particular the United States and Brazil.From violence targeted towards Black communities to the disproportionate deaths in these same communities from COVID-19, there are so many parallels in the United States and Brazil. We need to reconsider multiple structures, including mass media production, perpetuating racism and sexism.
Through it all, the figure of the contemporary mulatta, a woman of African and European descent, functions as a contested symbol of multiracial harmony in the United States and Brazil, while simultaneously masking anti-blackness in the Americas. Examining popular media in both the United States and Brazil, Imagining the Mulatta opens up an avenue to discuss how this figure illustrates paradoxes of racial inequalities with visions of racial utopia. As both the United States and Brazil experienced phases of the hope of racial progress during the presidencies of Barack Obama, Lula da Silva, and Dilma Rousseff, the book examines how mixed black images nonetheless were couched in white supremacy and the continuation of antiBlackness leading to resurgences of white heteronormative nationalisms.
“AntiBlackness and patriarchy are symptomatic of the Americas, in particular the United States and Brazil.”
How did the United States and Brazil manage the promises of racial paradises of mixed race peoples with the realities of racism? In this book, I wanted to use a broader frame than just looking at the United States and Brazil in isolation. The book asks what are the key links between the United States and Brazil? These links revolve around managing Blackness through racial mixing alongside grappling with continuing legacies of slavery. Looking at the United States and Brazil together demonstrates how the mulatta serves as a strategy of containment of Blackness through logics of racial management. These strategies of racial management classify and rank bodies that are closer to white to be more valuable than nonwhite bodies with the end goal of racial improvement through whitening and the eventual elimination of undesirable Blackness.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that readers can grasp the variant ways society manages Blackness to uphold racial hierarchies. It is seductive to hope for racial progress, racial democracy without actually doing the work to dismantle systems of oppression mired in pervasive racial and gender inequalities. Mixed-race women of African and European descent are often harnessed in popular media as a tool to uphold white supremacy and discipline people of African descent to uphold state policies of antiBlackness. The United States and Brazil are often thought of as nations that are so different from each other. Mass media emerges here as a way to disseminate these simultaneous narratives of racial utopias and the containing of Black bodies. Rather, these nations are entwined within legacies of colonization and slavery and deep racial anxieties to uphold white patriarchy. These overlapping racial ideologies are only visible when Brazilian and US cultural productions are read alongside one another.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will
un-learn ? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Mixed race people will not save us from racism. I hear this romanticized refrain over and over again across the Americas. There is this lingering idea that the very presence of mixed-race people means racism cannot exist. Somehow interracial sexual relations are presented as the salve to racism, instead of helping to perpetuate racism. Race becomes some remnant of the past while deemphasizing a long history of racial mixing. Colonialism and slavery – combined with lots of nonconsensual interracial sex – fueled racial hierarchies rather than dismantle it. In the United States, mixed-race people are presented as the big hope towards racial progress and the elimination of race itself. The images of racial mixing also tend to project the U.S. as gradually becoming less Black. The U.S. should look to Brazil and much of Latin America to see how this touting of racial mixing masks racism.
Brazilian myths of racial democracy based on racial mixing are also just that–myths. Brazil’s national mythmaking projects the idea of a unified, racially mixed nation that is on its way to gradual whiteness. Beginning in the 1930s, Gilberto Freyre, a noted anthropologist, and the Brazilian state, propagated the myth of racial democracy based upon racial mixing. This national lore rested on the idea that all Brazilians could claim African, European, and Indigenous ancestry, and thus, racism in Brazil did not exist. The myth of racial democracy boasted Brazilian racial harmony but masked deep racial inequalities and furthered racial hierarchies. This myth also romanticizes colonization and slavery and repackages it as a sexual fantasy of white men and nonwhite women. The eroticized symbols of the U.S. mulatta and Brazilian mulata facilitate these myths of racial mixing. The image of the Brazilian mulata (e.g. Carnival, samba shows, etc.) functioned as the mythic proof of racial harmony for both internal and external consumption. Brazil sells the world and itself an idea of a racial sexual paradise. There is a saying in Brazil, “Branca para casar, mulata para fornicar, negra para trabalhar (white women for marriage, mulata women for sex, black women for work).” This saying really crystallizes the valuing of white femininity and the devaluation of Black womanhood. Like Brazil, the U.S. also harbors an exoticized sexual fetishization of mixed Black women. These erotic myths are not brand new–again just repackaged from centuries of myths of Black sexual availability stemming from slavery. I hope that my book can dispel some of these myths through the variety of media texts used. I tell my students it’s never “just a movie.” Rather, we are forming ideas around race and gender, around who is valued and who is not. Media texts – films, television shows, music videos, etc. – circulate these myths of racial mixing in gendered and sexualized terms.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My grandparents are my intellectual heroes. Not all intellectuals have written books or have advanced degrees. They were some of the most well-read reflective and engaged people that I know and always pushed me to ask questions, to read as much as I could, and to use my perspectives and my knowledge for social good. I am indebted to so many scholars, activists, and media experts who have shaped my thinking about race and gender in the Americas. At first, I wasn’t sure if writing about mixed-race or popular media was feasible. Mary Beltrán, who mentored me and saw the potential in this book manuscript, has written such compelling work on mixed-race, pop culture, and gender in the U.S. Ralina Joseph and Camilla Fojas have also looked at mixed race, national identities, and popular media in inspiring and accessible ways. I want foremost for anyone to be able to find Imagining the Mulatta relevant to their lives. Kia Caldwell, Sueli Carneiro and Saidiya Hartman are critical influences because of their work centering Black women and the legacies of slavery and resistance. These narratives are too often excluded or obscured. The work of scholars like Micol Seigel and Ann Stoler guided me through thinking through the interconnections between nations in terms of racial thought, managing racial anxieties, and forms of resistance. I am also very much influenced by the combined approaches of scholars like Stuart Hall and bell hooks on how to read mass media texts critically. And of course, Joel Zito Araújo, a pioneer of writing and creating work centering on Afro-Brazilians in media.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
We need a radical reorientation of the imagination. The transformation of structures and institutions cannot happen without rethinking knowledge formations. This book calls attention to how dominant discourses of race, gender, sexuality, and class condition our ways of determining who is valued, who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Mass media is often trivialized as unimportant. But, instead mass media, such as TV shows, music videos, etc. actively call attention to who is valued and devalued. Mixed race women are often imagined in mass media, political discourse, and the public sphere as the future of a new racial utopia. In this imagined future, Blackness is often placed as archaic or out of place. That is not a future I want to be a part of. Instead of the end of race, we should think about the end of racism, the end of patriarchy, and the end of injustices. Racial mixing does not solve racism and we do also not need to hope for a distant future of racelessness. We need to take up how the mulatta and the hauntings of slavery characterize the present and then we can reimagine a decolonized anti-racist future in which Black lives can flourish. This is not a U.S. struggle. The book calls for greater Black solidarities across the Americas and across the globe. Brazil and the United States remain intimately connected in shared struggles and structural conditions. The reimagining of resistance and creation of more just systems can be forged together. Cultural workers and media makers have key roles in this imagining of the future. The book provides an analysis of how media celebration of mixed Black women in the late 20th century U.S. and Brazilian popular culture did not so much espouse a socially transformative notion of race, but was instead a vehicle to refashion tropes of multiracial Blackness to affirm neoliberal racial projects. With an understanding of how antiBlackness, patriarchy, and capitalism are naturalized through mass media, my hope is that readers can connect the urgency of this moment to a revolutionary present for a future freed from oppressive ideologies, conditions, and structures.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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