Ethnic Labels and Racial Sensitivity

Started by Private User on Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Showing all 19 posts
Private User
10/26/2010 at 10:49 AM

I have ancestors that were plantation owners. Some of them had multiracial offspring. The terminology at the time was "Mulatto" for a person of half-white and half-black parentage. From there "Quadroon" was for someone with one black grandparent, and "Octoroon" was for someone with one black great grandparent.

I have been using the terminology of the time (And what is found in my source books) as the designation for the ethnicity of these multiracial relatives. I'd like to know what the community thinks about this topic. Should we be using historically accurate terms to denote ethnicity/race, or should we be using more modern terms for all profiles?

I surely don't want anyone to be offended if they stumble upon the profiles.

10/26/2010 at 10:58 AM

Robert being from Trinidad, West Indies, we too have used this terminology and I am sure it used all over the Caribbean islands.

10/26/2010 at 11:01 AM

What is the purpose of making the distinction? I just indicate whether a person was a slave or a slave owner and not track it into later generations at all.

Private User
10/26/2010 at 11:07 AM

Here was my reasoning:

1) Trying to represent the source material as accurately as possible.
2) Keeping track of the race in some way or another makes it easier (For me, at least) to visualize the relationships in historical context.

Also, most of these interracial relationships were between free black women and white plantation owners in Jamaica. Actually, some of the multiracial offspring owned slaves.

Private User
10/26/2010 at 11:07 AM

In early Virginia and North Carolina, mulatto did not always refer to black heritage. Many early settlers were Cherokee-white heritage and were called mulatto. It simply meant someone who was not 100% white but was a freeman and paid tithes or taxes.

If my notes say someone was part this and part that, I put it in the overview, with the source, and I put it on the ethnicity box. I don't try to carry it to the following generations.

<private> Hannah
10/26/2010 at 11:13 AM

Maria is right...Mulatto was also used for people who were mixed with American-Indian. It meant 1/2 White, 1/2 Colored.

The problem with adding Mulatto onto someone's profile is the fact that 2 years later, in census they could have been listed as Negro. It's better to just leave it blank and input documents that allow someone to see for themselves what the ancestor was ethnically.

My father's birth certificate lists him as White, but his father was Asian, so it doesn't make sense to me. I'd rather let people define what the ancestors are by where parents are from, religions they practiced, photos and all other information.

10/26/2010 at 11:15 AM

I would vote for historical accuracy first then the modern term if necessary. This could have a bearing on native American tribal members. Many of today's people may not have heard of the old terms. If a person was shown as a slave, that would be a hint as to where to search deeper. Surely no offense should be taken over historical usages, they were facts of life. I'm sure revisionists will not agree, but?

10/26/2010 at 11:21 AM

Good answers so far. Unless the person's ethnicity is referred to by sources, it should not be assumed (legitimacy and adoptions created accuracy issues). Alexander Pushkin, Russia's (some say mankind's) greates poet was an Octoroon, maybe; and that is the problem.

Private User
10/26/2010 at 11:33 AM

Here is the interesting, and complex monkey wrench:

The white plantation owners in Jamaica would often take mistresses that were black, half-black, quarter-black, and so-on.

For example, my cousin Alexander Falconer has four white children with his wife, four half-black children with his first mistress, and three quarter-black children with his second mistress. This is the scenario when I am most liekly trying to keep track of who was which race.

Private User
10/26/2010 at 12:23 PM

This is a repost from one of my earlier postings on this subject. Not everyone that has a "label" may be what that "label" implies. I do believe that we should stick to historical information no matter what. I hope that the following information helps.
One of my great grandmothers was labeled Mu, black and then depends on who was taking the census, how they felt about the people whom they were interviewing and where they lived. If you lived in say VA or in a southern state you my be labeled Mu or Black or colored. If you lived in Md or in a northern state you could be white or makes it hard to sort things out. Just remember that we are dealing with historical documents and radical identity may not always be clear.

I found this on a site and I hope that this helps some of the family understand what you may be finding as to who and what our family lines are. Frankly there is a very really possibility that thought out our family lines...those who lived in the Maryland and Virginia Colony's have some native blood in them. So if you find this term the history of the state and its policies on Native Peoples.

I hope soon to post a list of all tribes that were in the area's where our family lived.
I hope it will help us sort out who some of our family members were.

Re: Mulatto Classification of Indian Families & Related Laws

By Stacey Ricketts
10 Sep 2006

For the last 200 years numerous Indian descendants have been fighting a legal, and often racially charged, battle due to historical and modern-day race classification. The dreaded historical beast of southeastern Indian communities that continues to rear it's ugly head is the fact that from the mid 1700's to after 1900 most Indian groups or individuals east of the Mississippi were racially classified as "Mulatto." The reasons and justifications for this are rooted deeply in the history of southern slavery, land ownership, and political power.

Prior to 1850 the federal census and most county tax books only distinguished 4 types of persons; free white males, free white females, free persons of color, and slaves. By the record keeping of the time Indians not taxed were not supposed to be recorded at all. These non-taxed Indians supposedly lived on reservations and therefore were not required to be subject to federal census or county tax recordings. However, the inhabitants of many state reservations and some federal Indian land grants were recorded on these documents.

In 1705 the Virginia Legislature passed into law that "the offspring of an Indian and a White is a Mulatto." This law went on to state that if the half-Indian 'mulatto' was to marry a white person then that 'mulatto' and his or her offspring were to be legally regarded as 'white' (this is undoubtedly where the notion that a person should be of at least ¼ blood to be considered an Indian arose). The Virginians were using the word 'mulatto' in its historical usage, from the root word 'mule', meaning any crossbreed. With the independent formation of the lower southern states, each state adopted racial classifications roughly equivalent to that of Virginia. Florida's official race laws stipulated that any mixed-blood person, whether of white/Negro, white/Indian, Indian/Negro, white/Hispanic, or whatever, were to be legally and socially classified as 'mulatto'.

Prior to 1850 federal censuses were performed primarily for tax and land ownership recording purposes, and most Indians were either not recorded, or included in the 'other free persons' or 'free persons of color' categories. Beginning in 1850, persons contracted to perform the federal census were encouraged to inquire as to person's self-identification due to the fear of "Light skinned Negroes trying to pass them selves off as whites or Indians." Given that there were only three available categories, white, black, or mulatto; that persons who appeared to be obviously mixed-blooded of any kind were to be listed as 'mulatto'; and that persons taxed could not be listed as 'Indian' (who were inherently non-taxed); it is not surprising that there were few Indians recorded east of the Mississippi from 1850 to 1900.

Any Indian person, family, or community not living on well-known reservated areas were more likely to be recorded as mulatto than either Indian or white. In fact, some Indian individuals who were living on land set aside for Indians were still the target of this racial arrow. Recording individuals on a land reserve as mulatto, or otherwise suggesting that the inhabitants mere mixed with Negro blood, was one of the most popular methods used to usurp the natural land rights of an eastern Indian people. The list of tribal remnants who were, at some point, recorded as mulatto include the mixed Creek-Cheraws of Alabama, mixed Choctaw-Chowans of Alabama, Lumbees of North Carolina, Nanticokes of Delaware, and others.

For a perfect example of the confusion suffered by lawmakers attempting to place these mixed-bloods into some neat category, read this excerpt from the 1871 North Carolina Joint Senate and House Committee as they interviewed Robeson County Judge Giles Leitch about the 'free persons of color' living within his county:

Senate: Half of the colored population?

Leitch: Yes Sir; half of the colored population of Robeson County were never slaves at all…

Senate: What are they; are they Negroes?

Leitch: Well sir, I desire to tell you the truth as near as I can; but I really do not know what they are; I think they are a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and Indian…

Senate: You think they are mixed Negroes and Indians?

Leitch: I do not think that in that class of population there is much Negro blood at all; of that half of the colored population that I have attempted to describe all have always been free…They are called 'mulattoes' that is the name they are known by, as contradistinguished from Negroes…I think they are of Indian origin.

Senate: I understand you to say that these seven or eight hundred persons that you designate as mulattoes are not Negroes but are a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, white blood and Indian blood, you think they are not generally Negroes?

Leitch: I do not think the Negro blood predominates.

Senate: the word 'mulatto' means a cross between the white and the Negro?

Leitch: Yes sir.

Senate: You do not mean the word to be understood in that sense when applied to these people?

Leitch: I really do not know how to describe those people.

Regardless of the tax or land reasoning behind the 'mulatto' classification, a close examination of other factors can give a clearer picture of a group's social and legal standing. Although members of the Apalachicola Cheraw Indians were marked as mulatto on federal censuses, they were not held to the same legal or social restrictions as free persons of Negro blood. For example, Florida Legislation of 1848 required free Negroes and mulattoes to have a white guardian appointed by the local magistrate and were restricted from owning property. No Cheraw was ever assigned a white guardian, and Jacob and Absalom Scott were both early Florida landowners. Jacob Scott's 160 acres, mill and ferry were valued at $2,000 in 1860, actually making him one of Calhoun County's more prosperous citizens.

As the country hung on the edge of Civil War, the southern white power structure was making huge efforts to disempower and regulate any non-white non-slave persons in their midst. White slave owners feared that "free Negroes, Mulattoes and Indians" held natural anti-slavery sentiment and would support the North should war break out. To encourage free mixed-bloods to move beyond the boundaries of their states, many southern Legislatures approved tax regulations which imposed double taxes on "freepersons of color", required them to pay tax on their wives (a financial burden not imposed on white households) and restricted them from carrying firearms. Every state, which passed these restrictions, was the subject of petitions by Indian individuals and families who felt that they should not be the subjects of such 'free person of color' laws. In 1857, William Chavis was arrested and charged as "a free person of color" with carrying a shotgun, a violation of North Carolina state law. He was convicted, but promptly appealed, claiming that the law only restricted free Negroes, not persons of color. The appeals Court reversed the lower Court, finding that, "Free persons of color may be, then, for all we can see, persons colored by Indian blood, or persons descended from Negro ancestors beyond the fourth degree."

Prior to 1850, the Apalachicola Cheraws were recorded as 'other free persons' or 'free persons of color' on Jackson and Calhoun County tax rolls. In 1856 Florida tax books changed their format from a 'free persons of color' bracket to a 'free Negroes & Mulattos' bracket. At that point, the Cheraws were taxed as 'white'. After the conclusion of the Civil War the tax books changed again, this time with the race of an entire page of taxed persons being listed at the top of the page. On these new books, some of the Cheraw head of households are taxed as 'white', some are taxed as 'colored', and the Scott families were listed on a separate page with no racial header.

Often the tax records of Jackson and Calhoun disagree with the racial classification of Cheraws recorded on the federal census. Taxed as 'free persons of color' Jacob Scott and his wife Polly Harmon are recorded as 'white' on the 1850 census, and then later as 'mulatto' on the 1860. Francis E. Hill and his wife Elizabeth Scott are first censused as 'white' in 1850, then as 'mulatto' in 1860, while Francis Hill was consistently taxed as 'white'.

As has been discussed by many scholars, the 'Indian' stereotype was already prevalent among eastern whites as early as the 1850's. The typical understanding among southern whites was that all Indians had longhair, did not speak English, and, most importantly, all lived out west. Eastern Indian descendants were known to have varying hair colors and textures, varying eye colors, and a wide range of skin complexions, even as early as the 1700's, most probably due to intermarriage with early Spanish, French, and English traders. Most officials were at a loss when trying to categorize these people into a social structure that allowed for only two races, black and white.

An excerpt from the 1910 petition of the 'Croatan' Indians of Sampson County, North Carolina, shows the prevalent attitude of southern whites towards mixed-blood Indians:

"Since 1868, the white people in Sampson County, as a rule, have classed these Indians with the Negroes and refused to accept them except as Negroes. They have consequently been forced, in a measure, with the Negro race, but they steadfastly refused to be classed with Negroes. They have refused to attend the churches and the schools of the Negroes or to co-mingle with them on terms of social equality. It is marvelous that they have been able to maintain their racial status so well under the adverse social and political status which has been forced upon them by the white people."

Physically described over the years as "darkskin-dark hair-dark eyes", "mixed-blooded almost white", "at the least mixed-blooded","Caucasian-Indian" and to quote the Jackson County School Superintendent "…from their appearance can very easily be considered as belonging to the white race…of course possible that they might have a large percentage of Indian blood."; we must take all of the evidence as a whole, boil it down, and come to a conclusion. The Apalachicola Cheraw were considered to be persons of Indian ancestry, and were not legally or socially held to the restrictions of bearing Negro blood.

Private User
10/26/2010 at 12:43 PM

Here is the question, then:

What should we be using to denote Ethnicity/Race? Should we be using terms that accurately indicate where their ancestors came from, or should we be using terms that were either used by them or on them?

If, by chance, a person was labeled mullato, but they were actually Amer-Indian, which term should be used?

All of the complexities of Ethnicity/Race really make me think that maybe Geni should switch to nationality-based labels instead. I know it's been discussed before.

10/26/2010 at 2:45 PM

"nationality-based labels" are just as useless, if not more. Them damn borders just keep on changing! While obviously some people DO come from different "ethnic" backgrounds, but other than socially, it is a meaningless term, and social labels are SO temporary.

Private User
10/26/2010 at 2:57 PM

Actually I think it's easier for historical profiles than more contemporary ones. For history we use whatever the source document (hopefully primary) used. For more modern people, leave it off. :)

10/26/2010 at 3:03 PM

By way of example. There was a long period of time, where us Jews were NOT considered "white" in America. This despite the Jews in America at the time being almost exclusively from Europe, and externally indistinguishable from any other "whites". Today, when about a third of American Jews are "dark", from Asian or Mediterranean countries, no-one would consider us anything but "white".

<private> Hannah
10/26/2010 at 3:07 PM

Robert, if someone was Native-American and they were labeled Mulatto, if you know what tribal nation they were of (for instance Powhatan), label the person's Powhatan Mother as a Powhatan and the father a as "Whatever."

It made me think of Pocahontas as she was a Powhatan princess, but her children were half English. What would they be labeled on a Census intake? Probably Mulatto. But, the Powhatan nation accepts her biracial children such as Thomas Rolfe as a Powhatan. However, racially he was
"mixed." So, without denying his "White" side, just list his mother's ethnicity as Powhatan and his father as English. This will allow people to "define" Thomas how they want. I'

10/26/2010 at 4:40 PM

Terri, thanks for the extremely interesting history of racial labeling in the Southeast. Robert, thanks for starting this discussion. I think that, as with any historical reconstruction, the proper thing to do is to report what was said about them in historical documents, but realizing that all you are doing is reporting the *labelling* and not trying to determine what someone "really" is ethnically or racially. Our own categories of labelling today may be different but are not necessarily any more accurate. Labelling is a sociopolitical way of dividing up a population and "putting them in their (social) places"--granting them privilege or discriminating against them, but always generally creating inequalities in wealth, power and prestige.

10/26/2010 at 6:07 PM

Good discussion happening! I too have inter-racial marriages in my tree, ancestors and more recently, two of my nephews. One married a Cree (plains native), and the other of African Gauna heritage. Her parents are from Gauna. The nephews now have children. Of course they are beautiful! No bias there.... hehe. I think its cool that they have such a varied ethnicity. They are my blood. Canadian. I agree with Mimi. Let the reader determine for themselves what ethnic background they are.
Good read @Terri, Re: Mulatto Classification of Indian Families & Related Laws. I love stuff like this. Thanks everyone! :)

12/22/2010 at 3:36 PM

Robert, I understand where you are coming from, and wholeheartedly AGREE with you! Let's put our ancestors in perspective of what they themselves where in or believed.

<private> Hannah
12/22/2010 at 7:01 PM

There are ethnic labels that bug me, too. I've seen "O" for Oriental. Nowadays that word describes objects and not people. It would be almost awkward to have. If you know the actual "ethnicity" then wouldn't it be "better" to say for a Mulatto of 3 ethnic backgrounds to be something like English, Choctaw and African? Or White, Native-American and Black? And if you can, back it up with documents that may say "Mulatto" in it so people can see how history has evolved.

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