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Mulattoes or Mulattos are mixed race persons who have both Sub-Saharan African and European ancestry. The term is derived from the Spanish and Portuguese "mulato", with uncertain origin, although it may derive from Portuguese "mula" (from the Latin "mūlus"), meaning mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. Some sources claim an origin from the Arabic term "muwallad". The term may today be considered less politically correct and more unspecific terms such as "biracial" or "multiracial" may be preferred. Regarding if mixed groups are (new) races, see the Race article. Regardless, they may be ethnicities.

Terms for Partial-blacks

  • Mulatto technically referred to someone half-black and half-white [50 % negro]. Often it referred unspecifically to someone with any black and white ancestry.
  • Quadroon [25 % black] usually referred to someone with three white grandparents and one black grandparent. A quadroon has a biracial (mulatto) parent (black and white) and one white parent.
  • Octoroon [12.5 % black] referred to someone with one great-grandparent who is of full black-African descent and seven great-grandparents who are white.
  • Quintroon [6.25 % black] is a rarely used term that refers to a person who is of one-sixteenth black ancestry.
    • A quintroon has one parent who is an octoroon and one white parent. Hexadecaroon, also meaning one-sixteenth black, is a less common term for the same ethnic mix. Mestee was also used for a person with less than one-eighth black ancestry.

Origin of Terms

The term “mulatto” is often derived from the Portuguese and Spanish word mulato, which itself is derived from mula, or mule (from Old Spanish; from Latin mūlus). This draws an analogy to the mule, which is the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. Some dictionaries and scholarly works trace the word's origins to the Arabic term muwallad which also has somewhat contested origins.

“Quadroon” is borrowed from Spanish cuarterón (ultimately from Latin quartus, “fourth”). “Octoroon” is modeled on this, from Latin octo, “eight” (or equivalently Greek ὀκτώ októ). Quintus is Latin “fifth”, but “quintroon” does not follow the same logic as the preceding: it refers to the number of generations-removed from the pure-black ancestor, rather than the racial proportion. The alternative “hexadecaroon”, from Greek hexadeka, “sixteen”, expresses this proportion directly.


  • To be considered black in the United States not even half of one's ancestry must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation's answer to the question 'Who is black?" has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the "one-drop rule," meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person a black. It is also known as the "one black ancestor rule," some courts have called it the "traceable amount rule," and anthropologists call it the "hypo-descent rule," meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation's definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks. [...] We must also pay attention to the terms "mulatto" and "colored." The term "mulatto" was originally used to mean the offspring of a "pure African Negro" and a "pure white." Although the root meaning of mulatto, in Spanish, is "hybrid," "mulatto" came to include the children of unions between whites and so-called "mixed Negroes." For example, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, with slave mothers and white fathers, were referred to as mulattoes. To whatever extent their mothers were part white, these men were more than half white. Douglass was evidently part Indian as well, and he looked it. Washington had reddish hair and gray eyes. At the time of the American Revolution, many of the founding fathers had some very light slaves, including some who appeared to be white. The term "colored" seemed for a time to refer only to mulattoes, especially lighter ones, but later it became a euphemism for darker Negroes, even including unmixed blacks. With widespread racial mixture, "Negro" came to mean any slave or descendant of a slave, no matter how much mixed. Eventually in the United States, the terms mulatto, colored, Negro, black, and African American all came to mean people with any known black African ancestry. Mulattoes are racially mixed, to whatever degree, while the terms black, Negro, African American, and colored include both mulattoes and unmixed blacks. As we shall see, these terms have quite different meanings in other countries. [...] Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other group than American blacks, but apparently the rule is unique in that it is found only in the United States and not in any other nation in the world. In fact, definitions of who is black vary quite sharply from country to country, and for this reason people in other countries often express consternation about our definition. James Baldwin relates a revealing incident that occurred in 1956 at the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists held in Paris. The head of the delegation of writers and artists from the United States was John Davis. The French chairperson introduced Davis and then asked him why he considered himself Negro, since he certainly did not look like one. Baldwin wrote, "He is a Negro, of course, from the remarkable legal point of view which obtains in the United States, but more importantly, as he tried to make clear to his interlocutor, he was a Negro by choice and by depth of involvement--by experience, in fact."[1]

See also