A friend recently alerted Chatterbox that Dairy Queen is marketing a new frozen drink called the MooLatte. Isn’t that, he observed, er, kind of in poor taste? What he meant was that “MooLatte” sounds a lot like “mulatto,” which is a word, not in much use nowadays, that describes a person whose father is white and mother is black or (less common in bygone days) the other way around. The “tragic mulatto,” typically a beautiful woman who passes for white and thrives for a time in white society, only to be cast out after her pitiable taint becomes known, was a stock character in literature and popular culture well into the 20th century. The stereotype is now an object of much study and commentary by scholars, along with other hoary racial conceits like the shuffling servant and the corpulent, stern, but big-hearted Mammy.
Now, Chatterbox doesn’t think of himself as being politically correct. He sees no harm in calling Native Americans “Indians” or conjoined twins “Siamese twins.” And while he personally would never use the term “mulatto” except in a clearly ironic context, that’s mainly because it’s archaic, not offensive. (For an unbelievably thorough defense of this position by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, click here. The CBC points out that while the word derives from the Spanish word for “mule,” which is certainly offensive, few people are aware of that insulting derivation—Chatterbox certainly wasn’t—so it doesn’t have much power to offend.) Writing in Salon, Danzy Senna—whose father is black-Mexican and whose mother is a WASP—points out that some activists on the left have actually embraced the term “mulatto.” At this late date, even the condescension inherent in the term “tragic mulatto” inspires more curiosity than outrage.
But it is one thing to keep using a word that in theory, but only in theory, causes racial offense, and quite another to create a word that resurrects, by association, a bygone racial stereotype. If there weren’t already a maple syrup called Aunt Jemima, it would be a pretty ghastly idea to invent one. (Actually, in this particular case, a new product name is probably overdue.)
Moreover, the name of a commercial product should never spotlight, even unintentionally, the physical similarity between that product’s appearance (in this case, hue) and that of any class of human beings. Being of Jewish ancestry, Chatterbox would certainly object loudly if Dairy Queen started selling coffee-flavored Italian ice cream with a big-nosed logo on the cup and called it the JooLato.
Doesn’t Dairy Queen have any black employees? Or at least somebody who’s seen Show Boat? Why didn’t anyone point out the MooLatte-mulatto problem? It seems inconceivable that the resemblance would be deliberate, given corporate skittishness about generating controversy in the marketplace. In any event, a quick Web search shows that Chatterbox isn’t the first to notice, and to take offense (click here, here, here, and here). You say MooLatte, we say mulatto. Let’s call the whole thing off.