The tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries, from the 1840s. The "tragic mulatto" is an archetypical mixed-race person (a "mulatto"), who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the "white world" or the "black world". As such, the "tragic mulatto" is depicted as the victim of the society in society divided by race, where there is no place for one who is neither completely "black" nor "white".
The female "tragic octoroon" was a stock character of abolitionist literature: a light-skinned woman raised as if a white woman in her father's household, until his bankruptcy or death has her reduced to a menial position and sold. She may even be unaware of her status before being so reduced. This character allowed abolitionists to draw attention to the sexual exploitation in slavery, and unlike the suffering of the field hands, did not allow slaveholders to retort that the sufferings of Northern mill hands were no easier, since the Northern mill owner would not sell his own children into slavery.
The "tragic mulatta" figure is a woman of biracial heritage who endures the hardships of African-Americans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious. As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end. Lydia Maria Child's 1842 short story "The Quadroons" is generally credited as the first work of literature to feature a tragic mulatta, to garner support for emancipation and equal rights. Child followed up "The Quadroons" with the 1843 short story "Slavery's Pleasant Homes", which also has a tragic mulatta character.
Writer Eva Allegra Raimon notes that Child "allowed white readers to identify with the victim by gender while distancing themselves by race and thus to avoid confronting a racial ideology that denies the full humanity of nonwhite women." The passing character, Clare Kendry, in Nella Larsen's Passing has been deemed a "tragic mulatta".
Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories:
- A woman who can "pass" for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a bi-racial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy.
- A woman who appears to be white and thus passes as being so. It is believed that she is of Greek or Spanish descent. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, she loses her social standing.
- A woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.
A common objection to this character is that she allows readers to pity the plight of oppressed or enslaved races, but only through a veil of whiteness — that is, instead of sympathizing with a true racial "other", one is sympathizing with a character who is made as much like one's own race as possible. The "tragic mulatta" often appeared in novels intended for women, also, and some of the character's appeal lay in the lurid fantasy of a person just like them suddenly cast into a lower social class after the discovery of a small amount of "black blood" that renders her unfit for proper marriage.
- Literature featuring "tragic mulatto" and "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles
- Le Mulâtre 1837 (French)
- "The Quadroons", 1842 short story by Lydia Maria Child (introduced the literary character of the tragic mulatto)
- "Slavery's Pleasant Homes", 1843 short story by Lydia Maria Child
- Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, 1853 novel by William Wells Brown
- The Garies and Their Friends, 1857 novel by Frank J. Webb
- A Escrava Isaura, 1875 novel by Brazilian author Bernardo Guimarães
- Iola Leroy, 1892 novel by Frances Harper
- The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line by Charles W. Chesnutt (1899)
- The House Behind the Cedars, 1900 novel by Charles W. Chesnutt
- The Marrow of Tradition, 1901 novel by Charles W. Chesnutt
- The Clansman, 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr. (the source material for D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation).
- "Cross", poem by Langston Hughes published 1925
- Show Boat, 1926 novel by Edna Ferber (also the source material for the 1927 stage musical).
- "Mulatto", poem by Langston Hughes published 1927
- The White Girl, 1929 novel by Vara Caspary
- Passing, 1929 novel by Nella Larsen
- Dark Lustre, 1932 novel by Geoffrey Barnes
- Light in August, 1932 novel by William Faulkner
- Imitation of Life, 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst
- "Father and Son", short story by Langston Hughes published 1934
- Mulatto: A Play of the Deep South, 1935 drama by Langston Hughes
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston
- Lost Boundaries, 1940 book by William L. White
- The Wind From Nowhere, 1943 novel by Oscar Micheaux
- The Barrier, 1950 opera by Langston Hughes and Jan Meyerowitz
- "African Morning", 1952 short story by Langston Hughes
- Band of Angels, 1955 novel by Robert Penn Warren
- To Kill a Mockingbird, a 1960 book by Harper Lee
- A Soldier's Play, 1981 drama by Charles Fuller
- Devil in a Blue Dress, 1990 novel by Walter Mosely
- The Human Stain, 2000 novel by Philip Roth
- Films featuring "tragic mulatto" and "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles
- The Birth of a Nation (1915)
- Within Our Gates (1920)
- The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)
- The Virgin of the Seminole (1922)
- Scar of Shame (1926)
- The House Behind the Cedars (1927)
- Veiled Aristocrats (1932)
- Imitation of Life (1934)
- God's Step Children (1938)
- The Betrayal (1948)
- Lost Boundaries, 1949
- Pinky (1949)
- Il Mulatto, 1950 Italian film released as "Angelo" in the United States
- Show Boat (1951)
- Band of Angels (1957)
- Kings Go Forth (1957)
- Imitation of Life (1959), remake of the 1934 original
- Shadows (1959)
- I Passed for White (1960)
- The Black Klansman (1966), a.k.a. I Crossed the Color Line
- Purple Rain (1984)
- A Soldier's Story (1984)
- Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
- The Human Stain (2003)
- Television movies and series featuring "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles
- Alex Haley's Queen, the acclaimed television series by Alex Haley offers a subversion of the "tragic mulatta" archetype, while making reference to many of its elements.
- A Escrava Isaura has been adapted to Brazilian television twice, first in 1976 (as Escrava Isaura), and again in 2004.
- Angel (the television series) featured a tragic mulatta character (portrayed by Melissa Marsala) in its 2000 episode "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been".
- Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character Worf. Orphaned at the age of 5, Worf, a Klingon, was adopted and raised by Human parents along with a Human brother, Nikolai. Throughout both series franchises, Worf frequently struggles with his identity. 
- Star Trek character Spock is half human, half Vulcan
- In Power Rangers Mystic Force, the Troblin (half Troll, half Goblin) Phineas is despised by both Trolls and Goblins.
- Video games featuring "tragic mulatta" characters in pivotal roles
- Assassin's Creed: Liberation, the first PlayStation Vita installment of the acclaimed series, has the playable character, Aveline, subvert the trope, according to Kotaku writer Evan Narcisse.
- Pilgrim, David (November 2000). "The Tragic Mulatto Myth" (also: ). Jim Crow: Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
- Ariela J. Gross, What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, p. 61. ISBN 978-0-674-03130-2
- Kathy Davis. "Headnote to Lydia Maria Child's 'The Quadroons' and 'Slavery's Pleasant Homes'."
- Werner Sollors, Interracialism p. 285 ISBN 0-19-512856-7
- The Tragic Mulatta Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction, by Eva Allegra Raimon