Media & Black Adolescents Series: A Look at the Tragic Mulatto in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn

By Bryce Wyles

This blog post is the second in a Media & Black Adolescents Series by youth analyzing movies that reflect the experiences and identity development of Black adolescents. For more posts, please visit our blog. Special thanks to Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass for her support of this series and the youth in her classes. 


  • Undergraduate students taking a “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity” college course were asked to critique movies and television series, analyzing the media content and applying theory or research. 
  • This Media & Black Adolescents Series reflects on a spectrum of experiences for Black adolescents that are grounded in racial and media socialization reflected in the movies. These blogs address racial stereotypes as they relate to contemporary social issues and the identity development experiences of Black youth.
  • For this second of five posts in the series, the youth writer reviews “Crooklyn” a movie following the Carmichael family in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, and examines the tragic mulatto and reinforced internal racism.
Song straightens Troy’s hair (Lee, 1994, 1:13:11)

For parents or educators who may choose to use this movie as a teaching/learning tool, here are some possible discussion questions:

  • Why might “socially ascribed blackness” be more influential in socializing Black children than their own perception of race? Does that perception even take root before socialization begins?
  • Viola does not visit Brooklyn, though she wants to. How might her perception of “Crooklyn” differ or align with Troy’s view of Song’s home?


Chasing her children out of bed at 4 AM, scolding them for failing to clean the kitchen as she had asked, Carolyn Carmichael exclaims, “This ain’t no plantation. I’m not a slave…and I certainly am not a play thing!” (Lee, 1994, 12:50). The Carmichael family—Carolyn, Woody, and their five children—is the heart of Spike Lee’s 1994 movie Crooklyn. Occurring in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, Crooklyn sees the Carmichaels, alongside their friends and relatives, navigating the quarrelsome, blurred difficulties of the personal and the political:

  • The personal: raising five children on a low income; feuding with neighbors, drug addicts, school bullies; interacting with aunts and uncles that either nurture or lay judgement. 
  • The political: piecing through the social connotations of welfare and food stamps; opposing and affirming the politics of gender and sex roles; witnessing casual racism in Brooklyn and suggesting institutional racism at large. 

In what may seem a lighthearted digression in Lee’s career, the iconic director uses the Carmichaels to dissect life in America—the ups, downs, lefts, and rights—for a struggling Black family.

Lee’s film walks both a comedic and serious line. Themes of racism and poverty are striking, yet you can’t help but burst out laughing when Aunt Song’s poor dead dog flies out of a foldout futon. That scene truthfully captures the entirety of the film: it’s dark, undoubtedly, at times, but somehow it keeps Lee’s satirical charm. Crooklyn’s characters—most of them, at least—are loveable, funny, and relatable. Recalling Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, it’s clear that his filmmaking is distinct, and iconic, in its blend of humor and commentary.

The Tragic Mulatto

One of Lee’s most telling portrayals in the film is that of Aunt Song, whom Troy, the Carmichaels’ daughter, goes to stay with at one point in the film. Song immediately juxtaposes the Carmichael family—her affluent lifestyle contrasts the Carmichaels’ small apartment and low income. Her first remark to Troy, though, suggests a juxtaposition beyond just affluence; seeing Troy’s hair, Song belittlingly asks, “All those little tiny braids and things, what y’all call that?” “Braids,” Carolyn responds, with a painted smile, aware of Song’s distaste for Troy’s hair (Lee, 1994, 1:07:44). 

Other scenes at Song’s household include an array of White dolls adorning Song’s adopted daughter’s dresser. We see Song take out Troy’s braided hair in favor of straightened locks, in one scene commenting, “Don’t tell me you got the nerve to be tender-headed with these naps” (Lee, 1994, 1:12:59). Whether knowingly or not, Song has delineated Whiteness as an ideal, through the dolls she buys her daughter Viola and her insistence that straightened, flowing hair garner praise over braids and beads. Song could be said to have already answered the question as to whether “she should accept her socially ascribed blackness or reject it in favor of a more privileged whiteness” (Jackson, 2006, p. 33). This dilemma is one Jackson (2006) ascribes to the Black character archetype of the tragic mulatto. Jackson (2006) identifies the tragic mulatto as a Black woman who enters an identity crisis as she grapples with her morals in association with her race, often light-skinned enough to pass as White (p. 33-4).

Read more from this critique by downloading this PDF.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Bryce Wyles is a second-year student at the University of Virginia majoring in English and Media Studies. He enjoys viewing and analyzing media ranging from Netflix shows to classic literature to press publications. Originally from Chesapeake, Virginia, he currently lives in Charlottesville, where he also writes for the student-run newspaper The Cavalier Daily.

Whose Ideal (and Who’s Ideal)?

By: Chris Chang-Bacon

I did my dissertation on “monolingual ideologies” in education. The idea of “monolingualism” made sense to me at the time (and still does in many cases). I was writing about states that had “English-only education” policies, despite evidence of the many benefits of bilingual education. To me, this was best explained by a deep-seated English-only bias of “monolingualism” (and the racism/nationalism that so often goes along with it).

Source: Chris Chang-Bacon’s personal blog.
A post summarizing my latest article in Teachers College Record.

The more I’ve written about the idea, however, the notion that all of the linguistic discrimination going on in schools was driven by “monolingualism” started to feel incomplete. Don’t get me wrong, there are far too many contexts where overt language oppression still takes place. But in other contexts, it began to feel too simple to explain all of it as a bias toward (English) monolingualism.

The history of U.S. education is often written as a long march toward monolingualism. This is appropriate in most cases: Schools have far too often been places where students were (and are) forbidden to speak languages other than English and overtly taught that learning English was the only avenue toward professional success or proving their knowledge.

However, it turns out that U.S. education has always encouraged multilingualism for some while forbidding it for others. Take renowned polyglots like Ben Franklin who were lauded for their cosmopolitan multilingualism: These figures gained fame at the same time that U.S. policies were attempting to forbid indigenous populations and enslaved people from speaking languages other than English.

So I realized I had to start thinking and writing about this in more complex ways. I’m trying to think less along the lines of “monolingual” and more along the lines of which language practices become “idealized” (and for whom). I bring out these ideas in my recent article for Teachers College Record. I write that,

“In addition to monolingualism as a language ideology, I argue that there is much to gain from a related, but broader framework of idealized language ideologies. Monolingual language ideologies uphold one specific language practice as the norm (e.g., so-called standard English). On the other hand, a framework of idealized language ideologies highlights the malleability of these supposed norms—involving (1) a set of idealized language practices (2) mapped onto an idealized speaker (3) in relation to certain institutional interests or power dynamics (see Figure 1). This framework helps to explain the entrenchment of problematic language hierarchies, whether through restrictive monolingual language policies or within educational programs ostensibly geared toward bilingualism.”

This has been helping me to articulate more clearly the underlying racism and anti-immigrant bias that informs whose langue practices are idealized–whether it be in monolingual or bilingual educational spaces. My thoughts on this are still being shaped by by engaging with related work from linguists, educators, and linguistic anthropologists (see article for massive list of name-drops, but here are two on my bookshelf at the moment). I’m looking forward to writing with this idea of “idealized language ideologies” more to see if it can help me better sort through the entanglements of language, racism, and nationalism in language education. Hopefully the idea that language practices can be “idealized” in different ways, for different individuals, and in different contexts can also help to better expose the host of other problematic ideologies that are ever-present in educational contexts and in society more widely.

For those interested in the full article, you can find it here (or a here for those without access to the journal).

Chang-Bacon, C. K. (2021). Idealized language ideologies: The “new bilingualism” meets the “old” educational inequities. Teachers College Record. 123(1).

Read the original post on Dr. Chang-Bacon’s personal blog.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. Former High School English teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, ESL Faculty Manager in South Korea, and Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. Chang-Bacon’s scholarship is informed by the dynamic multilingual, multidialectal, and multimodal language practices young people bring to classrooms. Follow on Twitter @ChrisChangBacon