creoleThe Original Creole Orchestra.

If we go by Wikipedia, the term refers to Louisiana-born people with a mixed racial background (including French, Black, and American Indian).  New Orleans is a tourist draw, in part, because of a claim to authentic creole food, culture, and people.  The Laura Plantation outside of New Orleans (discussed previously), for example, proudly claims itself to be a creole plantation.

But creole, like all other racial and ethnic designations, is a social construction.

In his book, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy, Kevin Fox Gotham explains that originally, and as late as the late 1800s, the term meant “indigenous to Louisiana.”  It was a geographic label and no more.

But, during the early 1900s, the city of New Orleans racialized the term.  In order to bring in more tourists, they needed to whiten the city.  White city elites, in search of white travel dollars, needed to convince tourists that New Orleans was a safe and proper destination.  Creole, then, was re-cast as a white identity and mixed-race and black people were excluded from inclusion in the category.

The current definition of creole as mixed race, that you may be familiar with today, is actually a rather recent development.  The push to re-define the term to be more inclusive of non-whites began in the 1960s, but didn’t really take  hold until the 1990s.  Today, still racialized, the term now capitalizes on the romantic notions of multiculturalism that pervade New Orleans tourism advertising: from the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network, to this image from a New Orleans travel website

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… to this portion of an essay from another travel website:

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The term continues to be contested. For example, this website claims that it carries cultural and not racial meaning):

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This book seems to define creole as free people of color (and their descendants) in Louisiana:

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Whereas this food website identifies creole as a mix of French, Spanish, African, Native American, Chinese, Russian, German, and Italian:

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In short, “creole” has gone through three different iterations in its short history in the U.S., revealing that the term, like other racial and ethnic terms, is an empty signifier that can be defined and re-defined according to political and economic need. No doubt, the meaning of creole will continue to evolve.

For more posts on the social construction of race and ethnicity, see here, here, and here.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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