Interracial Relationships: Not all Rainbows and Butterflies
Updated: Oct 6
“It’s not that love doesn’t see colour; it just knows how to mix and match” - unknown
Although I had a preferred “type” in the past, I occasionally dated white men. Eventually, I married one. What I didn’t realise was that people outside our relationship had their own feelings about it. Not everyone felt the need to keep those feelings to themselves. For better or worse, my current relationship elicits a wide range of emotional reactions from people close to us as well as random people out in the world. The added layer is that we are from two wildly differing ethnicities and had a lot of cross-cultural issues early in our life together.
In order to ensure that everyone is of the same understanding, it is essential that we realise that “race” and “ethnicity” are two different concepts. They are often used interchangeably, even though they should not be. Race is a social construct that refers to physical characteristics like skin colour, hair texture and the shapes of features. Ethnicity refers to cultural expression, language and aspects of lived experience that are unique to a particular group of people and may have nothing to do with race.
The Caribbean is an excellent example of this. In many Caribbean countries, we identify ourselves based on our nationality and the practices of that particular island. We identify each other based on our accents, food and language. It is entirely possible to be a white, Asian or Indian Jamaican, Guyanese, Trinidadian etc. When mixed race Jamaicans in particular leave Jamaica, we are often “white-splained” as to why we don’t “look Jamaican” because of the stereotype of a Jamaican as a weed smoking Rastafarian. This kind of narrow and ignorant thinking is almost always displayed by white North Americans who assume that they have the right to name the world and everyone in it in the manner that makes sense to them while saying "yeah mon” (which we don’t actually say).
In returning to the focus of this article, clients I have seen who are in interracial relationships have often timidly revealed that the partners they are talking about are of a different race and are usually relieved when I tell them that I am in an interracial relationship myself. This is because not all the people who have expressed concern or disgust with interracial relationships have been white. Within the black community, there is a lot of division over whether or not such relationships are acceptable. This is captured beautifully by David Ludden in his article How Racial Minorities View Interracial Couples which can be read here. He says “…interracial marriages are often disparaged in racial minority communities as well”.
Although it is more common to see black men married to white women, this type of relationship is viewed differently by black men vs black women. It is no secret that many black women feel cheated out of potential partners when black men choose white women for long term partnerships. This has been the topic of discussion in all facets of life. In his song “Gold Digger”, Kanye West references a man who finally obtains financial security with the support of a faithful black woman only to turn around and “leave yo ass for a white girl”. This reference has showed up in popular culture for decades.
The reverse scenario is not as common and is often subject to higher levels of scrutiny. In my personal experience, and the experience of my black female clients in relationships with white men, there is a lot less acceptance and an alarming degree of hostility towards this configuration in spaces where white supremacy is normalised. We have heard remarks asking whether or not we have power in our relationships as if somehow, by virtue of being a black woman, we are automatic concubines rather than equal partners in a loving relationship. There is even the view that our great grandmothers were raped by white men and that to allow a white man to touch us sexually dishonours their memory. The treatment of Serena Williams and Meghan Markel are recent examples of this thinking. Examples of this type of treatment have occasionally occurred in my personal life and when I hear them echoed in my clients’ accounts of their interactions with people, I am reminded of the fact that I am not alone in that experience.
The focus of this post is on heterosexual relationships. The reason is that some of the research, (here), suggests that in the queer community, interracial interactions, friendships and romantic engagements may be more common than they are in hetero scenarios. A short review of the literature around interracial queer couples shows that the identification as queer seems to be more stress inducing than race. To be clear, I am not suggesting that these relationships are free from scrutiny, as is evident in this article by Rachel Charlene Lewis about the statements made to interracial queer couples, but I am aware that the roots of racism in heterosexual couplings run deep especially with black/white pairings because of the slavery experience.
According to one study highlighted in the Washington Post in 2016, one in every eight Americans is in an interracial relationship. There clearly have to be benefits for people to engage in them. Attitudes towards interracial marriages seem to be changing towards inclusivity. According to the Pew Research Center, a 2017 survey found that four in ten US adults saw interracial marriage as a positive thing for society while the number who said it is bad for society fell by four percent. In Canada, a 2011 Statistics Canada report approximates that over 360,000 (4.6%) of all cohabiting couples in the country are mixed race. In almost half of those relationships, one person is foreign-born and the other Canadian born.
Given that background, it is time to have an honest discussion about what it is really like to be in an interracial marriage. There is often, (but not always), a difference in family culture. Black culture and white culture, even among locally born people, differ. Sometimes, those differences cause conflict and at others, they are beautiful and bonding.
Some of the things that can be different and positive include the greater likelihood that the white partner’s more individualistic socialisation (in most cases), is challenged by more collectivistic cultures from their partners’ families depending on their country of origin. Greater levels of social awareness and engagement in social justice issues are also likely when white partners are able to observe the issues that affect their non-white loved ones like racism, immigration challenges and the displacement that this brings. The macro effect of this is a heightened awareness of white supremacy and how it oppresses us all, as well as a desire to change it. If both parties embrace each other’s cultures, then they both benefit from a larger world view from informal participant observation rather than simply an intellectual exploration. It also helps to broaden the appreciation of other types of cultural expression which leads to a more interesting world view.
However, there are a number of challenges faced by interracial couples which cannot be ignored. Some of them are surprising and others are expected but hurtful. Most of the time, people prefer not to discuss them however, in order for understanding to develop, demystifying these aspects of relationships is essential.
1. Stares and comments from random people who have never seen or have hardly seen interracial couples makes people feel self-conscious. This happened very recently when my partner and I were in a small resort town in B.C. People stared at me, then at him, then back to me. Not all of those stares were welcoming. Some were almost tangibly hostile. The “side eye”, the “returning uncomfortable glance” and “the stop and turn” are rather obvious.
If you are not used to seeing interracial couples, you probably need to ask yourself why and recognise that that is your work. Perhaps it is time for you to look at your own biases, (implicit or not), to determine why you had the expectation that black people should only marry other black people. Maybe it is time to befriend people who are not exactly like you?
2. Cultural divides between extended families and partners can cause unnecessary misunderstandings. This has happened several times in my own relationship where the large, full body gestures common to Caribbean people were seen as “aggressive” by my partner’s Canadian extended family members.
Humour is also culturally nuanced and sometimes, things do not translate well. A joke simply isn’t funny anymore if it has to be explained. Some cultural references that seem universal in one country are pretty strange and hard to follow in others. My own partner has been learning about the metaphorical tendency of Jamaicans in everyday conversation. Answering those questions makes me realise that more thought is required before sharing in non-Jamaican company.
It also means that uncomfortable conversations about race are best handled head on rather than avoided because of “politeness”. Trust me, neither partner in the relationship has been unaware that the other party is a person of colour so talking about it is not “new information”. What is probably new is the experience of discovering that perhaps you aren’t as inclusive in your thinking as you believed yourself to be. That’s ok, no one expects perfection. We are all works in progress. The important thing is that you WORK on your progress.
3. Ideas about respect vary wildly and can cause friction. In the Caribbean, children do not call adults by their first names as it is considered highly disrespectful. This is true even with total strangers who are older than we are. Here in Canada, my stepchild calls me by my first name. I bristled repeatedly at this for months after meeting her and, when I introduced her to my friend and mother years later, I had to tell her that she should refer to them as “aunty” out of respect. This is the cultural sensitivity that comes from direct interaction with people who are non-Canadian. It is teaching my stepchild from an early age that not everyone interacts in the same way and that differences can be enlightening.
4. People don’t often recognise that their microaggressions are hurtful. This occurs when we go to a restaurant and the person serving us asks if we need separate bills. The assumption that we are not a couple is irritating every time it happens, which it does with some regularity. One should be able to observe a couple interacting and identify the relationship easily based on the clear non-verbal cues that are usually present. (This video explains microaggressions from the perspectives of interracial couples).
5. We are literally just two people who love each other so turning us into “poster children” for the post-racial society is a heavy and unbearable burden. I am a Caribbean woman who fell in love with a wonderful human being. That human being just happens to be white. There is no political statement being made by either of us in our choices of partners. We are normal people so please, don’t ascribe any larger socio-political significance to our lives.
What that could do to some people is make them feel as though they have expectations placed upon them to be “beacons of hope” in a context they did not willingly choose. That translates into pressure to have a perfect relationship which is an unattainable ideal.
6. Relationships do not follow a universal script. For some cultures, moving in together is a very serious step. In others, commitment to the relationship precedes intimacy. For still others, extended family involvement is normal from the very beginning. This is one that has come up with clients from different backgrounds. The general lack of understanding about commitment, expressions of love and sexuality often lead to hurt feelings and misunderstanding. The important thing is to talk to each other from a place of compassion and the pursuit of understanding rather than one of perceived superiority of one’s culture over another’s.
7. Friendships look different too. It is not uncommon in the Caribbean for men and women to have deep platonic friendships. Hanging out with each other till wee hours of the morning with no sexual activity is normal for many people. This is completely different in North America where such a set up suggests an invitation to sexual activity. If one party sees this as normal and the other does not, jealousy is very likely to follow. Asking questions rather than hurling accusations is a far more productive way of resolving this difference.
Being in a long-term interracial relationship has been an eye-opener for both of us. It has made us recognise that certain taken for granted assumptions we have carried since childhood are not held by everyone else. It has been a truly exciting ride to go from two complete strangers from different worlds to life partners with shared goals and dreams. We are aware that the major issue that tears interracial marriages apart is the level of stress placed on the unit. This is true for all marriages but, it is particularly significant in those where cultures and physical features differ. To quote MLK, “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend”.