Intersections

Interracial, intercultural relationships and resilience.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel, or Canary in a Coal Mine?

The narratives of Interracial couples are seen as a barometer of race relations.

Interracial relationships are a lightning rod, a touchstone eliciting strong reactions from people from all walks of life and personal history, including psychologists, couple and family therapists, social workers, and counselors. Yes, even helping professionals who espouse a strong commitment to sociopolitical change sometimes demonstrate surprisingly negative views when the topic turns to interracial couples. Being married to a person of a different race, culture, or faith, and moving through public space with that person, is a status that carries social and political implications for both partners. My hope is that through continuing training and education, we can increase the probability that couples will receive quality services from helping professionals, should they choose to enter therapy or counselling.

In a sense, interracial couples live on racial borderlines; their narratives as individuals, and as a couple, with friends, family and the larger communities of which they are a part, speak to the status of race relations and how society reacts and responds to interracial relationships. Through in-depth interviews, my research provides an indication of the degree to which interracial couples are viewed by their communities and society as viable and acceptable, and also the degree to which partners in interracial relationships view and treat one another.  By examining couples’ narratives, we are afforded an opportunity to see not only how partners perceive their lives together, but how these relationships undergo processes of racialization, that is, how interracial relationships are given meaning within the context of U.S. society (Sexton 2002). So, while the significant increase in interracial relationships in the past 10 years does not mean we have entered a post-racial era, we can get a general sense of how we are doing in regards to race relations by having open conversations with partners about familial and public reactions to their couplehood, and the arrival of their multiracial children.

In searching for participants for my study and presenting preliminary findings at national conferences, I experienced a range of reactions. Some colleagues were enthusiastic, praising my pursuit of a marginalized topic, and said they eagerly anticipated my findings.  Some voiced concerns that my study would merely perpetuate the larger society's sensationalization, and pathologization, of interracial couples. Still others responded very negatively. For example, when I asked a colleague if he could ask fellow faculty if they knew of any interracial couples who might be willing to be interviewed for this study, he later reported that his black male colleague had replied, “Why would I know any?”  These interactions demonstrate how this topic is still a "button issue", and communicated to me early on the need for a sensitive and self-reflexive approach to conducting the research and reporting the findings. It’s my profound hope that a book grounded in the participants' insights and experiences will work to dispel common myths and preconceptions about these couples and open space for highlighting the unique strengths, and struggles, of this growing population.  My intent is to explore how interracial couples perceive their lives and experiences, and suggest culturally sensitive approaches to working with these couples. I do not, by the way, assume that interracial couples need therapy. I prefer strengths-based approaches to my clinical work, rather than deficit- or pathology-based approaches. I simply would like the professionals who are going to be working with interracial couples and their multiracial children to be culturally competent and engage in appropriate, helpful practices with these families.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.

References

Sexton, J C.  (2002). The Politics of Interracial Sexuality in the Post-Civil Rights Era US. PhD dissertation. University of California, Berkeley.

Kyle D. Killian, Ph.D., LMFT teaches in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Capella University, and is a licensed couple and family therapist and clinical supervisor.
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