Due to lasting legacy of racism and discrimination, crossing the borders of race in the act of choosing one’s mate can carry serious consequence, and some instances, considerable push back from one’s would-be in-laws. Crossing racial borders challenges the organizing principle of homogamy that has held that couple and family formation is an enterprise that is biologically based, and racially “pure.” Homogamy is the principle that similarities in background between partners predict stability, satisfaction and happiness in relationships. Hence, interracial couples, much like gay and lesbian couples, disturb and perturb narrowly punctuated norms about what are legitimate and acceptable family units in our society. Further, a hierarchy of acceptability exists among various interracial couple combinations. Lewandowski and Jackson (2001) found that African American/European American couples were perceived as significantly less compatible than Asian American/European American couples. Respondents in the study found it easier to imagine themselves in an interracial marriage with an Asian American than with an African American partner, highlighting a persistent resistance to black and white interracial combinations.
Looking at data from the General Social Survey, we can get a sense of just how controversial, and potentially divisive, racial border crossings still are. Many persons report that they do not oppose interracial relationships in the abstract, but would it surprise you to hear that almost half of whites, blacks, and other ethnic minorities reported profound ambivalence (i.e., they neither support nor oppose) about a close relative marrying interracially? These results indicate that there are a lot of people in the U.S. (well over 60%) who are not comfortable with interracial marriage when asked to consider how they would feel if it happened in their family. Further, the race of the partner makes a difference, with three times as many persons in the “Other” category (not black or white) expressing opposition to a family member marrying a black person than marrying a white person. The idea of border police and stakeholders from the dominant group protecting their territory also helps explain why 29.1% of white persons, but only 14.7% of black persons, opposed or strongly opposed the prospect of a family member marrying across this border. This finding is borne out in my own research on multiracial families, where black families tended to be more welcoming of white partners than in the reverse scenario.
The consumption of such statistics supports a notion about “the best” or “most acceptable” approach to social and intimate relations—homogamy (Killian 2001, 2003). Society in general, as well as folks in the academy, have subscribed to homogamy, making dire predictions about interracial couples chances for bliss. Researchers are beginning to find that interracial couples are actually not doomed to failure, and there has been some movement away from the discourse of homogamy in the academy. But society is still quite invested in this principle of mate selection, and resist racially different persons from crossing the border of the family. I close with the lyrics of a current song by Magic!, with a reggae vibe, entitled “Rude” that speaks to this continuing phenomenon:
Why you gotta be so rude?
Don't you know I'm human too….
I'm gonna marry her anyway
Yeah, no matter what you say….
And we'll be a family
Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.
Killian, K. D. 2001a. Reconstituting racial histories and identities: The narratives of interracial couples. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 27:23-37.
Killian, K.D. 2003. Homogamy outlaws: Interracial couples’ strategic responses to racism and partner differences. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy 2:3-21.
Lewandowski, D. A. & Linda A. Jackson. 2001. Perceptions of interracial couples: Prejudice at the dyadic level. Journal of Black Psychology 27:288-303.