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Guess Who's Coming to Therapy? Interracial Couples

U.S. census says interracial couples are on the rise. But are clinicians ready?

The latest U.S. Census results are in: Interracial couples are making a significant contribution to the diversity of our society. Among opposite-sex married couples, one in 10 (5.4 million couples) are interracial, representing an increase of 28% since 2000.  In addition, 18% of heterosexual and 21% of gay and lesbian unmarried couples were of different races. But are helping professionals ready to deliver services to this growing population? Considering the salience of skin color in society, it's surprising that so little research, and clinical training, has been devoted to race, and, more specifically, to interracial couples. Further, clinical approaches usually do not explicitly address intersections of race, gender, and class and hence do not capture the complex and changing nature of clients' social-psychological and political selves, or subjectivities. Recognizing these gaps, my research explores how interracial couples view themselves and the social forces that implicitly and explicitly influence partners’ perceptions and experiences.

Which social forces, you ask? Racism comes to mind. The prevalence of racism in larger social contexts has meant that partners in interracial relationships have experienced rejection, hostility, and criticism, both in the past and today. Lewandowski and Jackson (2001) found that European American men married to African American women were perceived as significantly less competent and as less likely to be professionally successful than were those married to European American women. African American men married to European American women were perceived as less competent, less traditional, as having a weaker racial identity, and as less comfortable with same-race others than were those married to African American women. These are examples of the kinds of stuff interracial couples contend with on a daily basis.

If choosing a partner from a different racial background made no difference in a person's life, then the interracial couples I've interviewed would have had few stories to tell about their experiences of discrimination and racism. However, since racism manifests itself in myriad ways in a racially stratified culture, and since it affects everyone, it necessarily has an impact on interracial couples as well. And racism’s impact is different for different people, including white partners and partners of color in interracial relationships. Coming from different social locations, partners may exhibit very different understandings of everyday situations that they encounter, or choose to remain “oblivious” to their partner’s experience.

I believe that psychologists, therapists, social workers and counselors have an ethical responsibility to learn all they can about interracial relationships and strengths-based approaches to helping them. I offer my work in this area as a path toward culturally competent practice with this rapidly growing population, and look forward to blogging on this topic further.

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

References

Lewandowski, D. A. & Linda A. Jackson.  (2001). Perceptions of interracial couples: Prejudice at the dyadic level. Journal of Black Psychology, 27, 288-303.

U.S. Census.  (2010). Households and Families. Retrieved May 20, 2012 at http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-14.pdf

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