Can Interracial Marriage Reduce Racial Tensions in the USA?
Once married, a couple cannot avoid being a part of the discussion.
Posted Jul 26, 2018
If festering racial tensions in the United States of America were clear during the Obama years 2008-2016, have these tensions now abated since 2016? Hardly. Moreover, movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ seem to be viewed very differently by white and black Americans. Few believe that race relations are improving in USA. Yet one notable exception is the growing number of interracial marriages. According to Pew Research Center, 3 percent of US marriages in 1967 were interracial, compared to 17 percent of new marriages in 2015—a five-fold increase in 48 years. There is every reason to believe the number of interracial marriages will continue to trend upwards.
To better understand racial tensions and intermarriage in the USA, I turned to my colleague Rick Spenst, for a few reasons: (1) A Canadian by birth, Dr. Spenst married his Trinidadian wife Claudette in 1990, and they are raising two interracial children. (2) Since 1991, Dr. Spenst heads Fort Lee Gospel Church, which has developed a reputation as a model of a culturally diverse congregation in New Jersey, attracting many interracial couples. (3) Not least of all, for his doctoral dissertation, Reverend Spenst interviewed 14 interracial couples to better understand their experience in multiethnic versus mono-ethnic churches.
From this study, Dr. Spenst (2017) developed a grid of five constructs experienced by the interracial couples, which try to articulate the unique challenges of belonging faced by interracial couples. (1) The first construct is ‘Verbal Affirmation.’ This is when family and friends bless the interracial relationship and offer support. It is the experience of many interracial couples that affirmation has been withheld. (2) ‘Sense of Commonality' describes the experience of feeling a part of a larger group. Interracial couples report frequent experiences of feeling Other, standing out as different. (3) ‘Feelings of Inclusion' describes when a couple feels warmly welcomed into a group setting. Interracial couples reported times of feeling excluded by a group. (4) In ‘Feelings of Positive Regard’ a couple believes their relationship is seen as normal and healthy. There are times when an interracial couple is made to feel like their marriage is built on false premises such as a desire for a green card. (5) While ‘Prejudice or Racism’ may overlap with some of the other constructs, this construct highlights how stereotyping of individuals based on their race impacts the interracial couple. Here are some details and illustrations of each of the constructs.
Construct #1 Verbal Affirmation
The unique but common experience of interracial couples is that affirmation by family and friends is often withheld because of their racial differences. In some cases, parents accept interracial marriage in principle, but are troubled by their own child’s desire to marry out of culture. In other cases, a legitimate concern about the marriage is magnified because the couple is interracial. When the couples interviewed received little opposition to their marriage, it was because they were older when they got married, they were marrying for the second time, or other family members had already married outside of their culture before their marriage. The implication being that family would likely not have accepted their relationship if they were younger or if other family members had not prepared the way.
Additionally, family often showed opposition before meeting the romantic interest from another culture and then came to accept the partner upon meeting.
It is common for interracial couples to have family express continued disapproval, including boycotting the wedding. In a number of cases, the opposition only came from one side of the family.
While withholding of affirmation is commonly associated with the family blessing, it was not uncommon for couples to report that friends, coworkers or acquaintances expressed opposition to their marriage choice. While those warnings not to marry were hurtful, in many cases new friendships were made to replace unsupportive friends. The withholding of affirmation by family members is more hurtful and the breaking of relationships with family members is more difficult than changing friends.
The first construct, ‘Verbal Affirmation,’ summaries the unique challenge of belonging that interracial couples face in gaining approval for their choice to marry outside of their own culture.
Construct #2 Sense of Commonality
Everyone has the occasional experience in life when they feel out of place in a group where everyone else is unlike them. They may be the only person of color in an Anglo group or the only Anglo person in a Chinese gathering. It may be experienced as being the only single person in a group of married people or the only woman on an organization’s board. This experience of being Other is common for interracial couples. Unlike the first construct, Verbal Affirmation, which is frequently experienced in the family setting, this construct is more common in a public setting, such as a church, the focus of the project.
The construct of “Sense of Commonality” is experienced every time an interracial couple is in a mono-ethnic group. One of the marriage partners will be Other when they are with people who share their spouse’s culture. There are times that a culturally diverse group will also make an interracial couple feel out of place when there are no other interracial couples. The experience of feeling ‘Other’ is a major part of being in an interracial marriage.
The experience of being Other is commonly experienced by people of color in American society. Part of the discussion around racism in American universities recently centers on ‘safe spaces’ and the unconscious White bias that still exists in elite schools. As more people of color attend schools with a history of exclusively Anglo students (often male only) they find themselves experiencing otherness and a campus culture which does not make them feel welcome.
There are various approaches that interracial couples take to respond to the construct of being Other. One common response is for one of the spouses to immerse themselves in the other’s culture. Another response is to look for places where diversity allows the couple to value both their cultures and heritages.
For interracial couples who choose to have both spouses embrace only one of their cultures, there are many challenges. The most common pattern in this study was when the Latino/a or Asian spouse lived in the predominately White world of their Anglo partner. This arrangement tends to work because American White culture is perceived to have more to offer the couple than the other culture in the relationship. This arrangement calls for the minority spouse to make most of the adaptations and changes. Language and culture needs to be learned and American ways are perceived to be superior. In the case of a few couples in the study, the Anglo men live in the community they were raised, are close to extended family, and have needed to make little adaptation in their marriage. By contrast, their foreign born wife has left family, language, and culture to live in New Jersey and make major adaptations in their lifestyle.
While this arrangement works for a number of couples in the study, there were times that the minority spouse experiences pain because of being Other. Some of those experiences came in family gathering situations where a relative was unkind or belittling. One Korean wife experienced multiple challenges relating to her husband’s Anglo in-laws, in part because of her limited English. There were experiences of intense homesickness where they felt deeply for their own family members back home facing personal challenges. Other times there was a deep need to connect with others from their home culture around language, music and food.
Two of the foreign-born wives reported the pain of being perceived as a nanny to their own children. Because their children were lighter skinned and most other nannies were from similar cultures as the mothers, they were believed to also be nannies. The Anglo mothers in their own residential community treated these mothers as Other.
In most cases, a few friends from their home culture helped offset the feeling of being Other. Similar to the minority college students need for a safe space to connect with others experiencing life in a similar way, a few friends for the minority spouse to share experiences which helps them survive as outsiders in American culture.
A common response to the construct of Sense of Commonality is that many interracial couples look to find places where there is cultural diversity. All couples interviewed lived in New Jersey, a part of the country with significant cultural diversity. Some couples experienced being treated as Other when they visited other regions of the country and had strangers look at them in an odd way.
Other couples made choices about schools and churches with cultural diversity as a component to protect their children from feeling like an outsider. These choices were more readily available in the metro New York area than in some other regions of the nation with little diversity.
The second construct, ‘Sense of Commonality,’ looks at ways that the interracial couple experiences being outsiders and not fitting in with others in various group contexts.
Construct #3 Feelings of Inclusion
Every human being has experiences where they feel like they connect with some people and not with others. We cannot always identify why we get along with one person and not another. This construct looks at how interracial couples at times feel like they are excluded from friendship or group involvement based on their marriage. This construct is very relevant to the experience of an interracial couple in a church setting.
Like all relationships, it is hard to prove that the perception of inclusion or exclusion is related to the interracial marriage. As a parallel example, when an African American receives poor service in a restaurant, they may believe it is an experience of racism. While they may be right, it is also possible that the server is over-stressed, made unintended mistakes, or had other issues that contributed to the experience. It is also possible that the server was unconsciously biased or prejudiced in a way that they did not even realize that they were offering poor service. In the same way, interracial couples experienced exclusion from friendship or group involvement and they perceived it to be because of their interracial marriage.
The natural response to this construct is that the couple would avoid the individual or stop attending the group after some failed attempts to belong. Frequently one spouse is more welcome than the other because of language and culture. In time, the excluded spouse either lets the other attend alone or they both look for a new group or church to attend where both feel included.
The third construct, ‘Feelings of Inclusion,’ summarizes the times when interracial couples feel unwelcomed by an individual or group based on their marriage.
Construct #4 Feelings of Positive Regard
Why do people fall in love and marry? Most who marry people within their own culture are understood to be attracted to each other and share many things in common. It was a common necessity for the interracial couples in this study to have a well-thought through rationale and defense for the person they chose to marry. The interracial couples interviewed had many stories of family and friends expressing suspicion regarding the motivation of why they married. Here are some of the common wrong suspicions.
Because the study included many foreign-born spouses who married Americans, many reported family and friends being concerned that they were only getting married to ensure a green card. In a number of cases, there was no need for a green card and yet people still brought up the issue as a reason why they should reconsider the marriage. Because there are stories of people marrying Americans for the opportunity to live in America until they qualify for a divorce, interracial couples frequently need to prove that they are mutually committed and they are married for good reasons and for the long haul. It was common for the couples to cite the length of their marriage as proof that the doubters were wrong.
A related concern was that people of color were marrying Anglos as a way to raise their status and economic well being. The critique itself assumes that White people have more value than people of color. While some people in the world look to America as a land of promise and marriage to an American as a way to raise their status in life, the couples interviewed were insistent on explaining that they married their spouses because they truly loved each other.
While the questions have significant impact during the dating, engagement and marriage season of the relationship, it is surprising that they continue to have an impact on the couple’s lives long after the wedding. New people who meet the couple may make wrong judgments about their relationships and may assume that they are not a couple.
The fourth construct, ‘Feelings of Positive Regard,’ identifies the questions that people raise about the legitimacy of an interracial couple’s love.
Construct #5 Prejudice or Racism
It could be stated that the previous four Constructs all are based in prejudice and racism. Prejudice is treating an individual according to your negative perception of how their culture behaves and acts. Racism implies structural mistreatment of minorities by a majority culture. This construct uses both prejudice and racism for a few reasons. First, racist is a label that few admit to being, while we can more easily own our prejudice. Second, many argue that minorities cannot be racist because they do not have the power of institutions to enact their racism. However, we can all accept that minorities can be prejudiced towards majority cultures.
It was common for interracial couples to report that the Anglo partner was unaware of racism and prejudice before they came to see life through the experiences of their spouse. One couple reported going out to an expensive restaurant to celebrate an anniversary. They realized that they were seated in a back room with a diverse group of diners rather than in the front room that was all Anglo dinners. This experience surprised the Anglo husband.
It was observed that skin color has a tendency to impact the level of prejudice or racism experienced. A Chinese husband and African wife reported comments made by strangers, especially when they lived in Harlem. The majority of couples in the study were Anglos married to an Asian or Latina spouse, which raised less reactions from most people. The two African American husbands had the added challenge of having to prove to their soon to be in-laws that despite being college educated, they were not lazy, criminal, or headed to jail.
Some couples reported that when they visited other parts of America, they felt some people looked at them in a way that suggested they opposed their relationship. These experiences stood out as they did not experience the same scrutiny while living in New Jersey.
The fifth construct, ‘Prejudice or Racism,’ covers various way people discriminate again interracial couples because of their racial biases.
Interracial marriage is most often the result of happening to fall in love with a person of a difference race or culture. Once married, the couple cannot avoid being a part of the important but uncomfortable race discussion in our nation. The Anglo spouse may need to speak to the aunt reposting racially insensitive messages on Facebook. The immigrant spouse may change the group dynamic of a church discussion about immigration. By marrying into another culture, those who were once Other become family.
Could it be that interracial marriage holds the key to our nation emerging out of this season of racial tension in a healthier state?
Spenst, R. (2017). Comparing interracial couples' experience of belonging at multiethnic churches and at mono-ethnic churches. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Alliance Theological Seminary, Nyack, NY.