Oprah's recent interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle raises many questions about race relations, including those within families after the formation of interracial unions. What does the research literature say about family relationships following such marriages?
Prior work shows that attitudes towards interracial unions have become much more favorable over time.1 Although an overwhelming majority of people express favorable attitudes about interracial unions, however, a small segment of the population continues to hold unfavorable attitudes towards interracial unions.1 Furthermore, having a favorable attitude towards interracial marriage as a social institution does not necessarily preclude people from objecting to it in the case of close relatives, nor does it necessarily mean that they will perceive it as a viable choice for themselves.2 This may partially explain why roughly 90 percent of individuals say that they approve of interracial marriage, but only 17 percent of new marriages in the United States involve partners from different racial and ethnic groups.1
Despite more favorable attitudes towards interracial unions, research from within the past decade has indicated that many interracial couples continue to experience opposition from families and friends before and after marriage.2 The degree of opposition, however, differs depending on the nature of the relationship. Families are more disapproving of interracial marriage and interracial childbearing than interracial dating, perhaps reflecting the fact that marriage and childbearing are perceived as longer-lasting relationships than dating.2
The degree of family opposition also depends on the race of the partner. Family opposition seems to be particularly strong for interracial unions involving a Black partner.1,3 According to a 2017 Pew report, 14 percent of non-Blacks reported that they would oppose a relative marrying a Black spouse, in contrast to 4 percent of non-whites who reported that they would oppose a relative marrying a white spouse.1
What are the consequences of family opposition?
Opposition from family and friends is a significant source of emotional distress for many interracial couples, past research suggests.4,5 Individuals in interracial unions, particularly non-Blacks with Black partners, are more likely than those in same-race unions to report depressive symptoms and elevated emotional distress relative to those in same-race unions.4,5
Interracial couples may also limit their contact with disapproving family members, opting to interact with accepting family members instead.6 A 2015 Pew report showed that individuals of white and Asian heritage reported that they felt more accepted by their family members who were White than they were with family members who were Asian. They also had more contact with white family members.7 Similarly, individuals of white and Black heritage reported that they had a lot more contact with family members who were Black than they did with family members who were white. Closeness may be one reason why children of white and Black heritage reported that they had more in common with Black people.7
Few outside of the palace walls know with certainty what happened to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry specifically. Several aspects of their story are, however, consistent with broad findings in the intermarriage literature that suggest that many interracial couples may continue to experience challenges in an era where people overwhelmingly report favorable attitudes about intermarriage as a social institution.
1. Livingston, G. and A. Brown. 2017. INTERMARRIAGE IN THE U.S. 50 YEARS AFTER LOVING V. VIRGINIA. Pew Research Report. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2017/05/18/1-trends-and-patterns-in-intermarriage/
2. Herman, M. and M. Campbell. 2012. I Wouldn't, But You Can: Attitudes Toward Interracial Relationships. Social Science Research 41(2):343-58. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2011.11.007
3. Qian, Z., and D. Lichter. 2007. Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage. American Sociological Review, 72(1), 68–94. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1177/000312240707200104
4. Bratter, J. L., & Eschbach, K. (2006). What about the couple? Interracial marriage and psychological distress. Social Science Research, 35(4), 1025–1047. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2005.09.001
5. Kroeger, R. and K. Williams. 2011. Consequences of Black Exceptionalism: Interracial Unions with Blacks, Depressive Symptoms, and Relationship Satisfaction. The Sociological Quarterly 52(3): 400-420.
6. Childs, E. 2005. Navigating interracial bourders: Black White Couples and Their Social World. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
7. Multiracial in America Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2015/06/11/multiracial-in-america/