How Racial Minorities View Interracial Couples
It depends on both the race and the gender.
Posted Mar 30, 2020
In 1958, Richard Loving, a White man, and his wife Mildred, a Black woman, were arrested for the crime of being married. Although the couple had been legally wed in the District of Columbia, they became outlaws when they moved to Virginia, where interracial marriages were then illegal. This incident eventually led the 1967 landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriages.
Today, about 12 percent of American couples are interracially married. Nevertheless, negative social attitudes about “mixed marriages” still abound. According to Wesleyan University psychologist Roxie Chuang and colleagues, it’s not just the White majority that looks with suspicion at interracial couples. Indeed, interracial marriages are often disparaged in racial minority communities as well.
Chuang and colleagues start with the observation that there are quite large gender imbalances in American interracial marriages. The most common combination is a Black man married to a White woman, with the reverse pairing of a White man and a Black woman being quite uncommon. The second most likely type consists of a White man married to an Asian woman, again with the reverse of an Asian man and a White woman being much less frequent.
In a recently published study, the researchers examined the dynamics of interracial marriage. However, they weren’t concerned with the reasons for these gender imbalances. Rather, they were interested in how other members of the particular minority viewed these racially mixed marriages.
One way to assess personal attitudes towards specific groups is through the use of “feeling thermometers.” Participants are asked a question such as “How do you feel about couples where the woman is Black, and the man is White?” They then indicate their feelings toward that example on a virtual thermometer where 0 is labeled as “cold,” 50 as “neutral,” and 100 as “warm.”
Black participants responded to prompts about the four male-female combinations of Black-White, White-Black, Black-Black, and White-White. Likewise, Asian participants indicated their warmth for the four male-female pairings of Asian-White, White-Asian, Asian-Asian, and White-White.
In psychology, a phenomenon known as the mere exposure effect shows that humans have a tendency to like or prefer things that are familiar to them. Conversely, we often harbor negative attitudes towards things that are unfamiliar. For instance, our comfort foods are the ones we grew up with, and the music we like most is usually that of our youth. Most people find that new foods and new music just don’t match up to the oldies but goodies.
The mere exposure effect then predicts that Black participants should show more warmth toward Black male-White female couples because they are far more common than the reverse. Likewise, Asian participants should feel more warmth for White male-Asian female couples for the same reason. However, this isn’t what the researchers found.
In fact, the participants’ responses depended not only on their race but also on their gender. In the case of Black-White marriages, Black men showed roughly equal warmth for both Black male-White female and White male-Black female couples. Black women indicated a similar level of warmth for White male-Black female couples, but they were quite cool toward couples where the husband was Black, and the wife was White.
When the researchers looked at the data from the Asian participants, they found the opposite pattern of results in terms of gender. Specifically, Asian women were equally warm to couples where the husband was White, and the wife was Asian and to couples where the races were reversed. In contrast, Asian men indicated high warmth toward Asian male-White female marriages, but they were quite cool to couples where the husbands were White, and the wives were Asian.
The researchers hypothesized that this pattern of results was due to perceived mating competition. To the extent that one desires to marry within one’s own race, interracial unions potentially pose a threat by reducing the available dating pool. This is especially true when members of the opposite sex are far more likely to marry out of their race.
According to this account, few Black women marry White men, so Black men shouldn’t be threatened by this kind of interracial relationship. However, many more Black men marry White women, so Black women should perceive a reduced pool of potential mates, and thus they should disapprove of Black male-White female unions.
Likewise, Asian women shouldn’t be concerned about either type of Asian-White relationship, since few Asian men get involved in these. However, Asian men should feel threatened by the frequent combination of White male-Asian female, since that leaves fewer potential mates for them. Follow-up studies in which participants were probed about the reasons for their attitudes about mixed-race relationships provided support for this mate-competition hypothesis.
The researchers concede that mate competition is only one of many factors shaping our attitudes about interracial relationships. For instance, they note that common stereotypes about the relative masculinity and femininity of Asians, Blacks, and Whites also play into attitudes about mixed-race marriages. Thus, an Asian man who buys into the stereotype that White men are more masculine would naturally feel threatened when he sees them with Asian women that he could otherwise be dating. Social attitudes are complex, and no single factor can ever completely explain them.
Overall, the warmth expressed by the participants towards various types of interracial relationships was quite high, typically in the 70-80 interval, on average, out of a possible range of 0-100. This indicates a fairly high degree of acceptance for mixed-race marriages, at least among America’s racial minorities.
And yet, couples comprising the two most common types of interracial relationships are still likely to encounter negative attitudes about them. As these data show us, Black women likely perceive Black male-White female unions as a threat to their own ability to find a quality mate. Likewise, Asian males tend to look at White male-Asian female couples as a threat for the same reason.
In conclusion, Chuang and colleagues note that studies of attitudes about interracial marriage need to consider more than just the race of the respondents. Rather, psychologists need to consider the intersection of race and gender as they tease out the dynamics of social attitudes.
Chuang, R., Wilkins, C., Tan, M., & Mead, C. (2020). Racial minorities’ attitudes toward interracial couples: An intersection of race and gender. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1368430219899482