Strengthening Interracial Relationships
Interracial bonds can be resilient in the face of prejudice and discrimination.
Posted August 27, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Relationships are the bedrock of a gratifying, healthy, well-lived life. They’re also intricate and personal, as two people co-create their own unique little world over time, with norms, practices, habits, understandings, and a history that are theirs alone. And although this is true of all relationships, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on romantic relationships.
At times in this post, we’ll zero in on that lively, ever-changing space where partners interact and influence each other. But this isn’t the only space that deserves attention, as couples are nested in a complex social and cultural environment that impacts them too. That’s why sometimes we’ll move outward and aim our attention at the broader spheres where relationships reside. And then there are times, as in this piece, when we’ll consider the intersection between these two places, such as relationship dynamics within couples as they live amid various societal conditions.
In a previous post, Prejudice Toward Relationships, we looked at prejudice and discrimination toward couples whose relationship falls outside what society regards as the accepted standard. We considered examples of such relationships, specifically interracial couples, same-sex couples, and age-gap couples, laying out the reality of bias and discrimination against them. And we talked about the damaging impact of social intolerance, along with an aspiration to cultivate more accepting, welcoming social spaces for diverse couples.
This piece is intended to build on that earlier post by focusing on interracial couples, who make up 17 percent of all married couples in the United States. In particular, we’re going to look at how partners can support each other and help to preserve and advance their bond as they navigate prejudice and discrimination toward their relationship.
In future posts, we’ll turn to same-sex couples and age-gap couples, as well as other types of diverse couples. To be sure, there are plenty of couples who identify with more than one of these relationship categories, such as same-sex interracial couples. But for the sake of clarity, and out of respect to each type of relationship and the particular dynamics and social challenges they come across, we’ll address them individually.
Before we say more here, it feels worth pausing on three points. First, even though the notion of race is socially created and changes across place and time, it’s connected to significant and often tragic real-world imprints on people’s lives. There’s ample evidence that, depending on what racial category we're perceived to belong to, we encounter unequal levels of privilege, prejudice, discrimination, and violence. And these differing realities around race are not only significant for each of us as individuals, they’re also deeply meaningful for interracial couples.
Second, race and culture have separate definitions. According to the psychological literature, race refers to “social identification attached to physical traits such as skin and hair color.” And culture reflects, “shared meanings, beliefs, and traditions that arise as a group shares common history and experiences that give particular interpretations of the world.” So although race and culture are frequently treated as one and the same, they’re actually distinct.
Let’s consider an interracial couple in which one partner identifies as Black and the other partner identifies as White. In addition to their racial differences, there could also be meaningful cultural differences stemming from their unique backgrounds and the histories they’ve each inherited. For instance, the partner who identifies as Black may feel a connection to Puerto Rican culture, and the partner who identifies as White might relate to Spanish culture. And it’s for this reason that I’m going to refer to both race and culture separately in this piece.
Third, the fact that many interracial partners grapple with the stress of prejudice and discrimination definitely does not mean that they shouldn’t be together. Social disapproval is the problem, not the relationship, and in an ideal world, interracial couples would only ever be warmly embraced. Sadly, because they’re often not, it’s worth considering how interracial couples can bolster one another and their bond from within as they encounter resistance and unjust treatment from without.
So bearing all this in mind, if you’re in an interracial relationship or you want to support someone who is, how can interracial partners preserve and safeguard their connection in the face of social prejudice and discrimination? Here are a few ideas:
When the Going Gets Rough, Play Nicely
Conflict occurs in every partnership. In fact, it’s inevitable because a relationship contains two separate people with their own identities, preferences, and personalities, which is a good thing. The key is how conflict gets handled. If partners treat disagreements with respect and consideration, they may even reach new points of connection and understanding. And research reveals that when interracial partners take a loving hand toward each other when conflict arises, such as by working together on a problem or using those powerful words, “I’m sorry,” this forecasts greater contentment in the relationship.
Find Your Relationship Fans
All couples benefit from social approval of their relationship, but this is arguably even more vital for partners in interracial relationships, as they have to contend with social bias, a problem that monoracial couples don’t have to face. Regrettably, it’s not possible to guarantee that an interracial couple will be surrounded with supporters of their bond when they get together. Family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers in their social environment may disapprove of their relationship, with resistance ranging from mild dislike to fierce opposition. Although couples can’t control how others will respond, they can identify and seek out supporters of their union and cultivate closer relationships with those individuals. And it’s well worth the time and effort to do so, as social connections forecast more relationship happiness for interracial partners.
Remember That Me + Me = We
It’s one thing for two people to agree they’re in a relationship together, and quite another matter for them to be a joined unit. When partners view themselves as a united team with their own, common story (while also continuing to hold onto their own sense of self), they’ve fostered a sense of what’s called “we-ness.” Couples can develop we-ness privately between themselves, in public, or both.
To create a feeling of we-ness between themselves, research suggests that interracial couples engage in strategies such as thinking about the camaraderie and connection they share, and keeping mutual aspirations, beliefs, and interests in mind. And if interracial partners choose to project we-ness to their social world, an example of this would be deciding to set limits and defend their partner against loved ones who speak judgmentally about either their partner or the relationship.
Additional approaches to creating a shared public image of we-ness include:
- Standing up against racism in a firm, effective, productive way.
- Fighting the temptation to verbally attack, such as by responding in a hasty, outraged manner.
- Using humor at convenient moments to cope with the stress of prejudice and discrimination.
- Allowing loved ones who are struggling to accept the relationship some room to reflect and come to a place of willingness, understanding, recognition, and approval. Some people who’ve tried this strategy found that as their loved ones got to know their partners, bias toward their partner lessened. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that all family members and friends will change their minds, but it’s possible that some will.
See the Beauty in Difference
Differences between partners get a bad rap at times, which is unfortunate because they can be quite engaging and delightful. And for interracial couples who also view themselves as having different cultural backgrounds, these differences merit being valued and honored. When partners take time to compare their cultures across both the parallels and the discrepancies, and also express encouragement for each other’s culture, this is linked to less discord and dissatisfaction in the relationship. Thankfully, there are assorted ways couples can attend to differences across culture. Here are a few examples:
- Demonstrate awareness of a partner’s culture, and actively make room in the relationship for a partner’s cultural beliefs, practices, and traditions.
- Find ways to express appreciation for a partner’s culture, such as conveying admiration, learning their native language, or cooking traditional cultural dishes.
- Treat a partner’s unique cultural background as an exciting opportunity for discovery, and take active steps to learn more about their culture, such as reading about it or asking questions in the spirit of interest and curiosity.
Cultivate a Positive Image of Yourself and Others
It’s healthy for your bond to take time to reflect on how you feel about your own and your partner’s race, and to nurture a favorable outlook toward both. As an illustration, consider findings from a study on interracial couples and their racial identity, which is defined as, “the quality of one’s identification with one’s racial group.” People who feel good about their own racial identity and also view their partner’s race in affirming terms are more likely to have a stronger, more affectionate marriage.
Talk About Race, Listen Carefully, and Validate Your Partner
Although this point applies to all interracial couples, it’s especially valuable for White partners in interracial relationships to keep in mind. As many social scientists can attest, the notion of being White (in the United States and other nations) is often inaccurately cut off from the idea of race, and so many White people don’t view themselves as racial beings and don’t see how race is relevant to their lives. In line with this, research on interracial couples reveals that some White partners discount their Black, Brown, or Asian partner’s observations and understanding of prejudice and discrimination, assuming that any negative treatment must have a non-racial explanation.
And when a White partner discredits the very real awareness and lived experiences of racism of a Black, Brown, or Asian partner, it presents that partner with a painful decision. They may either decide not to continue opening up to their White partner, or find themselves in the difficult position of always needing to defend their impressions of what’s happening (which sounds exhausting).
Fortunately, couples can help avoid this dynamic. They can try taking a chance and opening up to each other about their experiences. And partners, especially White partners, can listen carefully and remind themselves that even though they may not perceive racism in a particular situation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Additionally, it’s possible for White partners to become more aware and attuned to issues of race. Evidence suggests that for a number of White people, an interracial relationship takes the invisibility of Whiteness and makes it visible, as White partners start to view themselves as racial beings and reflect on the implications of being White.
Of course, this isn’t to say that conversations about race are easy. Dialogues about race tend to be socially frowned upon, and couples can wind up allowing this social taboo to take root in their own relationship. Black, Brown, and Asian partners risk the hurtful experience of having their reality doubted, overlooked, or minimized as they talk about race. And White partners may avoid talking about racism because it can awaken upsetting thoughts of White privilege and their partner’s relative lack of privilege. At the same time, if interracial couples don’t openly discuss race and racism, they could sidestep a powerful and meaningful chance to deepen their connection and understanding, and to address how unique racial experiences could potentially impact their bond.
If you’re in an interracial relationship, I hope your journey with your partner is a rewarding, beautiful one, and that you found something meaningful, affirming, relevant, or helpful here. And if you care about someone who is in an interracial union, I invite you to express your support in some way, such as a positive comment about the relationship, or simply a welcoming smile when you see them. And if you’re already a supporter, continue doing what you do. Love around a relationship has a remarkable way of strengthening love within it.
Thank you for reading.
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