How Interracial Couples Deal With Hate

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According to the Pew Research Center, “About 15% of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity… more than double the share in 1980 (6.7%). Among all newlyweds in 2010, 9% of whites, 17% of blacks, 26% of Hispanics and 28% of Asians married out. Looking at all married couples in 2010, regardless of when they married, the share of intermarriages reached an all-time high of 8.4%. In 1980, that share was just 3.2%” The Pew Report  implicates that interracial marriages, and associated romantic relationships, are on the rise.

Although new research documents that interracial daters are viewed as more attractive, readers should be reminded that some states only recently abolished laws banning interracial marriage: Alabama lifted their ban in 2000.

Racism, both overt and covert, is active in our society; one need only look at recent historical events to see veiled and visible racist commentary in response to Michael Brown and Eric Garner. These varying reactions, along with laws banning interracial marriages in our recent history, suggest that those dating interracially must respond to the racist reactions of others. A recent study by Castle and Bell (2011) describes how interracial couples respond to the disapproval of others for their relationship.

The researchers interviewed 38 interracial daters, composing 19 “Black and White couples.” Participants ranged in age from 19 to 50 years; all were in established relationships. Participants, during interviews, were generally asked about a) how they told family/friends they were dating outside of their race and, b) their own experiences with disapproval for their interracial relationship. Stares and unkind comments were routinely identified, more often from strangers than from friends.

Their analysis initially examined the relationship in general, and then how romantic partners responded to stares and negative comments.

When protecting and managing their own face, the researchers found that participants often described “educating others…Rather than dwell on the offenses of others, interviewees continually turned the focus toward a sense of agency in moving others and the reality in general in a more positive direction.” This education occurred in various ways, including:

  1. Educating one’s partner. As the authors explained, “for many couples in this study the White partner had to learn quite a bit about the experiences and perspectives of Black” participants.
  2. Educating others. Not surprisingly, participants “unanimously agreed on one thing: The interracial couples did not believe it was wrong to be in an interracial relationship.” Contrarily, they believed that their relationship “could only benefit race relations” and “some of the couples…viewed themselves as actively fighting for racially equality.”
  3. Race and place, acknowledging region matters. When discussing the topic of racism, participants indicated that location matters. Participants indicated that “specific parts of the United States were described as more diverse and accepting of interracial couples.”

The study’s participants provided 5 strategies they used when responding to racist looks or comments:

  1. Respond to it. Here, romantic partners would respond to the look: some participants smiled when they saw someone staring, others just stared back.
  2. Ignore it. Some romantic partners worked to dismiss the stares and comments, and others vowed never to look for them.
  3. Get used to it. Alternatively, a “prominent tendency was to accept that they could not easily change the world, so they needed to be comfortable with it.”
  4. Rationalize it. Another strategy involved rationalizing the disapproval. That is, “A recurrent trend was for couples to make sense of their relationship in a way that fostered a peaceful resolution to outside disturbances. While the ways that people rationalized the relationship varied, the thought processes reviewed threats to the relationship in ways that ultimately affirmed the value of the relationship.”
  5. Reframe it. A final strategy involved reframing the disapproval that they experienced, “wherein couples attempt to minimize face threats and regain cognitive control in an uncomfortable situation.” With this strategy, individuals attempted to make sense of why people were staring, and worked to attribute stares and looks to motives other than racial disapproval. One participant described that looks “could be something totally different…maybe she was just looking cute that night and they were looking at her, and it [race] had nothing to do with it.”

I’ll conclude this research summary with the authors’ conclusions. They wrote: “Learning from their [participants’] stories, it become clear that the work is not yet done. But by doing the work that needs to be done, interracial couples aspire to transform the cultural context in which race relations are understood…” 

-By Sean M. Horan