“Interracial relationships don’t work.”
I’ve heard that from various people all my life. Now, at 35, I’m a Minnesota-raised Indian-American recently married to a white American from South Louisiana. I wish we could be all kumbaya-we’re-all-human-beings-love-is-love, but in this current cultural and political climate, race is not something you can pretend you don’t see.
When you marry someone, you marry everything that made them who they are, including their culture and race. While marrying someone of a different race can have added challenges, if you go in with your eyes and heart wide open, you can face those challenges together and come out stronger. At least that’s what the experts tell me; I’ve only been married seven months, so what do I know? Here are a few things I've learned:
1. The foundation of your relationship has to be rock solid.
Your relationship needs to be tight enough not to let naysayers, societal pressure and family opinions wedge you apart, explained Stuart Fensterheim, a couples counselor based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and host of The Couples Expert podcast.
"Couples need to talk about things as a team, and feel that we’re in this together — if our love is strong and we can be authentic and vulnerable in the relationship, then we can handle whatever comes from the outside world,” he explained.
Luckily, my husband and I haven't had to face many issues from the outside world. We're so "old" according to our cultures, that our families were just thankful someone of the human race agreed to marry either of us, and we currently live in a diverse section of New York City where no one bats an eye at interracial couples.
But having a strong relationship without trust issues helps us give each other the benefit of the doubt when one of us says something culturally insensitive. We can talk about it, learn from it and move on without building up resentment or wondering about motivations.
2. You’ve got to get comfortable talking about race… a lot.
“Silence is really the enemy,” said Erica Chito Childs, a Hunter College sociology professor who has researched and written extensively about interracial relationships. "Just like you’d ask a partner about their views on marriage, children and where to live, you should also understand their approach to racial issues. One way to begin, in the process of getting to know a new partner, is to maybe include some questions like, was the school you went to diverse, do you have diverse friends? Have you dated interracially before and if so, how did your family react?”
My husband and I were friends before we started dating, and we just organically ended up having these conversations. At times, I was shocked at how little he ever thought about race before me, and that was something that worried me when I first started falling for him. But his ability to be open and honest about the things he didn't know and his willingness to learn, rather than be defensive, eventually won me over.
3. Don’t make any assumptions about your partner based on their race.
While this may seem obvious, it’s worth noting because we all hold stereotypes, no matter how enlightened we think we are. “Racial groups are not homogenous,” reiterated Childs. “African-American people have different perspectives; some may support Black Lives Matter, and others don’t. Some Latina people support DACA, others don’t. Don’t make assumptions... You and your partner don’t have to agree, but you should know where each other stand and try to understand each other’s perspectives.”
For my part, I had to face the stereotypes I had about white Southerners. To be honest, I just assumed that deep down, he and his family were probably racist. While it was a defense mechanism for me, it wasn't fair that I didn't allow him a clean slate.
4. It’s helpful to know others who are also in interracial relationships.
There was a moment two years into my relationship with my now-husband, when I realized he might be my lifelong partner, and joy gave way to dread: Would he ever really understand my experience as a child of immigrants? Could he really support me when I (or our children) faced racism? Would he ever really be able to “get” me?
I could have thrown our entire relationship away based on my fear, but luckily, I turned to a friend who had been in an interracial relationship for 10 years. He’s a Haitian American from New England and his partner is a white American from Oklahoma. They have a relationship of mutual love and respect. He had faced some of the same challenges I did. Knowing how much they had to work for it, and how happy they ended up as a result, helped me see that we could do the same.
Whether you can find someone in your friend group, through social networking or even just watching relevant YouTube videos, hearing from people who have been where you are can serve as emotional support.
5. Changing your name can take on heightened significance.
I waffled on changing my name — it felt really difficult for me, like I was letting go of my Indian heritage. Ultimately I decided against it, and my husband was supportive of my decision. Would it have been different if my husband were Indian? I’m not sure, but I do think about it.
6. You may feel a heightened connection to your own culture — and that’s OK.
“In the past few years, I’ve been needing more connection with my culture, I listen to more Latin music now, I watch movies in Spanish — I need those touchstones now, in a way I didn’t before,” said Alejandra Ramos, a TODAY Tastemaker who is Puerto Rican and has been married to a Ukranian-born Jewish man for seven years.
As with any successful relationship, your partner can’t be your everything. When you’re in an interracial relationship, friends who you can just express yourself to without having to explain yourself can be a welcome break. “One time I was on a show and a producer described me as ‘fiery, because you’re Latina.’ I came home and told my husband about it and he laughed and I was like no, that’s actually really offensive."
"There’s a certain lightness I feel when I talk to my Latina friends — you’re all coming from a similar frame of reference. There’s a learning curve for your partner, they just don’t know how to exist in your skin.”
7. You’re going to learn things about your partner’s family … and maybe even more about your own.
“When my husband introduced me, his family was shocked — which in turn shocked him,” said Pamela Baker, an African American who has been married to a white American for 36 years. “He had been raised to believe that all were equal. But, fear set in when they found that he deeply believed what he had been taught. I didn't freak and was not surprised. They came around quickly. [But] his grandmother did not attend our wedding.”
Unfortunately, this kind of revelation isn’t uncommon. Many people Childs has spoken to in the course of her research came from families who seemed very accepting, but feel differently about who their children date.
Her advice? "Be realistic and don’t just go off comments they made when you were growing up," she said. Have an open and honest conversation before you bring your significant other into the mix. Prepare yourself for reactions that are unexpected or even upsetting, and accept that it may take some time for your family to come around.
And if grandma just can't get on board? You can't force it. Acknowledge her feelings, but also acknowledge it's hurtful to you and your partner. Eventually, she may come around. That was the case for Baker, who said that after her kids were born, her husband's grandmother cried and apologized for her initial disapproval.
8. You will forever be teaching.
You’ll be sharing foods that may be new to your partner, translating your language for them during family gatherings and perhaps even teaching them some Racial Politics 101. Sometimes, you’ll want to bang your head against the wall. But stick with it; your patience will be rewarded.
“When your partner asks questions that may seem ignorant, they are accepting that they don’t understand everything,” said Fensterheim. If your partner asks you something that feels offensive, acknowledge they are likely coming from a good place, and then explain why you have an issue with the interaction. You should honestly express yourself, but don’t make them feel scared or stupid for coming to you with questions. With enough conversations over time, they might just surprise you.
9. … and learning.
If you’ve found the right person and are ready to take the next step, you’re signing up for an adventure. Whether it’s good stuff (trying new foods, activities and traditions) or the bad stuff (other people’s racism), you’re going to learn a lot. I learned how to mud ride. I shot a gun. I attended crawfish boils. I’m constantly exposed to new cultural experiences that I never would have sought out if my husband weren't in my life.
He’s experienced the same because of me. He now eats dosa with his hands like a pro, practices yoga and meditation and understands racial issues in a much more nuanced way. While we both come from very different backgrounds and sometimes have passionately opposing opinions, we do share one trait in common: Neither of us knows the people we will be tomorrow, and we're not only OK with that, but excited by it.