“We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.” -Jimmy Carter
Former president Carter describes a country in which each individual holds a place in the grander image that is America. Each piece is separate, not melded together like the popular statements of America being a melting pot. Race is one of the many aspects that divides the pieces of the mosaic. America is an overwhelmingly white country, 77.1% of Americans reporting a “white alone” status in the 2015 census update (United States Census 2015). A strong white culture in America has developed a system of power that generates a certain set of unstated expectations and rules within society.
One of these unstated rules is that romantic relationships should stay “homogenous”. It is part of nature to desire to belong to a group and maintain group boundaries and exclusivity (Kalmijn 1998, p. 396). In present day American society, these boundaries have been crossed in regards to intimate relationships. In the 2010 census it was shown that 10% of heterosexual married couples identified as interracial or interethnic, a 20% increase in the past decade (United States Census 2015). Additionally 18% of heterosexual unmarried couples and 21% same-sex unmarried partners also defined themselves as interracial or interethnic (United States Census 2015). Even with the rise of interracial couples, there is a lack of acceptance of these couples that can increase relationship tension.
Fighting the cultural rejection of their relationship can strain a couple. There has consistently been a significant percentage of society in America that disapproves of interracial couples (Lehmiller & Agnew 2006, p. 41). There are a number of forces in society that challenge the stability and commitment of interracial partnerships. A major challenge that interracial couples face is that investment in their relationship may lead to disapproval from one or both of the partner’s families (Lehmiller & Agnew 2006, p. 42). This can challenge the couple’s intimacy and connection. Interracial couples that internalize the messages that they do not belong have lower levels of commitment (Lehmiller & Agnew 2006, p. 48). This goes to show that the negative messages of society are eroding at the relational health of interracial couples. The research also shows that the levels of investment in the relationship for interracial couples are significantly lower than that of their intraracial counterparts (Lehmiller & Agnew 2006, p. 49). The overt discomfort with interracial couples reveals itself in American pop culture.
American society challenges the identity and resilience of interracial couples. The racist undertones of the culture create a tension that many interracial couples are attuned to. Partners in interracial couples frequently experience hostility and rejection from the larger social context (Killian 2003, p. 5). The experience of racism and rejection directly influences the relationship between partners and pressures the relationship identity. When interracial couples attend therapy the idea of relational duality emerges, showing that couples feel capable of viewing themselves a certain way and understanding that those outside of their relationship view them differently (Killian 2003, p. 15). Awareness of this duality can lead couples to restrain their relational exploration. In one study, couples reported that they might not travel to certain areas or engage in specific activities because they know that there is a higher likelihood of danger (Killian 2001, p. 30).
Understanding and inviting the stories of interracial couples’ experiences of discrimination is important during therapy. These stories have become a part of their relationship and bringing them forward in therapy can allow space for both the couple and the therapist to explore the underpinnings of the discrimination (Killian 2001, p. 38). For couples that engage in the therapeutic process and wish to better understand the dynamics of their relationship there are a plethora of tools that can be used. Using a cultural genogram, internalized-other interviewing, or various questionnaires about differences that may be important to the couple can help develop the therapeutic understanding of the balance in their relationship (Killian 2001, p. 38). Giving the accepting and open space of therapy for a couple exploring these deep-rooted cultural expectations can be therapeutic in and of itself.
Interracial couples may have a lot to unpack in their relationship. The concerns interracial couples may bring to therapy are typically no different than that of intraracial couples, however, taking into account the cultural context for the couple is important in understanding the depth of the concern (Kenney & Kenney 2012, p. 102). In therapy, if therapists encourage couples to think about how they are currently processing the concerns within their relationship and how cultural values have impacted their method of process, the couple can thoughtfully maintain or change their coping tactics. Research has shown that couples have a multitude of coping strategies such as “’fighting fire with fire’, ‘making a special effort’, ‘dissociating from one another’, and others” (Killian 2003, p. 8). These skills all have their benefits and challenges to couples in American culture.
American culture does not easily accept interracial couples. There is this quiet tension that builds around the subject of “out of group” dating and marriage. Popular media can barely handle people of color as leading actors, much less the idea of people of color’s sexuality (Killian 2014). It is unsurprising that the culture at large still struggles to appreciate and accept the interracial couple. Though there is hope that younger generations show more accepting of interracial couples (Washington 2012, p. 254). While interracial couples have made it into popular media, there are a couple things lacking in representation. The majority of interracial couples in popular media are between a white person and a person of color (Washington 2012, p. 254). There is a significant lack of representation for interracial couples that show two people of ethnic background together. The progress in popular culture and the apparent progress in society’s acceptance are just covers to the underlying racial biases woven into the culture (Washington 2012, p. 254). Research is slowly uncovering the global and personal predispositions toward interracial relationships.
While global research is more prevalent, the growing body of research around personal dispositions shows different results than that of the global research. One of the more fascinating results of research has been that less committed interracial relationships such as friendship or dating is more accepted and more common than interracial marriage (Herman & Campbell 2011, p. 344). There appears to be a general acceptance to casual relationships that cross-racial boundaries. Although, it has been shown that those who engage in their first sexual encounter with a partner of a different race are more likely to also choose a spouse of a different than themselves (Herman & Campbell 2011, p. 334). As the culture becomes more diverse, the likelihood of interracial relationships becomes higher.
There are distinct generational differences when it comes to acceptance of interracial relationships. This is reflected in the school setting where young people begin their dating life. Reports show that individuals in grade schools that are predominantly people of color (less than 20% white) 46% of white individuals were in interracial relationships (Herman & Campbell 2011, p. 344). It was also shown that Latino and Asian Americans had a higher likelihood of pursuing an interracial relationship (Herman & Campbell 2011, p. 344). These statistics are also reflected in those who grow up in more diverse communities (Herman & Campbell 2011, p. 345). This research reflects the cohort effect and generational differences in acceptance.
The societal disapproval of interracial couples is a heavy weight to carry; this is compounded with family who may not support the relationship. Despite all of these factors, interracial couples and marriages still persist and have the ability to be strong (Seshadri & Knudson-Martin 2013, p. 45). Couples create their own methods of healthy living and coping with the pressures around them. Therapists have the opportunity to explore the couple’s level of commitment, external influences, and the mutual needs of the couple in the therapy office (Seshadri & Knudson-Martin 2013, p. 52). It is crucial to the therapeutic relationship to explore personal cultural competency and the how different theoretical models match with cultural differences.
As a whole, the majority American culture claims to approve of interracial couples. Though research shows that this is true, it is a completely different story when that interracial couple is related is a family member (Skinner & Hudac 2017, p. 68). Family members are of course, different from the general population. This research shows that 16-37% of the white Americans interviewed showed strong disapproval toward family members in relationships with black Americans (Skinner & Hudac 2017, p. 68). The relationship between the couple and family members who disapprove may be a reason that brings the couple into a therapy office.
Research on interracial couples struggles to explore several topics. There is limited research easily available on interracial couples outside of black-white couples. Additionally, there are few studies on interracial same-sex relationships, as well as research on personal attitudes towards interracial relationships as opposed to global attitudes (Herman & Campbell 2011, p. 343). One study discovered during the research process of this article addressed the personal level as well as the global level of attitudes toward interracial couples. It was shown that the likelihood of white Americans engaging in a relationship with black Americans. It was found that 38% of the 1000 Americans interviewed stated that they would not engage in a romantic relationship with a black person (Skinner & Hudac 2017, p. 68). This research continues to show the underlying bias towards interracial couples common in American culture. It should be noted that there is a significant lack of research of interracial couples from different ethnic backgrounds than just black Americans (Skinner & Hudac 2017, p. 76). This is a limitation of research that has appeared across many studies.
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