Common Problems Interracial Couples Have Faced Historically and Today

Family rifts and misconceptions frequently occur

Interracial Relationships
A couple in an interracial relationship. Julia Aviles/Flickr.com

Interracial relationships have taken place in America since colonial times, but couples in such romances continue to face problems and challenges.

America’s first “mulatto” child was born in 1620. When slavery of blacks became institutionalized in the U.S., however, anti-miscegenation laws surfaced in various states that barred such unions, thereby stigmatizing them. Miscegenation is defined by sexual relations between people from different racial groups.

The term stems from the Latin words "miscere" and "genus," which mean "to mix" and "race," respectively. 

Incredibly, anti-miscegenation laws remained on the books until the latter half of the 20th century, making interracial relationships taboo and posing barriers to mixed-race couples.

Interracial Relationships and Violence

A major reason interracial relationships continue to carry stigma is their association with violence. Although in early America, whites and Native Americans, Native Americans and blacks and blacks and whites openly procreated with one another, the introduction of institutionalized slavery changed the nature of such relationships entirely. The raping of African-American women by plantation owners and other powerful whites during this period have cast an ugly shadow on relationships between black women and white men. On the flip side, African American men who so much as looked at a white women could be killed, and brutally so.

Author Mildred D. Taylor describes the fear that interracial relationships invoked in the black community in the Depression Era South in Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981), a historical novel based on her family’s real-life experiences. When protagonist Cassie Logan’s cousin visits from the North to announce that he’s taken a white wife, the entire Logan family is aghast.

“Cousin Bud had separated himself from the rest of us…for white people were part of another world, distant strangers who ruled our lives and were better left alone,” Cassie thinks. “When they entered our lives, they were to be treated courteously, but with aloofness, and sent away as quickly as possible. Besides for a black man to even look at a white woman was dangerous.”

This was no understatement, as the case of Emmett Till proves. While visiting Mississippi in 1955, the Chicago teen was murdered by a pair of white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till’s murder sparked international outcry and motivated Americans of all races to join the civil rights movement.

The Fight for Interracial Marriage

Just three years after Emmett Till’s horrific murder, Virginians Mildred Jeter, an African American, married Richard Loving, a white man, in the District of Columbia. After returning to Virginia the Lovings were arrested for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation laws but told the one-year prison sentence given to them would be dropped if they left Virginia and did not return as a couple for 25 years. But the Lovings violated this condition, returning to Virginia as a couple to visit family.

When authorities discovered them, they were again arrested. This time they appealed the charges against them until their case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In addition to calling marriage a basic civil right, the Court stated, “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

During the height of the civil rights movement, not only did laws change regarding interracial marriage but public views did as well. That the public was slowly embracing interracial unions is evidenced by the theatrical release of a 1967 film based entirely on an imminent interracial marriage, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” To boot, by this time, the fight for civil rights had grown very integrated.

Whites and blacks often fought for racial justice side-by-side, allowing interracial romance to bloom. In Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (2001), Rebecca Walker, daughter of African American novelist Alice Walker and Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal, described the ethos that impelled her activist parents to marry.

“When they meet…my parents are idealists, they are social activists…they believe in the power of organized people working for change,” Walker wrote. “In 1967, when my parents break all the rules and marry against laws that say they can’t, they say that an individual should not be bound to the wishes of their family, race, state, or country. They say that love is the tie that binds, and not blood.”

Interracial Relationships and Rebellion

When civil rights activists married, they not only challenged laws but sometimes their own families. Even someone who dates interracially today runs the risk of incurring the disapproval of friends and family. Such opposition to interracial relationships has been documented in American literature for centuries. Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona (1884) is a case in point. In it, a woman named Señora Moreno objects to her adoptive daughter Ramona’s impending marriage to a Temecula Indian man named Alessandro.

“You marry an Indian?” Señora Moreno exclaims. “Never! Are you mad? I will never permit it.”

What’s astonishing about Señora Moreno’s objection is that Ramona is half-Indian herself. Still, Señora Moreno believes that Ramona is superior to a full-blooded Indian. Always an obedient girl, Ramona rebels for the first time when she chooses to marry Alessandro. She tells Señora Moreno that forbidding her to marry him is useless. “The whole world cannot keep me from marrying Alessandro. I love him…,” she declares.

Are You Willing to Sacrifice?

Standing up like Ramona did requires strength. While it’s certainly not wise to allow narrow-minded family members to dictate your love life, ask yourself if you’re willing to be disowned, disinherited or otherwise mistreated to pursue an interracial relationship.

If not, it’s best to find a mate of whom your family approves.

On the other hand, if you’re newly involved in such a relationship and only fear that your family may disapprove, consider having a sit-down conversation with your relatives about your interracial romance. Address any concerns they have about your new mate as calmly and clearly as possible. Of course, you may end up deciding to agree to disagree with your family about your relationship. Whatever you do, avoid springing your interracial romance on family members by unexpectedly inviting your new love to a family function. That could make things uncomfortable for both your family and your partner.

Examine Your Motives

When involved in an interracial relationship, it’s also important to examine your motives for entering such a union. Reconsider the relationship if rebellion is at the root of your decision to date across color lines. Relationship author Barbara DeAngelis states in her book Are You the One for Me? (1992) that a person who consistently dates individuals with qualities diametrically opposed to those their family finds appropriate may be acting out against their parents. For example, DeAngelis describes a white Jewish woman named Brenda whose parents want her to find a white Jewish, single and successful man. Instead, Brenda repeatedly chooses black Christian men who are married or commitment-phobic and only sometimes professionally successful.

“The point here is not that relationships between people of different backgrounds don’t work. But if you have a pattern of choosing partners who not only don’t fulfill you but also upset your family, you are probably acting out of rebellion,” DeAngelis writes.

In addition to dealing with family disapproval, those involved in interracial relationships sometimes deal with disapproval from their greater racial community. You may be viewed as a “sellout” or a “race traitor” for dating interracially. Some racial groups may approve of men dating interracially but not women or vice versa. In Sula (1973), author Toni Morrison describes this double standard.

“They said that Sula slept with white men. …All minds were closed to her when that word was passed around. …The fact that their own skin color was proof that it had happened in their families was no deterrent to their bile. Nor was the willingness of black men to lie in the beds of white women a consideration that might lead them toward tolerance.”

Dealing with Racial Fetishes

In today’s society, where interracial relationships are generally accepted, some people have developed what are known as racial fetishes. That is, they’re only interested in dating a particular racial group based on attributes they believe people from those groups embody. Chinese-American writer Kim Wong Keltner describes such fetishes in her novel The Dim Sum of All Things (2004) of which a young woman named Lindsey Owyang is protagonist.

“Although Lindsey was admittedly attracted to white boys, she…hated the idea of some pervert honing in on her because of her black hair, almond-shaped eyes, or any of the submissive, back-scrubbing fantasies her physical features might suggest to a large, clumsy mammal in tube socks.”

While Lindsey Owyang rightfully shies away from white men drawn to Asian women based on stereotypes, it’s equally important that she examine why she exclusively dates white men (which is revealed later). As the book progresses, the reader learns that Lindsey harbors considerable shame about being Chinese-American. She finds the customs, food and people largely repellent. But just as dating interracially based on stereotypes is objectionable, so is dating someone from another background because you suffer from internalized racism. The individual you’re dating, not racial identity politics, should be your primary reason for entering an interracial relationship.

If it’s your partner and not you who exclusively dates interracially, ask probing questions to find out why. Have a full-on discussion about it. If your partner finds members of her own racial group unattractive that reveals much about how she views herself and other groups as well.

The Key to a Successful Relationship

Interracial relationships, as all relationships do, pose their fair share of problems. But the tensions that arise from loving cross racially can be overcome with good communication and by settling down with a partner who shares your principles. Common ethics and morals arguably prove more significant than common racial backgrounds in determining a couple’s success.

While Barbara DeAngelis acknowledges that interracial couples face serious difficulties, she’s also found, “Couples who share similar values have a much greater chance of creating a happy, harmonious and lasting relationship.”