Interracial marriage is defined as a matrimonial union between members of two different races. It can be seen as a form of miscegenation (i.e., mixing of different races) or exogamy (i.e., a union outside of one’s social group), depending on whether race or culture is applied to the definition.
Race is a term intended to designate the main subdivisions of the human species. Its core intention is to distinguish groups based on physical characteristics, such as skin pigmentation and hair texture. Culture, on the other hand, defines the way people play out their personal belief system, and thus, culture presents a more dynamic orientation to this issue. Because all humankind embody both race and culture, it is important to understand the roles they play in the lives of individuals who marry outside of their identified race, culture, or both.
Nature of Racial Designation
Contemporary researchers suggest that race is largely a social construction that has little biological significance, despite the societal emphasis placed on race. Seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent boundaries have been established for determining racial heritage in the United States. For example, there are more than 560 federally recognized American Indian tribes in the United States. While the qualifications for membership into these tribes differ, some people of American Indian descent do not qualify for this racial designation unless they have a minimum blood quantum of one fourth.
Accordingly, possessing less than 25% Indian heritage is a racial disqualification for group membership, regardless of cultural practices and beliefs.
On the other hand, African Americans have been subjected to a one-drop rule. That is, persons with any degree of African ancestry—no matter how far back the lineage—are considered to be African American, regardless of an absence of cultural beliefs and practices. Amazingly enough, no other racial group in the world is subjected to this one-drop designation, and these differing policies of racial designation illustrate the social influence on defining race.
As these examples illustrate, inconsistent designations of race highlight the arbitrary nature of the definition, even though society subscribes to a strong biological rationale for utilizing racial designations.
Legislative Influences on Interracial Marriages
This adherence to a strictly biological racial designation contributed to U.S. legislation supporting race-based segregation such as the Jim Crow laws, which were enacted in the late 1800s. This legislation was upheld in many southern states into the 1960s when the civil rights movement was initiated. Jim Crow laws stated that it was unlawful not only for White people to marry persons of Negro, Mongolian, Malay, or Hindu descent but also for Negro men and women to cohabit (i.e., share the same sleeping quarters) with White persons. Anyone found to be in violation of these laws was subjected to either imprisonment for up to 12 months or monetary fines. In 1967 Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled against the remaining 13 states that upheld the antimiscegenation laws. This ruling initially spurred an uprising of Blacks protesting against White supremacy. Only after the settlement of this uprising did the phenomenon of interracial marriage begin to rise in occurrence.
As recently as 1983, the Texas Civil Liberties Union called for the removal of three justices of the peace who had refused to perform interracial marriages. Although there are currently no states that explicitly ban miscegenation, the practice continues to be a social taboo in many communities.
In spite of the obstacles interracial couples face, interracial marriages are on the rise in the United States. Census data indicate that interracial marriages have increased steadily over time, from 310,000 in 1970, to 651,000 in 1980, to 1.16 million in 1992, and to 2.7 million in 2000. American demographic changes are leading to increased contact among young people across racial and cultural lines in schools, in the workforce, and in better-integrated communities. By 2050, it is estimated that the percentage of U.S. population claiming mixed racial heritage will triple, climbing to 21%.
The incidence of interracial sex experienced an incline after the Supreme Court ruling of Loving v. Virginia in 1967. This increase led to a surge in the population of people who identify as biracial. As the population of these individuals increased, the basis for comparison became more difficult as larger numbers identified not with a single minority group but as a more ambiguous categorical group, biracial.
Interracial marriages today are more likely to occur between White females and Black males than in the past. However, Hispanics, American Indians, and Asians lead the trend of intermarriage with White partners. These statistics are likely to differ depending upon the U.S. region within which the couple resides. People living in the northern region show higher rates of interracial marriage than those living in the southern region. This trend, in part, is attributed to the historically significant migration of Black people to the northern regions coupled with the slow reaction of the southern states in responding to the civil rights movement.
Counseling Issues Facing Interracial Couples
Given this rise in racial and cultural integration, counselors must be prepared to address multiple levels of issues unique to interracial marriages, including being able to distinguish between cultural issues and common issues. When seeking counseling, interracial couples do so for reasons such as finances, fidelity, and child rearing; however, the societal landscape of racial intolerance and the sometimes unintentional push for assimilation adds an extra dimension of difficulty for interracial couples, giving a multiplicative effect to contextual factors.
Family of Origin and Social Support
Interracial couples may face a chaotic change from previously harmonious relationships with their respective extended families. Driven by implicit racist beliefs, otherwise loving fathers or mothers may disapprove of their daughter or son marrying outside of their race. This disapproval may cause couples to disconnect from families of origin, thus causing relational strain and psychological distress.
This disconnection also may cause interracial couples to turn to sources of support outside the family, even though these sources (i.e., friends, colleagues, and community members) can potentially present greater societal oppression, stereotypical assumptions, and acceptance challenges. In an attempt to remove themselves from situations of racism and intolerance, interracial couples may intentionally isolate themselves or develop new communities that support their relationship.
Parents of biracial children often feel a sense of inadequacy in assisting their children’s identification with biculturalism. Society often identifies children of dual racial parentage with whichever race their physical features most resemble. However, the child may not be Black enough to fit in with African American peers; conversely, the child may not be White enough to fit in with Caucasian peers. Subsequently, the child is placed in a tenuous situation wherein he or she cannot find acceptance anywhere. Integrating a healthy self-concept is a complex task for any adolescent, and social marginality magnifies this process for biracial youth.
Since the child may not strongly resemble either parent, biracial children may also have a difficult time identifying with either of their parents in attempting to resolve this duality. It is also possible that the child will arbitrarily identify with his or her most influential parental figure, which can ultimately result in peer conflict if the child’s physical appearance does not support his or her choice of racial identification. As children become more aware of their own biracial heritage, societal racism becomes more salient and can disrupt the process of healthy identity formation.
While it is difficult to watch their children navigate through their racial identity formation, interracial couples also must resolve their own racial identity issues. While transitioning through life stages, marital intimacy may be disrupted if one spouse perceives that his or her partner, who may not hold similar cultural beliefs and practices, is subsequently unable to appreciate these unique and often difficult experiences.
There exists a double-edged sword in working with interracial couples. Issues related to ethnic, racial, and cultural differences may be underlying presenting concerns (e.g., money, fidelity, child care) that bring a couple to therapy. However, counselors must be cautious in their zeal to attribute a racial explanation to these relational issues. It is inappropriate to define interracial couples simply by their interracial bond. To be competent, counselors need to become aware of the layered contexts in which the relationship exists.
In addition to their own awareness, counselors need to assist their clients in cultivating an appreciation for their own doubly rich cultural family systems. It is helpful to encourage couples to share their life stories, relate to each other’s worldview, expect and respect culturally complex differences, and express the wide range of values, expectations, and cultural components found in their individual life stories that have now been merged together.
Because there exists a multitude of potential racial matches (e.g., Black-White, Latino/a-American Indian, Korean-Vietnamese), interracial couples do not form a homogenous group. There are between-group racial differences to consider, just as there are within-group racial differences. Thus, there is not a “one size fits all” counseling approach to working with the issues facing interracial couples. Instead, a multiculturally competent counselor must be aware of the internal and systemic contexts surrounding the relationship and must individually tailor treatment programs to the unique needs of this vastly diverse population.
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