Interracial relationships have existed for years, though society traditionally has had difficulty accepting these unions. Over the years, attitudes toward interracial relationships have changed dramatically and will likely continue to change as our society becomes increasingly diverse.
An interracial marriage is generally defined as the union between two individuals who come from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, such as an African American woman and a European American male. Interracial relationships have been difficult to clearly define, however, due to changing definitions and classifications of race/ethnicity. The social construction of race is an issue at the heart of interracial relationships as well as multiracial children, and affects discussions of these unique experiences.
Attitudes And Practices
Historically U.S. society has had difficulties accepting interracial relationships. From colonial times until the 1960s, antimiscegenation laws declaring race mixing and intermarriage illegal were common in most state laws. These laws were intended to protect “whiteness” and thus were not generally enforced for marriages between racial/ethnic minorities. It was not until the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court repealed antimiscegenation laws. In this case, a black Native American woman named Mildred Jeter married Perry Loving, a European American. This couple, who was married in Virginia in 1958, was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison for breaking the antimiscegenation laws. With this monumental Supreme Court decision, however, all state laws against interracial marriage were repealed on the grounds that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment, providing the right to pursue happiness.
It appears that society is steadily becoming more accepting of interracial relationships. Surveys from the Gallup Poll of African American and European American adults about their attitudes about interracial marriages demonstrate significant changes. In 1968, for example, 17% of Whites and 48% of African Americans approved of interracial marriage, and by 1997 61% of Whites and 77% of African Americans stated they approved. This shift in attitudes is expected to continue as our society becomes increasingly diverse. Positive attitudes toward interracial relationships are generally associated with more liberal ideology, higher levels of education, and living in larger cities. Younger generations also appear to be more accepting of interracial relationships. Research with college populations shows that about 50% of students have positive attitudes about interracial dating, though only about 25% report dating someone of a different race. With respect to geographical region, individuals on the West Coast show the greatest approval for interracial marriages, followed by the East Coast and Midwest. Individuals in the South consistently show the lowest approval of interracial marriage, which likely relates to general historical and societal attitudes toward racial/ethnic minorities within this region.
The rate of interracial marriages has also changed significantly over the past years. In 1993 the United States Census reported that almost 5% of all marriages were interracial, which was nearly four times as many as in 1970. Researchers who have studied last names on marriage licenses in Hawaii and California have suggested that the proportion of interracial marriages is higher than 50%. Thus attitudes and practices related to interracial dating and marriage are steadily changing.
Societal And Family Challenges
Individuals in interracial relationships report that they get married for the same reasons that other couples do—because they are in love and care about one another. Nevertheless, these couples often face unique issues that distinguish their relationships from those of people who marry within their same race. At the societal level, it is clear that many myths and stereotypes about racial/ethnic minorities, as well as about couples in interracial relationships, exist and can exert a negative influence over interracial couples. Depending on the environment and context of an interracial marriage, individuals may experience discrimination and hostility or, conversely, tolerance and support.
Couples also report that their own family members can sometimes cause conflict if they are biased and discriminatory toward other cultures. In extreme cases, parents may cut ties with children who marry someone from a different race. Often, these parents report that they are particularly concerned about how society will look upon the interracial couple, and how the children of the interracial relationship will be treated. Perceptions that children of mixed race will have substantial identity conflict and problems abound, even while current research suggests that they will be well adjusted.
Because each individual in an interracial marriage represents a different culture, at times there can be conflict over issues such as how to raise children, communication and use of ethnic language, views about caring for the elderly, and religious beliefs. While these issues can clearly affect any couple, regardless of racial/ethnic background, they may be exacerbated in interracial couples because of potentially different values and experiences.
The Richness Of Interracial Relationships
Many researchers, as well as society at large, have focused on the challenges faced by couples in interracial relationships without acknowledging the many strengths and benefits associated with such unions. Interracial couples report that their relationships allow them to experience another culture through values, language, shared customs, and traditions. This diversity adds a richness that might not be possible in a union between two people of the same racial/ethnic background. In addition, individuals in interracial marriages who choose to have children have the opportunity to create families with unique, diverse interests and traditions. Some research has even shown that multiracial children raised in these families show more open attitudes toward other individuals from different racial/ethnic groups.
Rates of interracial marriages have steadily increased in the United States, and as a result there are more children of mixed heritage than ever before. The offspring of interracial relationships are referred to by names such as biracial, multiracial, multiethnic, and mixed race. The existence of multiracial individuals is not a new phenomenon, though. In times of slavery, it was not uncommon for slave owners to have sexual relations with female slaves and then have children who would be considered biracial.
The challenge of classification has become increasingly salient with children of mixed heritage. While society attempts to categorize individuals into rigid racial groups, multiracial individuals challenge this long-held practice because they do not fit neatly into clearly define racial categories. In the 2000 United States Census, respondents were allowed, for the first time, to indicate more than one race as their self-classification. This landmark change allowed multiracial individuals to acknowledge their background, and in the 2000 United States Census, 6.8 million (2.4%) of the U.S. population selected more than one racial box.
Research about multiracial individuals is limited and has generally focused on biracial individuals whose heritage is a mix of a minority group (usually African American) and European American, rather than two minority groups. Nevertheless, with increased attention being paid to this growing population, new insights about the identity formation and functioning in multiracial youth have been proposed. One researcher in particular, Maria Root, has written extensively about multiracial individuals and has integrated findings from sociological and psychological fields to begin to understand this unique population.
Maria Root and other researchers have discussed the psychological impact of being multiracial, as well as how an individual’s multiracial identity may develop over the life span. While early models speculated that children of mixed heritage would experience marginalized status and identity conflict, more current research suggests that being multiracial does not necessarily equate with being maladjusted. Indeed, psychologists concerned with societal stereotypes have acknowledged that there is a danger of multiracial individuals internalizing negative stereotypes about themselves. Furthermore, multiracial individuals, because of their unique and ambiguous appearances, may frequently be asked about their background, and may feel conflicted to choose one race (parent) over the other. These legitimate challenges can affect multiracial individuals in different ways based on background, appearance, language, family, and geographical location.
Nevertheless, research suggests that a normal developmental trajectory is expected for multiracial individuals. They will attempt to develop their identities much as any person would, but these identities will likely be more fluid and flexible because of their unique experiences. Similar to research findings on interracial relationships, studies of multiracial children have suggested that in fact their mixed identity can be a source of richness and strength, instead of conflict.
Future Trends And Summary
Changing views about racial/ethnic diversity within the United States and the ease with which people can cross geographic barriers has led to more interracial relationships, and in turn more multiracial children. Researchers are beginning to understand the positive aspects of such unique experiences, and it is expected that time and effort will continue to be devoted to understanding the challenges and benefits faced by these individuals and couples.
- Association of MultiEthnic Americans, http://www.amea org
- Mavin Foundation, http://www.ma.net
- Moran, F. (2001). Interracial intimacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Root, P. P. (1992). Racially mixed people in America.Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Root, P. P. (1996). The multiracial experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Root, P. P. (2001). Love’s revolution: Interracial marriage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.