Prince Harry recently admitted that he had no awareness of unconscious bias until he met Meghan. He is now determined to educate himself and others. Interracial or interethnic couples still face overt and subtle forms of racism, research shows. But, like Harry, these relationships can have benefits close to home and in the wider community.
Tanja and Richard met on Facebook five years ago. “I was quite surprised by my Dad’s reaction to having a black boyfriend,” Tanja remembered. “When Richard and I got together my Dad did not want to talk to me anymore. He got my Mum to call me to see how I was doing but he didn’t want to talk to me. That lasted two years. Then he got sick all of a sudden, and I only saw him when he was in a coma. He died within six weeks. So he never had the chance to meet Richard.”
“Everywhere on earth we find a condition of separateness among groups. People mate with their own kind”
It remains true today: a relationship that crosses social divides – particularly ethnic or racial divides – may be seen as a ‘norm-violation’ (Clark-Ibanez & Felmlee, 2004) and a threat to ingroup identity.
Cross-group dating is challenging
The challenges of interethnic relationships are well-documented. A summary by Paterson (2012) includes evidence that they are discouraged, disapproved of (by their family, friends, and society), and discriminated against. They are subject to negative perceptions and stereotypes, including that the partners have lower self-esteem, are less well-adjusted, less successful and are sexually obsessed or deviant. Their relationships are seen as less compatible, less satisfying, and less valued compared to same-ethnicity couples.
Many studies show that the negative consequences of this include keeping the relationship a secret, receiving less support and reassurance in hard times, and your relationship being more likely to break down. Tracy told us that she had grown up with a father who was racist. “I grew up with a lot of derogatory comments towards gay people and black people and on many occasions got told to ‘never bring a black man home’.” Tracy, a White British 27 year old from London, and her sister, 30, have had relationships with mixed heritage and Asian men, but kept them secret and never introduced them to their father. “These conversations always made me feel very uncomfortable. I never shared these views with my father and in fact his views made me actually look harder at people and see past skin colour.”
More explicit forms of racism can have more profound and long-lasting effects. Neil, who is 22, British, and of mixed White and Caribbean heritage, has this experience to come to terms with: “The first time I was subject to racial prejudice that I can remember was during an early relationship when my girlfriend’s Dad called me a black c*** and told me to ‘Go back to the jungle’. On more than one occasion these interactions became physical. This put a lot of pressure on the relationship which ended not long after. More than three years later I still have traumatic flashbacks to these events which changed me and my views on life profoundly.”
21 year old Andy is Black British. “I was seeing this White girl and I think this other guy was jealous. He approached her and said ‘Would your parents not feel ashamed because he’s Black?’ For me that was the first time of seeing racism as a barrier between me and this girl.” These kinds of negative attitudes from your support network towards your interethnic relationship can have detrimental effects on how long a relationship lasts (Sprecher & Felmlee, 2000).
In Queenie, the British Book Award 2020 winner by Candice-Carty-Williams, the relationship between the White Tom and the Black Queenie reveals a range of microaggressions – from Tom not wanting to introduce her to his colleagues, to his brother making remarks about her skin colour that go unchallenged. There are examples of blatant racism too, but it’s the subtle ones that are more common and whose effects can sometimes be missed. (Readers may wonder why Queenie tolerates these for so long – that’s one of the themes of the novel, so read it and decide for yourself.)
Educating your White girlfriend
Tanja is a 44 year old White German woman. Richard is a 54 year old British man with Jamaican heritage. They live in Croydon and are very happy together. But being in an interethnic relationship can be challenging. As well as all of the above, there are cultural differences and a lifetime of discrimination to try to explain.
“She didn’t see the things I see, she didn’t see the things I’ve experienced,” Richard explained. “She couldn’t understand why I don’t like going to certain restaurants – because I’ve been to places where people make me feel uncomfortable. What people don’t realise is that someone doesn’t have to say something, sometimes it’s just body language. I don’t want to go somewhere, to sit somewhere where I’m made to feel uncomfortable. So I’d rather eat mainly at home. I’ve learnt to deal with racism on a daily basis, and you deal with it by avoiding certain things, places you can’t go to and that’s enough.”
Tanja found this surprising to start with: “I’ve been raised so I can express my opinions, complain to people, shout at someone in the street, without weapons coming out, you can continue walking, you can go out, be free. I don’t need to think about how to react, where to go. It’s opened up a whole new world to me.”
Richard recalled the first time Tanja saw her boyfriend subject to racial abuse: “We were in Barcelona. There was a group of skinheads (who weren’t Spanish). One of them shouted out “N****r” to me. I instantly wanted to go and say something but thought no, they’ve come to cause trouble, there were five of them, so I just ignored them. That was the first time that Tanja had actually seen that.”
Tanja admits she was naïve at first: “In the beginning it was a bit like I was in denial, I thought you’re not going to be treated differently, it depends on your behaviour not on your skin colour, like if you try harder you’ll get the same chances.”
But Richard didn’t give up. “It is exhausting because you are always saying ‘Don’t you understand?’ But it takes time for people to see. Then Tanja started educating herself. She brought books and started reading about Jim Crow laws in America and going deeper, so I’m happy.”
Challenges can bring you closer
Although there can be the negative consequences for interethnic relationships described above, there are also studies that show that the challenges Richard and Tanja face can lead to greater relationship satisfaction, commitment and investment. Paterson (2012) outlines two hypotheses in social psychology that can explain this. It can be because you pull together in adversity (the Romeo and Juliet Hypothesis), placing a higher value on what you have to fight for and a lower value on what your family or society think. Or, according to the Compensation Hypothesis, you may work harder to improve other features of your relationship to make up for the negative impact of the attitudes of others.
Exposure to cross-group relationships can make us more tolerant
24 year old Rei is mixed heritage and trans. “As a coloured LGBT couple it’s one hurdle just to get people to respect and understand that we are a couple and not just friends. Then we need to explain we are people of colour and if the first hurdle was hard enough, often this hurdle is where it falls apart.”
But perhaps Rei should take heart: each encounter with a relationship that challenges our norms makes a difference. Paterson (2015) found that when we see others in an interethnic relationship, there are some important positive consequences. Firstly, we approve of such relationships more by seeing them as more acceptable (the process of ‘normalisation’). Secondly, our attitudes generalise from one particular interethnic relationship to others: in this study, from a White-Asian couple to a White-Black couple (an example of the secondary transfer effect in social psychology). These effects can happen just by observing a relationship (a form of indirect intergroup contact). So it is likely that regular, close contact in a family or with friends will have even greater effects.
As well as our attitudes towards relationships, attitudes towards groups (such as ethnic outgroups or members of the LGBTQI community) will also improve from each positive encounter with a member of that group. People with little prior contact have the potential to improve their attitudes the most, too (Al Ramiah et al, 2011). Tanja describes the kind of attitudes she notices in her White German family, who have had little exposure to ethnic minorities: “My Mum doesn’t mean it in a racist way, but Richard will be running towards my little niece and she is hesitating, saying ‘Richard shouldn’t be so loud because she might be scared of him because he’s dark.’”
We also learn to differentiate between members of an outgroup, rather than lumping them altogether (the outgroup homogeneity effect). “My Mum asked if Richard ate pork, as if he might be a Muslim!” Tanja laughs. Explaining the differences between Muslims and Black British people can break down the ‘lump’, but even better is Tanja’s Mum getting to know Richard and finding out his food preferences and religious beliefs naturally through conversation.
Research shows that we are more likely to improve our attitudes towards stigmatized or minority groups through the involvement of our emotions (Al Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013). So family relationships are one of the best contexts for this to happen. Tanja has seen how her Mum’s feelings towards Richard have become warmer over time: “Mum now cooks his favourite German meals when we visit and asks what he might want as a Christmas present”, as well as enjoying Richard cooking for her when she visits Croydon.
Challenging your friends and family
It can be difficult to know how much to challenge your friends. But Tanja is keen not to let things go: “On the one hand you want to be polite, but on the other you have to step out of your comfort zone, really educate them, stop them right there where you see that it’s actually racism because they don’t really think about it.”
Richard does worry that she is taking on too much at times. “I want her to chill with her friends, not having a battle all the time, let things go over her head and have fun.”
Recently, with the Black Lives Matter protests, Tanja has realised “It’s not my battle, it can’t be me stepping forward for him, it’s his battle.”
Richard agrees: “What Tanja did was try to take too much on in her head, it started making her emotional. She looks at me like: doesn’t it affect you? I’ve been born into this skin, it’s normal, I’m a bit more bullet-proof than you. I say ‘Step back, read a few articles, but then relax!’”
Thanks to Aaliyah Blaikie for help with interviews and feedback on earlier drafts.
I recognise that my contribution to discussion of issues around racism is limited by being White, and have welcomed the thoughts of friends, family and interviewees from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
My hashtag #ethicaldating expresses the desire to bring our values into dating.
This is the fourth article in a series for Black Lives Matter. Please consider sharing.
Read the other articles here:
Another great article on the subject of interracial relationships is here.
Note: I have used the terms “interethnic” and “interracial” interchangeably at times. I prefer “interethnic”, to avoid issues of racial essentialism, but for getting more searches to my website, it’s best to use both, as “interracial” is a term still used widely in the US.
Also, despite the title, I definitely recommend reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Order from your local bookshop!