Interracial marriage is the term used to describe marriages that take place between people who are from different racial or ethnic groups. Intercultural marriages are defined as marriages between people who come from two different cultural backgrounds. A marriage between a woman from China, whose culture emphasizes the needs of the family over the needs of the individual, and a man from the United States, whose culture emphasizes individual autonomy, would be an example of a intercultural marriage. Whereas relationships between people from different ethnic and cultural groups are becoming increasingly common, there are substantial increases in the number of individuals engaging in interracial or intercultural marriages. However, even though the number and societal acceptance of interracial marriages is growing, little has been written about these marriages, the reasons for their increase, or their strengths and liabilities.
Growth of Interracial Marriage
The United States has historically promoted the concept of purity, or the separation of the races. Laws were enacted to keep the races separate and to prohibit marriages between members of different races, especially between people who by virtue of marriage would not maintain the purity of racial-ethnic groups. These laws were often specifically worded to make marriages illegal between Caucasians and African Americans (Davis 1991). In 1664 Maryland enacted the first anti-miscegenation law in the United States, and by the 1700s five additional states had enacted such laws. Between 1942 and 1967, fourteen states repealed these laws through legislative action. In 1967 the Supreme Court of the United States (Loving v. Virginia) declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. However, due to the stigma associated with these unions, the court’s decision resulted in little increase in the numbers of interracial marriages.
The number of interracial marriages has steadily grown since the 1980s and has increased rapidly in the early twenty-first century. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 1990 there were 1,348,000 interracial marriages, compared to 651,000 in 1980. The growth of interracial marriages is even more pronounced when one notes that the 1960 statistics indicated only 149,000 interracial marriages. The rise in interracial marriages in the United States coincides with changes in the legal status of interracial marriages and in the changing attitudes of Americans towards individuals engaged in interracial marriages and relationships. In U.S. Census Bureau (2000) data, the number of interracial marriages rose to slightly more than 3,000,000 and comprised approximately 5.5 percent of all marriages. Some of the growth can be accounted for by declining societal prejudice towards—and less shame experienced by—people in interracial marriages. In addition, changes in the census forms encourage individuals to identify all parts of their racial composition.
The growth in interracial marriages is not occurring only in the United States. For example, the number of interracial marriages in China between Shanghainese (individuals who live in Shanghai, China) and individuals from other countries increased 67 percent from 1991 to 1992. In 1996, 3.5 percent of the marriages in Shanghai took place between Shanghainese with foreigners.
The growth in interracial marriages is not uniform. In other words, interracial marriages have become more common for some racial and ethnic groups, but not for others. In the United States it is estimated that 40.6 percent of Japanese Americans and 53.7 percent of Native Americans engage in interracial marriages. However, only 1.2 percent of black women and 3.6 percent of black males engage in interracial marriages. According to Anita Foeman and Teresa Nance (1999), these small percentages are due in part to the continued condemnation of black-white intermixing.
Difficulties in Interracial Marriages
The problems encountered by interracial couples are often the result of negative societal attitudes about interracial relationships. Black-Caucasian unions have the lowest frequency of occurrence because of longstanding negative beliefs about these marriages. Studies have indicated that, in general, Caucasians tend to disapprove of interracial marriages, and blacks tend to approve. Other research suggests that people engage in interracial relationships due to self-hate or rebelliousness. In addition, there is some question as to whether or not partners in interracial relationships reciprocate love (Gaines et al. 1999). Given that the dominant culture tends to disdain black-Caucasian unions, it is difficult to imagine how these couples are able to maintain their relationships.
Asian Americans have also experienced difficulties in their interracial marriages. Asian Americans engage in more interracial relationships than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Laws forbidding interracial marriages between Asians and Caucasians were common in the United States. For example, in 1901 California extended the 1850 Marriage Regulation Act to include Mongolians (i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Koreans), and in 1933 the law was further extended to include Malays (i.e., Filipinos) (Kitano, Fugino, and Sato 1998). These laws, like all other anti-miscegenation laws, were overturned following a state judicial decision in California (Perez v. Sharp 1948) and a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Loving v. Virginia). Even though the results of these cases made interracial marriages legal, the negative societal perspective on such unions has been slow to change.
Bok-Lim Kim (1998) points out that since World War II, marriages between Asian women (specifically women from Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam) and U.S. military men have become a legacy of United States military involvement. He notes that many of those marriages took place because of the low socioeconomic status of many of the women who lived near U.S. military bases, and the low self-esteem experienced as a result of their low economic conditions. He also points out that these interracial marriages displayed undaunted courage and optimism in spite of the obstacles they faced due to language and cultural differences and the lack of support from their families and communities in both countries. However, Kim also points out that the Asian women often carry the burden of cultural norms that provide severe penalties for marriage outside their ethnic group (out-marriages). Even though there has been improvement in the acceptance of Asian outmarriages by their families, there continue to be difficulties because of cultural differences.
Interracial relationships and marriages remain controversial for several additional reasons. Many Asian Americans are alarmed because of the rising number of interracial unions, which they believe reduces the pool of eligible men and women who could otherwise engage in same-culture unions. Some Asian Americans are concerned that, because of the high number of out-marriages, distinct groups of Asians may disappear within a few generations. Additionally, whereas so many Asian women are out-marrying, there is the fear that many Asian-American men will remain unmarried because of the dwindling number of available Asian-American women (Fujino 1997). A similar fear is expressed by African-American men and women. As African-American men and women increase their level of education and move to higher economic levels, fewer and fewer members of their race are available for marriage. This often leads to frustration on the part of African Americans who seek to marry someone of their own race, and also leads to increased levels of out-marriage, as increases in income and educational levels occur.
Some of the difficulties experienced by interracial couples are unique and a direct result of the interracial experience. The myths that surround interracial couples can also be stumbling blocks to a healthy marriage. In a study conducted by Richard Watts and Richard Henriksen (1999), Caucasian females report that, when engaged in interracial marriages with black males, they often receive the following messages: “Black men belong with black women because they will treat them better than white women” and “Biracial children will always be referred to as black and, therefore, should have a black mother.” The Watts and Henriksen (1999) study also found that problems and difficulties are also experienced because of the mythical messages received from the Caucasian culture. These include: “Black men only marry white women for status symbols or upward mobility,” “Interracial marriages do not work; therefore, you will lose your spouse to someone else,” “Those who engage in interracial marriages must hate their parents,” and “Those who engage in interracial relationships or marriages must have psychological difficulties.” The problems faced by couples involved in black-Caucasian unions are also experienced by those involved in other interracial unions. However, many couples state that the reasons they got married are not that much different than same-race couples.
Reasons for Entering into Interracial Marriages
Like other couples deciding to spend their lives together in marriage, interracial couples have many reasons for their choice to marry. The words of a Caucasian female engaged in an interracial marriage point out the importance of recognizing that interracial couples are attracted to each other for the same reasons as homogeneous couples.
People should first look inside themselves before they look at others and judge them. They should remember that a couple is made up of two people, not two races or cultures. Like other women, I was attracted to my husband because he is considerate, caring, and someone I enjoy spending time with. . . . Healthy families raise healthy children no matter the race or culture of the parents. (Watts and Henriksen 1999, p. 70)
Research supports this woman’s perspective. Interracial couples tend to marry because of four important facts: shared common interests, the attractiveness of the partner, shared similar entertainment interests, and socioeconomic similarity. Racial selection factors tend to be less important in selecting an interracial partner for marriage than nonracial factors (Lewis, Yancey, and Bletzer 1997). In other words, as with other couples, interracially married couples are typically attracted to each other based on similarities rather than differences.
Interracial dating is affected by propinquity, attractiveness, and acculturation. Research involving Asian-American out-dating demonstrates that propinquity is the strongest predictor of whether or not the individual will engage in interracial dating. Acculturation and assimilation have also been shown to be positively related to the incidence of interracial marriages. When removed from the demand for intraethnic relationships imposed on Asian Americans by family and the community, Asian Americans are more likely to explore relationships with partners of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, often resulting in interracial marriages (Fujino 1997). These factors are true for other racial and ethnic groups as well.
Resiliency in Interracial Marriages
Many of the people engaged in stable, well-functioning interracial marriages tend to be older, more educated, and have higher incomes, all factors seen as increasing marital stability. Interracial couples that appear to be more vulnerable to marital difficulties tend to have lower incomes, less education, and limited residence in the United States of a foreign-born partner. The length of residence can amplify cultural differences in the relationship and generate or exacerbate marital discord. Marital stability is also affected by the particular racial combination. Racial prejudice is often cited as a main reason why, in some racial groups, out-marriages are rare and in others are more common. In addition, racial prejudice has been shown to affect the resiliency of the marriage based on the partner’s ability to cope with the prejudice (Chan and Wethington 1998).
Anna Y. Chan and Elaine Wethington (1998) identified several factors that could facilitate resiliency in interracial marriages. First, interracial marriages tend to be more stable and involve fewer conflicts than other types of interracial relationships. Second, whereas interracial couples and families face unique challenges, they tend to develop mature coping and conflict-resolution styles. Third, given that well-functioning interracial couples often have higher levels of education, they tend to have superior resources for coping with the problems they encounter. Finally, interracial couples tend to build support networks of like-minded people and build strong bonds with each other as a means to overcome adversity.
Any view of interracial marriages must be taken in light of the current worldview of interracial relationships. In the current global climate, there is both increased tension and greater openness. People are more likely to engage in activities that cross racial and ethnic boundaries. However, there also continues to be prejudice and fear about racial ethnic groups with whom many people have little contact. Nevertheless, when people strive to understand the traditions, values, and beliefs that are endemic to the many groups that make up our global societies, then they will be better able—and, it is hoped, more inclined—to work together for the good of all.