Challenges of interracial marriage

Family fun at the beach in winter, Lake Ontario

We are family…


My husband and I recently celebrated ten years of happy marriage. This is an achievement in itself, a testament to our ability to work together and our dedication to the commitment we made a decade ago, but as an interracial couple from completely different backgrounds (Pakistan and Ireland) this major milestone holds extra meaning for us.

Cold Shoulder

Mixed race relationships are still viewed with suspicion and distaste by many, even today. Indeed, among all the congratulations on our anniversary and well wishes from friends, our own families, both parents and siblings, were conspicuous by their silence. Although saddening, this was no surprise as neither family welcomed our marriage. Still, ten years is a long time to cling to ignorance.

Despite the rise in acceptance of interracial relationships, people tend to be less tolerant when it occurs within their own family, choosing to disown their relative rather than face their own prejudice. While these kinds of “closed families” may not overtly use racial slurs, their reticence and lack of warmth are still a hurtful indication of their views, and their behavior is enough to pass on ways of thinking that perpetuate racial borders and stereotypes.

Doorway to a whole new world

While cultural issues can lead to arguments and conflict, the same as differences of opinion can in any marriage, an intercultural marriage offers the potential for huge personal growth. At the bare minimum, it’s necessary to be considerate of each other’s background but it’s also an opportunity to broaden your own cultural understanding and attitudes. Unfortunately, these were opportunities our families chose to ignore. We also have a more varied diet and greater global awareness, oh, and our kids have stronger genes!

Making an intercultural marriage work takes dedication and strength but the core principles aren’t much different from those required for any other successful and happy marriage. You have to explore each other’s culture and values – not just the parts you like but the parts that cause you difficulty too. In your average marriage, these might be things like prior relationships, childhood, and family history.  Couples in an intercultural marriage have to add socio-cultural customs, beliefs, and key values to that pot.

I’ve got your back

It’s not about one culture overcoming another, but about finding a path through both, that you can both support. Knowing and understanding one another is essential for navigating those times when your views will differ. You can’t rely on assumptions based on a shared background – you have to develop an understanding for one another’s viewpoint in order to deal with the inevitable cultural conflict. You also need it to support your partner when they face negativity from their cultural kin, just as they will, when their turn comes to back you up.

Interracial couples need to use more energy and imagination to balance and celebrate two cultures.  They must be strong enough to endure the stares, tough enough to keep working at their cultural differences and self-assured enough to raise confident children.

Collateral damage

My husband and I have absolute confidence in our support of one another. Although there are times when the familial isolation cuts deeper (traditional “family” holidays or times when parental advice and support would be helpful) we find solace in one another’s understanding of our unusual predicament. What causes me the most pain is when I think about its effect on my three children. It pierces my heart when I wonder how they’ll process the knowledge that their extended family has little interest in them. I can only hope they don’t think for a minute it’s because of a shortcoming on their part.

As it is, they’ll grow up without the family bonds that many other children view as part of everyday life – no grandparents to spoil them, aunts and uncles to bond with and learn from. Their only points of reference for adult life are my husband and I, our friends, and their teachers. They miss out on the friendship and camaraderie of cousins and that implicit knowledge of love and support beyond immediate family.

Facing forwards

I try not to worry too much about the future, but I have to make sure I don’t shut the door on the possibility that our children might forge a path where we have failed. There may come a day when their strength and confidence opens the door of friendship and plants a seed of tolerance and inclusion.

Overall, I tend to see our situation in a positive light. We have a super-strong family bond, a vast capacity for empathy and understanding and the confidence that comes from knowing you’ve forged your own path in the big wide world, and you have the cojones to deal with whatever comes your way. No regrets, right?

21 Comments

  1. Unsurprisingly, this is a subject very dear to my heart and I have to say that I was disappointed when the women folk in my family didn’t support my choices. All I asked of them was that they were there for me because at the end of the day that’s what good friends and family are supposed to do. Sadly, I think its unlikely to change and I think that in the end we will all be losers.

    Reply
    • Not necessarily you Dallas, remember that. If your relationship succeeds, you stand to gain more than you ever imagined and you’ll grow in ways those who deserted you could only dream of.
      Relationships between people of a shared cultural background are not guaranteed success any more than cross-cultural ones are. Best of luck with the path you choose xxx

      Reply
      • Especially if the person of your shared cultural background has your parents’ attitude, like a prejudiced attitude for example.

        Being Filipino, Spanish, White American, and Chinese, my parents, since they were born in the Philippines yet have White grandparents, especially my mom who’s overall half White American, want me to marry Asians only, even when I don’t feel attracted to them, and not other races. And if a non Asian or mixed race Asian dared talk to me, especially if they were handsome-looking, they’d tell him to buzz off and say that I’m involved with an Asian guy.

        Reply
  2. While I feel for you and your family with the loss of extended family ties, I will say that not all families are worth being tied to. My parents were so emotionally remote as to be nonexistent in the lives of my children. Likewise my sister. And seriously, I never missed the drama that comes with family. On some level you may be doing your children a favor. Think of it as a blessing if you will. I believe you are beyond a doubt on the right path.

    Reply
    • Thanks for such a pragmatic comment – I’ve reached similar conclusions to you and more often than not I count myself lucky to be separated from all the petty squabbles and back-stabbing. Good to hear the benefit of your experience; as they say in all families (good & bad), “Never did ME any harm…” ;-)

      Reply
  3. Thrilled that you are celebrating ten years of a united front against what obviously has been a difficult family situation on both sides. Equally sure – absolutely sure – that they are indeed the lesser for having taken their narrow-minded positions.Let me see: your children only have the (positive) references of loving parents, supportive friends and uplifting teachers. Works for me. My money is on your (nuclear) family, your children will seek the strong, fulfilling marriage their parents demonstrate daily. Happy belated anniversary: here’s to many, many more.

    Reply
    • Thanks Linda – I try and remind myself of the freedom we have and how even if things were different, there’s still no guarantee we’d be as happy as we are right now…

      Reply
  4. I am very saddened that the family has chosen to ignore you, your husband and the children. My children were also pretty much ignored by my husband’s family that literally lived a fifteen minute walk away. They spoiled their other grandchildren but not ours. Thankfully my parents made up for their lack of involvement.

    Suffice to say, my children did not suffer any permanent damage from their lack of love. They are older now, and fully know that grandma wasn’t particularly a fan of me and my husband explains that his mother was for lack of a better word – different. Since they really didn’t know them, they do not miss them.

    Your children will be fine in the long run because they are being brought up with two very loving parents who shower their children with love.

    Reply
    • Sorry to hear of your experience with “frosty relations”. It always amazes me the pettiness people can exhibit and how short-sighted it makes them. All it affords is a good lesson for the rest of us about mistakes NOT to make. Thanks for your reassurances.

      Reply
  5. Even couples from the same culture clash on issues such as discipline techniques. But there are extra parenting dilemmas in intercultural marriages – and debating whether or not to raise bilingual children is only one concern. Social norms around the world vary greatly with regard to showing affection, catering to children’s whims, involvement of family, appropriate gender play and roles, behavioral and scholastic expectations, and more. Be in agreement not to undermine each other’s unique parenting styles.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment Shelby – this is why it’s important to know one another’s viewpoint and expectations and to share an evolving dialogue.

      Reply
  6. Hi

    I follow your blog and am impressed by your story. I recently got married to a Zanzibari Muslim, and I’m just starting with the extreme differences in our cultures and also the different understandings of Islam that his family has and that I have. My husband is somewhere stuck in the middle, having to listen to me and his family while trying to keep everyone happy.

    I hope that you have many more decades of your beautiful marriage and family life, and I can only wish that my husband and me are as strong as you are.

    S

    Reply
    • Best of luck to you all. One word of warning though, you can’t keep everyone happy all of the time. There may come a time when you husband has to nail his colours to the mast. My husband tried to keep the peace, convincing me to overlook slights and keep persevering. While it gave me the knowledge that I did everything I could to make things work, it also brought me very close to feeling completely isolated.

      Reply
  7. It saddens me to read that your family has faced continual rejection from both sides. I have close friends who have had similar experienced based on inter-racial marriages, and what never ceases to amaze me is how parents of a couple reject the blessings of grandchildren based on their own prejudices and disapproval of a marriage. Your children are lucky to experience the love and support from you and your husband, and I hope that perhaps their own unique experiences living in a 3rd country will shelter them from some of the isolation they might feel if they were living closer to your families. They will develop their own unique bonds, as you said, with friends who become expat “family,” and perhaps in time (as has happened with my friends), they can develop close relationships with aunts/uncles/cousins that allow them to maintain some close family ties.

    Reply
    • I can’t imagine ever shutting my children out in the same way our families have. I think you’re right in your observation that physical distance helps shelter the children from an emotionally distant family relationship. There’s positivity to be found in everything if your perception is flexible enough, and as you say, who knows what the future holds. Thanks for your encouragement :-)

      Reply
  8. I’m the product of a mixed race marriage (English / Irish / Korean) and have a half sister who had two white English parents. Recently after falling out she told me that as a child I always had a chip on my shoulder because I was ‘Half caste’.
    I’m still left pondering about this comment??

    Reply
    • Sounds like a classic case of projection! :-)

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  9. Yeah right keep hitting my head harder with a hammer to beleive in it.I will beleive in it if it was happen before the first slaveship hit the USA shores.

    Reply
  10. Aisha, marriage is a lot of work and I totally get what you are saying in this post. My husband and I are from the same city, follow the same customs and yet our marriage took a lot of work. So congratulations on celebrating 10 years! A good marriage gets better with time. I can’t wait for my 20th anniversary:)

    Living in the U.S.(while our folks live in India) we face the same issues you face. We skype with our families and visit India every other year, but nothing like having grandparents around. We go to our kids’ soccer games and music concerts and see everyone else’s aunts and grandparents around and we feel like our kids are missing out!
    But that’s the life we have and we have to learn to live with it…

    love your writing…i’ll be back for more:)

    Reply
    • Hi Damayanti, great to see you here. Thanks for leaving a comment; yes, it is really down to acceptance – we create our own pain wishing for what we don’t have. I prefer to concentrate on what we do. It takes a certain amount of resolve and self-awareness but it’s make me a stronger person, and for that, I’m grateful.

      Reply
  11. Nice words and hard experience. We announced our engagement to our families in May, and we are having the ceremony in his hometown, mainly because we are both residents in China and legally we should at least register our marriage here, so we keep it easy.
    My father loves him, so do I :), but I think some other members of the family think too much about it, though the showed their happiness to us..
    Examples are comments that I forecasted, I told my father in advance that he would get those comments from that specific person:
    - And they are getting married in his country not in hers, I dont know why I am not surprised ( well hell yeah she should not be surprised since we live here, legally we need to do so, is cheaper, and we are, anyway, doing a small wedding back home next year_. But her comment had a deep meaning about the role of men, that I forecasted
    I forecasted this sentence because 3 years ago she said to me:
    - You need to teach him how to cook, clean and tell him to share the chores..
    (Again assuming that I am the only one cooking or cleaning, when we both do it, and in fact he starts to do them by himself, it has never been a topic to discuss between us..)

    I understook those sentences as a negative response, but anyway, she thinks I dont realize, and we are getting married soon!

    Reply

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  1. Gathering strength from others | Tango Love Story - [...] the coldness, and I got very upset.  On Monday I came across Aisha’s article on the “Challenges of interracial …

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