Sheikha Steffen is used to the whispers and stares. She’s a Middle Eastern woman who wears a head scarf and covers her body, and her husband is a blond-haired white man with blue eyes. “I feel like people are so shocked because he’s white and not only am I brown, but I’m also wearing a head scarf and full hijab and people are just mind-blown that that’s okay the two of us are together.”
Though Sheikha lives in Norway, her experience isn’t unique to where she lives. Here in the U.S., interracial relationships are also stigmatized and often looked at as “other,” says Inika Winslow, a licensed psychologist who works with interracial couples and whose parents are of different races. She says that bias and discrimination towards interracial couples is definitely a thing, but that the reasons behind it are complicated. “It isn’t an issue that can be easily unpacked and is a result of multiple entwined issues that are social, political, and psychological,” she says.
She attributes discrimination against interracial couples, in part, to a theory called the “mere exposure effect.” “This effect has shown that, in general, people have a tendency to like or prefer things that are familiar to them,” she says. “Conversely, we often harbor negative attitudes towards things that are unfamiliar.” And although interracial relationships are becoming more common, interracial marriage was still legalized relatively recently in the U.S., following the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court Case Loving V. Virginia.
Winslow also adds that to some people who belong to minority groups, interracial relationships can almost feel like betrayal. ” I think that for many people of cultures that have experienced a level of racial bias, discrimination, and outright abuse, the idea of ‘one of their own’ engaging in a relationship with the ‘other’ or in some cases those that are seen as the ‘enemy’ is very difficult,” she says. “It can feel like a betrayal on a personal level—i.e., ‘Why couldn’t they find one of our own to be with? Are we not good enough?'”
Dealing with stares, whispers, derogatory comments, or other forms of discrimination can cause anxiety, stress, and sadness for people in interracial relationships, says Winslow—and it’s okay to acknowledge that. Here, Winslow and woman in interracial relationships share their advice for how to navigate them. Though these tips won’t make other people’s biases go away, they can help you start to create a safe space within your partnership.
1. Focus on how happy your partner makes you—not others’ opinions.
Not everyone will agree with your union, and it’s natural for other people’s opinions or negative comments about your relationship to get you down. But Ashley Chea, a woman who identifies as Black and who’s married to a Cambodian and white man, says you shouldn’t let others’ opinions too heavily influence your own. “The most important thing is to remember that everyone has had a chance to live their own lives,” she says. “It is your duty to yourself to do what makes you happiest—to be with the person who speaks to your soul and your soul alone.” If you’ve found someone who makes you happy and is willing to grow and change with you throughout life, that should be plenty of motivation to drown out the outside noise.
2. Explore your partner’s culture.
Learning more about your partner’s identity can help you understand them as a person—as well as how you can participate in their customs and traditions (when appropriate), says Winslow.
This is something that Sheikha says she learned the value of firsthand when she met her husband’s family.
In Middle Eastern culture, she says, it’s typical for families to have an incredibly tight-knit bond, so when a man marries the daughter of Middle Eastern parents, the man is considered a part of the family, too, and he is taken in right away. But Sheikha says it took a while for her husband’s family to take to her, and not receiving the warm welcome she was expecting made her think that her in-laws didn’t like her or that they had something against her.
Instead, she felt like they were standoffish and kind of “stiff.” When she expressed her worries to her husband, he reassured her that it wasn’t her and that instead the reason why she perceived them to be cold was that the level of family closeness she was used to…just isn’t a thing in Norwegian culture. Sheikha says that though it did take a little longer, her husband’s family did eventually open up to her. But having that conversation gave her clarity into parts of her husband’s lived experienced that she wasn’t aware of beforehand.
3. Don’t minimize your partner’s experiences.
You won’t always understand your partner’s opinions on certain matters, but it’s important to still make them feel heard. “Partners should seek to be understanding of the feelings and reactions of their partner, even if they don’t understand them,” says Winslow. “They should let themselves be open to the idea that the life experience of their partner and their perspective will be different than their own, especially when it relates to different races and cultures.”
For example, you may never have experienced racial profiling, so you won’t understand the negative emotions that can emerge from those types of traumatizing situations. Don’t invalidate emotions; instead learn how your partner prefers to be supported in those types of situations.
There is no specific formula for how to make your partner feel seen during rough situations because it varies from person to person, but Winslow does have a few tips: She suggests being as supportive as you can while giving your partner the space to process what just happened to them or what they’re dealing with. “It’s a delicate balance of being supportive while not trying to push the other person into reacting one way or another because it’s how you think they should react—all while letting them know that you are there for them,” Winslow says.
Make sure you are engaged in listening to what they’re saying while being conscious of not minimizing the painful experience or the impact that it is having on them. “Actively listen to their responses and be sensitive to their experience and how it shapes their perspective,” she says. Remind them that you are in their corner, that you love them, and that you have their back.
Winslow says you should also acknowledge your own feelings on what’s happening. “I think it’s also important for the partner to recognize that they may have feelings, as well: guilt, shame, not knowing how to help or what’s the right thing to do/say, etc., but to recognize that they are not responsible for the actions of their whole race and this, at its core, is about supporting someone you love on a human level.”
4. Work to intentionally make your relationship a safe space.
“Put aside time to shield one another from the world where you can be vulnerable and feel secure,” suggests Camille Lawrence, a Black and Canadian woman of Jamaican heritage whose partner is white. “Create space for open communication, honest questions and answers, hard conversations, and rest—especially when it comes to talking about issues surrounding race and injustice.”
Camille says this tip became particularly important for her after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, when she was experiencing heartbreak following the many conversations about race that emerged in the news shortly after. Though her partner couldn’t directly relate to her because he does not shared her lived experience as a Black woman, he actively worked to make their own relationship a safe haven from the outside world.
“Often times in an interracial relationship, structures of privilege afford very different experiences for both involved,” Camille says. “Although David [my partner] cannot directly relate to my experiences as a Black woman, he became an encourager, rooting for me, empathizing with my frustrations, listening and reminding me of the importance of self-care.”
Camille advises others in interracial relationships to also take steps to create that safe space in their own relationships. “A safe space for understanding, open-mindedness, and softness is critical for me in a partnership, especially since we experience life differently because of our races,” she says. “Take time to make it intentionally safe for each other to cry, rant, lament, motivate, inquire, learn, feel seen, and heal.”
Rachel Lindsay and Brian Abasolo on their interracial relationship:
5. Be receptive to continuous learning.
Camille says that she believes loving someone means striving to continuously know the whole person, which is why you should acknowledge that being in an interracial relationships means the learning doesn’t end, even if things become uncomfortable. “Embracing racial/cultural differences, asking questions, and being open to learning is a big part of our relationship, even if it means saying the wrong thing,” she says. “I make sure to learn and express interest in [my partner’s] West Lancashire roots in England, his accent, his family heritage, and how that’s influenced who he is today.”
Likewise, Camille says her partner also asks and is excited to learn about her African roots, leading to Jamaica and, more recently, Canada. He is also curious about the cultural traditions that come with being a part of the African diaspora and how that has influenced who she is today.
Camille adds that it’s important to continue asking questions even if things become a bit awkward. “No matter how uncomfortable conversations may get, knowing more about one another is much better than being colorblind or avoiding our differences,” she says. “We need to be open to learning even the tough and complicated truths about one another, which are ever-evolving.”
Sarah Harris, a white female whose partner is Black, also says it’s on you to continue learning by educating yourself. In addition to having raw conversations, she also reads literature to educate herself on the roots and context of some of her partner’s experience’s as a Black person. “I’ll never know what it means to be Black in this country, but [my spouse] can tell me how I can best support her,” she says. “We have very candid conversations about where I’m lacking and how I can be better. I let her dictate what she needs and what my role is.”
Leanne Golembeski, an Asian American woman whose boyfriend is a Black man, adds that it’s specifically important to continue learning about racial inequality so that you can support your partner in their battles. “Their fights are also your fights and vice-versa,” she says. “It’s important to make the conscious step to understand, listen, and learn from their struggles, [and recognize] your own micro aggressions and subtle racism, in the ways you may speak or think or even act.”
6. Seek emotional support outside of your relationship.
It’s okay to seek emotional support outside your relationship, especially from people who are rooting for your bond. “Navigating relationships of any kind can be difficult, and we all need a support network to help us when things become difficult,” says Winslow. When you find that the negativity towards your relationship is beginning to take a toll on you, turn to your friends who you know are supportive of your relationship, she suggests.
“Finding people to share both good and bad times with helps to build a sense of community that can often be lost if friends and family are disapproving or outright rejecting of the relationship,” she adds. If you can’t find this support in your group of friends, try following inspiring social media accounts, peer support groups online, or sitting down with a therapist.
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