Natalia Walker’s mother was shocked when she learned her daughter was dating a black man.
“My mom and I were very, very close and then she stopped talking to me for three months. Every time my husband would come and pick me up, she would say something degrading,” she says.
The tension between them even caused backlash from the rest of the family. That was 5 years ago. But despite the family drama, she stayed with him. Now they are happily married.
Though miscegenation has been legal in the United States since 1967, and interracial relationships are common in our lives and in the media, many publically continue to criticize these couples. As recently as 2010, a Louisiana justice of the peace in New Orleans refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple. He claimed he wasn’t racist, but did it out of concern for their future children. In 2011 a Kentucky church even voted to ban interracial couples from their congregation.
Sometimes the biggest challenge a couple faces is not criticism from their families, but the negative reactions from strangers.
Lily Hernandez, 27, a Mexican American woman who has been dating her white boyfriend for a year now, says that her mother was initially worried about how his family would treat her, but that both of their families turned out to be open-minded. Surprisingly, strangers are actually the ones who seem the most worried about their relationship.
“We get stared at more at places where most of the people are Hispanic,” she says. And recently, an older white man at the mall became visibly upset after her boyfriend gave her a kiss. “He was so disgusted and shook his head.”
But interracial couples are more common than ever. According to Census data released in April, the number of interracial couples in the United States has reached an all-time high, with one in every 10 American opposite-sex married couples saying they’re of mixed races, and about 18 percent of opposite-sex unmarried couples and 21 percent of same-sex unmarried partners identifying themselves as interracial. 14.2 percent of married Hispanic women, compared to 13.3 percent of Hispanic married men, had a non-Hispanic spouse in 2010. Hispanics and Asiansalso remain the most likely, as in previous decades, to marry someone of a different race.
Regardless, couples still have to deal with judgement from their families and the rest of the society.
“Focus on one another,” Vanessa Ramirez, 28, suggests. After 10 years in an interracial relationship, she sounds like an expert in dealing with awkward and painful moments. “If someone says something in front of you, discuss it in private.”
Ramirez also believes you can choose to remove yourself from people who disapprove. After she confronted one of her cousins about a racist comment, her cousin apologized for her ignorance, but Ramirez still chose to distance herself from her.
Hernandez usually just ignores comments or stares. While her boyfriend confronted the man who judged them at the mall, she just shrugged it off. “You can’t change the way that others view your relationship. You shouldn’t let people dictate how you act as a couple,” she says.
But some experts believe that education should teach individuals how to censor any racist beliefs they might have. Lawrence Lengbeyer, Ph.D, says, “The central practical solution to racism is thus affirmatively educating people, and helping them train themselves to continually activate such lessons as needed.” Though strangers may not be open to a dialogue, educating your family can be valuable in addressing racism.
Walker says that her family was eventually able to see who her partner was as a person and that her mother realizes she made a mistake. She now uses her painful experience to help her having similar conflicts. “Be patient,” she says. “Educate them and don’t take it personally.”