3 Couples Share Their Best Advice for Navigating an Interracial Relationship Right Now

From: Self Magazine

Thanks to current events, being in an interracial relationship can feel especially fraught.

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By: Rozalynn S. Frazier, C.P.T.

Interracial couples across the country are processing the current outcry for racial justice—and, in some cases, how it’s affecting their relationship. The celebrity world offers up plenty of examples. Actress Tika Sumpter, who is Black and engaged to a white man, tweeted that white people in relationships with Black people have a duty to fight racism on behalf of their partners. Rapper and talk show host Eve revealed on The Talk that she’s been having some uncomfortable conversations with her white husband. Then there’s Alexis Ohanian, husband to tennis great Serena Williams, who recently resigned from his seat on the Reddit board of directors. He urged them to replace him with a Black candidate because, in part, he has “to be able to answer his Black daughter when she asks: What did you do?”

It wasn’t too long ago that loving someone from a different racial background was a crime in this country. The landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia struck down state bans on interracial marriage in 1967. Now interracial relationships are growing in number. As of 2016, 10.2% of married people living together were in interracial or interethnic relationships, according to the Pew Research Center—up from 7.4% in 2012.

Every relationship, interracial or not, comes with its own issues. But now that so many more people are grappling with senseless killings of Black people and the legacy of racism in this country, interracial relationships—especially those involving Black and non-Black people—can feel more complex than ever.

Here, SELF spoke to three married interracial couples about what it feels like to love each other during this moment in history. Their responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lewis, 47, and Melissa, 41, have been married for 12 years and have two children. Lewis, an attorney, identifies as Black American, and Melissa, a former marketing director and current yoga instructor, identifies as Chinese American (Cantonese). The two had a chance meeting in a clothing store in Philadelphia where Melissa was a sales associate.

SELF: What is it like to be in an interracial relationship in America today?

Lewis: Nothing has changed in terms of our relationship. I think that the biggest impact has been explaining race issues to our kids.

Melissa: By design, we have chosen to live, work, and raise our children in two very diverse cities where people tend to be less homogenous not only in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation but also in ways of thinking and living. We can’t speak for all of America, but being in an interracial relationship has never defined us, and thankfully, to date, it has not hugely impacted our day-to-day lives. The biggest impact for us is balancing our innate duty as parents to protect and shield our children as much as possible with the equally important responsibility to educate them about the many harsh realities that exist today and that sadly have been perpetuated for far too long, especially in America. For us, it is imperative for our children to be proud of who they are and where they came from.

SELF: It’s been 53 years since the Loving decision granted people the right to marry interracially. Do you think interracial relationships have made strides?

Melissa: If not for the Loving decision, Lewis and I might not be married, and our beautiful children would not be here today. So, yes, in that regard I would like to think that strides have been made. I cannot believe that we actually live in a world where a law or person could forcibly tell me who I can and cannot love or marry. I still cannot believe that those rights were only very recently extended to the LGBTQ community. Some days you can look back on history and see some strides that we have made, but then on far too many other days it sadly seems as if we have not moved forward even an inch toward equality and social justice for all

SELF: Have you ever experienced—especially at this critical time—negative reactions to your marriage because of your races?

Lewis: We haven’t.

Melissa: Some of our son’s classmates have told him that he is not Chinese because of the way he looks and because he does not speak or understand fluent Chinese. We use these hurtful comments and experiences as teachable moments for our children.

SELF: What are some of the cultural differences that you have noticed in your relationship?

Melissa: Rather than “navigating” them, we happily celebrate our cultural differences and teach our kids customs and traditions as they have been taught to us. I am a third-generation Chinese American. With each successive generation, some of my Chinese culture has become more diluted. To the extent that I can, we keep the traditions and celebrations that were important to my grandparents. We celebrate Chinese New Year and teach the kids how to make some traditional dishes. Equally as important, we often consult Lewis’s mom and family about the history, traditions, and celebrations that are important to his side of the family. Every Christmas Lewis’s mom bakes with our kids the same chocolate cake and apple pie that her mother used to make. We recognize the MLK holiday, Black History Month, and Juneteenth.

SELF: Marriage is tough. Do you think the added layer of race exacerbates marital issues?

Lewis: Not for us. We pretty much see eye to eye on issues of race.

Melissa: I think that part of what initially attracted us to each other and what has sustained us through all of these years is our shared fundamental core values and the similar lenses through which we see the world. Yes, marriage is tough. But the challenges we deal with as a couple most often have more to do with the differences between our genders than the differences between our races—that is a completely different ball of wax.

SELF: What has been the most challenging aspect of your interracial relationship thus far?

Lewis: There have been times when Melissa expressed feelings about not fitting one of my family member’s image of who I should marry because she’s not Black. Those have been the most challenging moments for me. I’ve tried to reassure Melissa that how I feel is all that matters and that she should tune out anything else, but I know it’s not that easy.

SELF: Did you have any fears about marrying outside of your respective races?

Lewis: Fear of marrying outside my race never crossed my mind.

Melissa: If anything, I had a fear about not being accepted by Lewis’s family.

SELF: What steps have you taken to help your kids navigate this world?

Lewis: Our kids are nine and seven. I would like to be more intentional about having them interact with Black people. They haven’t had the experience that I had of growing up in Black neighborhoods.

I do make my son go to the barber, though. I’ve been going to the barber since I was 13 or 14 years old. That’s part of the experience, as we like to say. That’s where people discuss these issues. I wish there were more outlets like that. When he gets older, maybe I’ll take him to the basketball courts and just throw him out there and see how he handles it. I think it’s necessary.

Melissa: We have many ongoing conversations about race with our children and how that may impact them as they grow up. Based solely on our external appearances, Lewis and I do not fit neatly into the stereotypical “Black” or “Chinese” boxes, respectively. Our children also do not fit conveniently into anyone’s stereotypical “race” box. We are grateful that God made us that way. While we want our children to have a strong sense of pride in their histories, we also want them to forge their own senses of self-worth and identity based on who they fundamentally are as human beings—not by fitting into someone else’s classification of them.

SELF: How is the current climate affecting you, Lewis, as a Black man, and have you both talked about it?

Lewis: I think about my son and how he is going to be viewed. He asks questions about George Floyd and similar issues, and I have explained to him at a general level, but have not gotten into all of the implications of it because I don’t know if he is ready to understand that yet. Part of the reason why I haven’t is because I don’t know what his experience will be. I don’t know if people are going to view him as Black. The second thing that I have thought about in these times is that as an attorney, I feel like I have a responsibility to do something from a legal perspective. I do want my kids to know that I’m doing that and know why I am doing that. I feel like I need to pick up a pro bono matter related to criminal justice or police brutality and use that as a way to educate them about certain issues.

Melissa: To give you some context of our relationship, you know the show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? I’m Will and he’s Carlton. Lewis goes about a lot of his day not like “I’m a Black man,” but like “I’m just a person.” We got pulled over driving for speeding once, and his first reaction was to get out the car, and I am like, “What are you doing? Don’t do that.”

SELF: What is one thing you’d want people to know about being in an interracial couple?

Lewis: If you love someone, then their race shouldn’t matter. If anything, our interracial bond makes us and our family unique. We view ourselves as husband and wife. Others should view us no differently.

Melissa: Live and let live. Love and let love.

Darrell, 40, and Emmanuel, 35, have been married for eight months. Darrell, a tech executive, identifies as Black. Emmanuel, a clinical therapist, identifies as Mexican. They like to say they met the old-fashion way: in the gym.

SELF: What is it like to be in an interracial relationship in America today?

Darrell: It has brought about much-needed conversations in our house. When this year’s “caught on tape” racial incidents began to be publicized—from Ahmaud Arbery’s murder to Christian Cooper’s interaction at Central Park to the killing of George Floyd—it literally brought me to my knees. I was in shock, angry, numb, and frustrated. Emmanuel understood I was upset, but we had to have some conversations for him to understand the full gravity of what was behind my emotions. So in the end, I believe it actually brought us closer.

Emmanuel: The current events have presented an opportunity for me to be able to understand Darrell’s daily experience and provide support in ways that are more informed and driven by a larger context.

SELF: It’s been 53 years since the Loving decision granted people the right to marry interracially. Do you think interracial relationships have made strides?

Darrell: I would like to say that interracial relationships have made strides, but I also can admit that I have only lived in mostly liberal metropolitan cities my entire adult life—New York and Los Angeles—which can provide a false sense of how the world views interracial relationships. There are still those neighborhoods where we might question any type of PDA, but I’m not sure if that is due to being in an interracial relationship or just a gay relationship

Emmanuel: I do think that interracial relationships have made progress, however, I think it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve been able to see representation in the media of interracial couples and families. Even so, this representation is limited in my opinion. Fear and misunderstanding come from ignorance, so the more society can see that love between two people is just as valid and beautiful when it exists people from different backgrounds, the more people will be open to the idea.

SELF: What issues do you face as a gay interracial couple?

Darrell: We’ve been lucky to have a supportive group of family and friends, and, surprisingly, a lot of our friends are in interracial gay relationships. We see more interracial relationships in the gay community than in the general population. One issue we recently faced happened with the purchase of our first home. Being in an interracial gay relationship, we questioned the neighborhoods we were looking to buy in to ensure that it would be safe and comfortable not only for us, but also for our friends and family who visited. It was a new feeling for both of us.

SELF: Have you ever experienced—especially at this critical time—negative reactions to your marriage because of your races?

Darrell: My family is having a hard time coming to terms with it all. They are extremely religious and traditional, so when I came out, it definitely took a toll on our relationship, and is still ongoing.

Emmanuel: Fortunately, I have not experienced any negative reactions to our marriage.

SELF: What are some of the cultural differences that you have noticed in your relationship? How do you navigate them?

Darrell: I think we both really embrace each other’s traditions and customs from both of our cultures. Emmanuel has taught me a lot about the Mexican culture, and I’ve definitely exposed him to Black culture. It’s been beautiful to understand all the things that make us who we are as individuals.

SELF: Marriage is tough. Do you think the added layer of race exacerbates marital issues?

Darrell: Since we’ve only been married a few months, we’re still in the honeymoon phase, but to be honest, we’ve been together for so long that marriage really hasn’t changed the dynamic of our relationship. It only solidified our commitment to each other. Race hasn’t exacerbated any marital issues or problems as we both are open to understanding each other and each other’s experiences. If I experience racial inequality, be it professionally or personally, I typically don’t have a problem bringing it up to Emmanuel, and he’s receptive to learning and understanding. It might be a different story if he was closed to hearing my experiences as a Black man, but we probably wouldn’t be married if that was true.

SELF: What has been the most challenging aspect of your interracial relationship thus far?

Darrell: The most challenging thing for me, at times, is learning how to properly articulate some of the struggles I have as a Black man in this country. I wasn’t blind to the fact that we come from different cultures with different experiences and understood that there will be challenges because of that. I’ve learned to be patient and provide time for him to understand my struggles.

Emmanuel: I was very aware of the oppression of Black people in our country, but I never had a personal connection to the actual experience until I started dating Darrell. It was really eye-opening to understand some of the daily struggles he experiences. It does take some time for me to process everything.

SELF: Do you ever feel that your partner can’t truly understand your point of view or how you experience this world because of race? Why or why not?

Emmanuel: We are really lucky in the fact that we both feel we understand each other’s perspective on things. I’m not sure if either of us will ever truly understand each other’s point of view, but we do have the heart and mind to continue to try.

SELF: Did you have any fears about marrying outside of your respective races?

Darrell: No. I think I had more fears about simply marrying a man just given some of the hardships from my family.

Emmanuel: Absolutely not.

SELF: Is there ever a moment when you’re are not as aware of being in an interracial couple?

Darrell: There are times, especially when we travel outside of our bubble in Los Angeles, that we are reminded of our differences. Emmanuel has noticed that I’m treated differently in stores or restaurants or when we check in to hotels overseas. The stares and disregard of my humanity occur more often than not when we travel.

SELF: You currently don’t have kids. Have you all had conversations about race as it relates to kids and if your cultures play into how you would raise your children?

Darrell: We constantly talk about how we would raise our kids, especially if they are Black or brown kids. Emmanuel has a strong connection to his Mexican heritage, culture, and traditions, and we would definitely want to ensure that it is represented in the rearing of our children. I also am proud to be Black and all the beautiful things that come with it—as well as the struggles—and would want my children to grow up proud and confident in the skin they’re in.

SELF: What is one thing you’d want people to know about being in an interracial couple?

Emmanuel: It is very rewarding to be able to expand and expose yourself to a different culture and being, be it positive or negative. But being in a gay interracial relationship is just as normal as any other relationship.

Jordan, 42, and Alina, 41, have been married for nearly 13 years and have two children. Jordan, a comedian and television writer, identifies as African American, and Alina, a professor of education, identifies as white, of Jewish and Scottish-Irish descent. They met through friends of friends on the corner of 14th Street and Fourth Avenue in New York.

SELF: What is it like to be in an interracial relationship in America today?

Jordan: I feel like she has a lot of guilt and needs to apologize to me daily. I think I have the upper hand. Jokes aside, I couldn’t ask for a better mate. Alina grew up demographically more culturally enriched than I did. She was one of the only white children in her grammar school. I really think that diversity offers a certain kind of intellect.

Alina: I think it’s like and unlike other relationships. Like all relationships, we need to communicate, be able to disagree, and have shared values, particularly around raising our kids. There is then the added layer of us communicating across our distinct cultures and experiences. I do think class is a powerful shaper of worldview as well, and we happen to share a middle-class background, which I think leads to us having certain shared experiences and values despite having different races.

SELF: It’s been 53 years since the Loving decision granted people the right to marry interracially. Do you think interracial relationships have made strides?

Jordan: I do think interracial relationships have definitely made strides. It goes from it being acknowledged by the highest court in the land to where it is now. Our neighbors are an interracial couple. That’s the second thing I think about when I think of them. The first is, “Oh, wow, they’re so loud.” That said, in a situation like our current fight for racial justice, whatever progress we think we’ve made is definitely put in high relief, and you wonder how far we’ve come. You should have these honest talks within an interracial relationship if you want it to last.

Alina: My fear is that the culture will change but systems don’t change. If systemic racism doesn’t change, that still doesn’t get us very far.

SELF: Have you ever experienced—especially at this critical time—negative reactions to your marriage because of your races?

Jordan: When we were traveling together and this lady at the airport in Dallas, where I’m from, was like “Are you all together?” Those are slight things, so I try not to let that hurt my feelings, but, like, yeah, we are. It’s been imprinted on my mind because she didn’t see us as a family. But we are very careful about the places we go to. We go to major cities and places where you expect a little more open-mindedness.

Growing up in Texas, I have a Spidey sense, a tingle where I can tell what a situation is. I know how to take white people in every one of their moods. I am married to one. I grew up with them. I am not saying that is going to guarantee 100% that I’ll be safe all of the time, but I have the tools to walk in this world a lot more safely because of that.

Alina: Jordan’s family is amazing. They are so wonderful and accepting. My parents are very out-there hippies and radicals, and we grew up going to protests and demonstrations. I kid around about this, but my parents would have been more pissed if I brought home a banker from Goldman Sachs. They were like, “Great, it’s Jordan.”

SELF: What has been the most challenging aspect of your interracial relationship thus far?

Jordan: Raising our children to know that the world is a harsh place and the harsh realities of being a person of color. But I also think it’s very important and almost rebellious to raise them with joy. Them growing up in an environment where they feel loved is super important to me. Another challenge is that when I’m talking to other Black people and they ask me to tell them about my wife, I don’t always talk about what race she is because sometimes that can make people uncomfortable. This is my person, but over the years, I have felt the hot lashes of wanting to fit in and crossing over that line, trusting that other people will be cool with what I am about to tell them.

Alina: Once we had kids, me being conscious of what that means. With our daughter, especially—our daughter scans for brown in a room but our son, with his golden curls, does not. For our son, it’s important in a different way that he knows his roots because the world will likely perceive him differently than it will our daughter. So I feel extra worried that I will mess up our daughter’s identity and her sense of self. I ask myself: Is she around enough Black people? Am I affirming that part of herself enough? There aren’t a lot of kids of color at the school we sent her to, and those are the things that I agonize over.

SELF: Did you have any fears about marrying outside of your respective races?

Jordan: I did have some thoughts. I had been with a woman of color before Alina, and in college I had Black girlfriends. I thought, Oh, here we go, this is the love of my life and people are going to be like, “Of course she’s a white girl.” But then I realized I can’t worry about those people. Nobody’s keeping score. Please live your life.

Alina: I didn’t, but I grew up dating across races.

SELF: Is there ever a moment when you’re are not as aware of being in an interracial couple?

Jordan: The eight hours of the night we’re sleeping. No, that’s a good question. I live with insecurities of my optics as the Black dad. You want to make sure you are there for them, you’re cooking for them, you are pulling your weight, especially during quarantine. If I’m on the playground, people watch me. It feels like the slacker white dad can go off with his phone on the bench and do whatever he wants. Sometimes those feelings are founded and other times unfounded, but it stays with me.

Alina: Most of marriage is all this mundane shit of who is doing what, especially when you have kids. I think about being in an interracial marriage when we go outside and enter a new space or meet someone new, but once we’re with people who know us or it’s just us, I don’t.

SELF: Have you two spoken with each other about the recent brutal murders of many Black people and how that may be affecting Jordan?

Jordan: She is often like, “Be careful out there.” I can hear it in her voice. You can be as disarming and charming as you want, but when your time is up as a person of color, it’s up.

Alina: I do think I sometimes forget to ask how he’s doing or to always remember what it’s like to move through the world as him, which I will never fully understand. One night when New York was under curfew we hadn’t walked the dog yet, and it was after 8 p.m. Jordan was like, “No, you walk the dog.” I forget, right? Because I move through the world in a much different way. I’ve never worried much about him out in the world because he grew up in a white world and because he is very disarming for everyone. But in the last couple of weeks, really thinking about how all of that wouldn’t be enough is a little scary.

SELF: What is one thing you’d want people to know about being in an interracial couple?

Jordan: If you are Black—this is one of the best jokes I have—if you are Black, you are going to do a lot of apple picking in fall, strawberry picking in the summer. Get ready for knowing all about all the fruits and berries in season.

Alina: I know it sounds so trite, but I would say dating across identity, social, and economic lines is such a cool chance. I never understood why you would want to hang around someone exactly like you.

Rozalynn is an award-winning, multimedia journalist living in New York City. She has created content for SELF, Health, Essence, Money, Reebok, Livestrong.com, and others. An avid runner, Rozalynn has completed 10 marathons and more than 20 half marathons in the U.S. and abroad. When she is not running around the… Read more

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