Race Is a Social Construct
Ethnicity is defined as a category of people who identify with each other on the basis of a common language, ancestry, history, society, culture, nation, race or social treatment. Race, on the other hand, is mostly defined and determined by physical characteristics. However, there is no gene cluster that determines or differentiates between the black, Asian, white or any other race. For this reason, anthropologists assert the notion that “race is a social construct” hence, it is an identity assigned based on rules made by society.
Most Americans Are of Mixed Ethnicity
Although the US Census only recognizes seven racial or ethnic categories: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Amerindian/Alaska native, native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and mixed ethnicity, the reality is a little different.
If you are among the Americans who consider themselves non-Hispanic white, chances are your ancestors originated from one of the many ethnic groups that migrated to this country, Consequently, you are also of mixed ethnicity.
Among your ancestors, you will probably find an Italian immigrant who married a second-generation Irish, or a Polish Jew who married an Armenian who came to the U.S. at the beginning of World War l. Perhaps you will find ancestors who were African American slaves forcibly brought to the Americas and eventually mixed with Irish, Scottish or Italian. The fact is that the United States is perhaps the only true melting pot of races, nationalities, religions and ethnicities in the entire world.
Take my father for instance. One of his ancestors from his father’s side of the family came to the New World in the fall of 1621 in the Fortune, the second English ship destined for Plymouth Colony in the New World.
His grandson Nicholas eventually became the main surveyor of Philadelphia. Back then American society comprised of many different nationalities and our family line intermingled with French, Greek, Spanish, and even Syrian.
In a recent DNA test I took, my ethnic origins showed as 48% Iberian Peninsula, 25% Italy/Greece, 20% British, 1% Scandinavian, 3% Native American, and 3% Middle Eastern. I married a woman whose mother was born in Germany and her father in Slovakia. Our oldest daughter married a man from China and they have a baby boy. This ethnic mixture seems to be quite typical among Americans today.
Keep in mind that until sometime in the twentieth century, this type of ethnic mixing had been standard fare and quite acceptable, as long as the nationalities or ethnic groups involved were considered Caucasian or of European descent.
In fact, these unions were never considered mixed marriages. This term was reserved for the unions between races. More notably between a Caucasian and either an African American, Asian, Hispanic, or any other combination between these four groups.
Fortunately, that was then, and this is now. The United States has grown and matured. We now live in an entirely different country, which from a purely racial perspective, attitudes and practices have drastically evolved.
It seems that this change began to take place around the time the laws prohibiting miscegenation, or the mixing of races, were abolished in the early 1960s. While prior to 1963, interracial newlyweds nationally only represented 3%, today this figure exceeds 17%. Pew Research Center (2017, May 18) Intermarriage in the U.S. 50 Years After Loving V. Virginia.
With improvements in transportation, communications, and with globalization, the totality of true mixed marriages, or those encompassing not just race, but ethnicity, nationality, religion, and even culture have morphed into a national phenomenon. Additionally, it is projected that as minority populations and immigration continue to increase, the number of mixed marriages is expected to dramatically rise within the next 30 years.
But is entering into a mixed marriage as simple and unencumbered as just saying we got married because we love each other? Does culture play an important role in whether a marriage will succeed? What about different parenting styles from one culture or nationality to another?
Unfortunately, the bad news is that mixed marriages generally experience higher rates of divorce than those of couples of the same race, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. In order to understand the risks and look for solutions, let’s first look at some statistics.
Rates of Failures
The Following are statistics to keep in mind:
- Within the first 10 years of marriage, 41% of interracial marriages will fail, while only 31% of same-race couples face similar fortune.
- Interfaith marriages are more likely to end up in divorce than same-faith couples. In fact, even among those interfaith couples that remain married, dissatisfaction with their union has been measured to be higher by a statistically significant margin.
- While there are no figures kept on success rates of transnational marriages, it is an accepted fact that these unions face a broad range of difficulties, which include cultural, religious and language issues. Consequently, they too face a higher incidence of failure than intranational marriages.
- Marriages with deep cultural differences, which can be a combination of any of the above, but could also include regional, political, or just plain outlook on life in general, can also pose challenges, perhaps leading to increased risks of failure.
- Asian males married to white females are 59% more likely to divorce.
Obviously, from a pure numbers point of view, it would seem that the closer we are to our partner from a cultural, ethnic, religious or racial perspective the more likely our marriage will succeed.
However, can our chances of success be improved by better planning, more dialog prior to and after the wedding, a greater understanding of cultural issues, or greater tolerance?
Probing these issues is an important approach to overcoming what has up until now been an unnecessary iteration of mixed marriage failures. However, where should people contemplating, or who have already entered into a mixed marriage start in order to better assure themselves of a successful union? Many experts, as well as people that are involved in mixed marriages, agree on most, if not all of the following.
Understanding the Challenges
The challenges facing mixed marriages are vast and varied. The following are but a few of the different cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial perceptions and attitudes that we should keep in mind.
- Your future spouse’s family might not accept someone from another race, culture or country. Racial tensions and animosities could be hard to overcome. Cultural differences could make you and your partner’s family ill at ease. The chances of cultural insensitivities and callous remarks are greatly increased when people don’t understand each other’s cultures and social norms. Additionally, there are historical issues between countries or races that may cloud people’s judgment, eroding their ability to accept each other.
- Be aware of nuclear vs. extended family structures. While the majority of families in the US live under a nuclear structure of father, mother, and children, other countries, especially in Asia and Latin America, are organized in an extended family model. Extended families typically consist of three or more generations living either under the same roof or in extremely close proximity. While the father and mother of a nuclear family are independent of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and other family members, extended families operate in a more interdependent fashion. In China, for instance, it is quite common for parents to delegate a lot of the responsibility of raising children to grandparents, in order that both spouses can work the long hours demanded by many employers.
- Extended family members could be perceived as intrusive and overly dependent on first-generation couples. Overall, the expectations from extended families and the pressures they’re able to put on a more independent espouse can be overwhelming.
- Language barriers can represent challenges to communication. Even when both spouses speak the same language, this may not be the case between you and your partner’s family. On the other hand, when two spouses are not able to communicate openly because of language skill incompatibility, simple issues that could be easily resolved by just talking to each other could escalate into a major dispute. Visiting your partner’s home country and spending time with his/her family can be an arduous affair.
- Interracial marriages will bare mixed-race children who could be ostracized in certain countries outside of the US, and even in some regions or neighborhoods in this country. For instance, Eurasian children in China can experience discrimination in smaller tier 2 or tier 3 cities, where provincial attitudes prevail. In Japan, an Hāfu is a person of mixed Japanese and other races. Discrimination and stereotyping against Hāfus occur based on how differently people perceive their identity, behavior, and appearance as apart from a typical Japanese person.
- Culture shapes people’s behaviors and attitudes. Changing the way people have been formed from a very early age is difficult. Bending and compromising require a lot of negotiating. Additionally, as we age, we typically return to old habits or social attitudes.
- The sense of loyalty and faithfulness within marriage varies with different cultures and national origins.
- Different cultures, nationalities, and religions teach different values and priorities. This could become an issue not only at the beginning of a marriage but especially after children are born and parents begin to teach them moral and ethical approaches toward life.
- Nationalistic pride can become problematic when couples from two countries with disparate political or world views are involved. The notion of inferior or superior nationality could be a point of contention if this feeling were to occur.
- If a spouse helps the other gain citizenship or residency in a host country through matrimony, feelings that one partner owes the other one something could eventually drive a wedge through the union.
Once you identify the areas of potential friction, it is a good idea to have an executable plan that will allow you to circumvent the myriad of issues you could be facing and assure yourself of a long and happy marriage. The following are some suggestions.
Dos and Don’ts
The following are actions you should consider taking:
- Research and educate yourself on your partner’s culture. Make sure your couple does the same about yours. After both partners are adequately versed on what makes each culture different and unique, educate parents on both sides as well. Open and honest communication that explains the reasons why each person might behave differently is paramount.
- Make sure norms and expectations are clearly defined. Researching online is an easy endeavor in today’s age of Google, so there are no excuses for being uninformed. If you do not have a computer, most local libraries will make desktops available to visitors.
- Discuss the positives and negatives of each culture. Identify their strengths and weakness. Look for features in each culture that could represent potential friction, as well as those that are acceptable.
- Remember that you don’t just marry your spouse. People always marry each other’s families as well. Research and study other cultures’ family dynamics. Nuclear family versus extended family structure is usually a good place to start. Ask questions about your partner’s family in particular. Are they the intrusive or domineering type? Are they overly religious or more secular? Simple questions like: How will they accept me? What can I do to make them feel at ease? Are there particular times of the year that are observed more than others? What are the expectations during family meals? Do not take anything for granted. Relationships with your spouse’s family can be explosive or wonderful. Aim for the wonderful.
- Challenge false beliefs and assumptions whenever they arise. It is important to do this with your mate as well as with the families on both sides of the aisle. Make sure that belief systems are clarified and understood.
- Adjust and adapt to each other’s culture. Compromise and communicate, even when it requires humility. Work together to make changes when needed. Look for mutual solutions to problems.
- Be patient as you and your partner adapt to new norms and attitudes. Do not try to correct or prod each other into forcefully complying with one-sided cultural norms. The change will come in good time.
Resources and Further Reading
- Race — Human Categories
- Marriage and Divorce — CDC
- Marriage and Divorce — American Psychological Foundation
- Fact and Fiction in Mixed-Race Marriage
- Inter-faith Marriage
- What Happens When You Fall in Love Across the Religious Divide
- Transnational Marriage
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.