For many Americans, especially those living in progressive coastal cities, it’s hard to believe that just 52 years ago interracial marriage was illegal in much of America. Since the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that marriage across racial lines is legal nationwide, interracial marriage has steadily increased.
As of 2015, one-in-six U.S. newlyweds (17%) were married to a person of a different race or ethnicity, up from just 3% in 1967, at the time of Loving. “Among all married people in 2015 (not just those who recently wed), 10% are now intermarried — 11 million in total,” Pew reports.
For Rebecca Young, age 67, legal and cultural resistance to interracial marriage isn’t a figment of historical imagination — it’s lived experience. Born in 1951 to a cattle ranching family in northern Nevada, the chances that Young (née Smith), would marry outside her race were slim to none.
Everyone in Young’s community (a 60-mile stretch of rural dirt road passing through 10 cattle ranches) grew up, married, and died without ever leaving the region except for holidays. Besides the local Native Americans of the Shoshone tribe, everyone was very white and very politically conservative. Young learned to drive a tractor at age nine, and attended a one-room school house until sixth grade, where one teacher taught every grade; it was a converted chicken coop with no electricity, and class was regularly canceled on dark, overcast days.
After her father’s sudden death when Young was just 15, tides unexpectedly began to shift. Her mother remarried an attorney with four daughters, who insisted all his children go to university out of state — which, conveniently, was Young’s life-long dream. With his help, Young left Nevada and Salt Lake City (where she attended boarding high school) to enroll at Santa Clara University, in northern California. For the first time in her life, Young met and became friends with people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Soon after, Young met her husband, Arnold, a wonderful Chinese-American man, and they’ve now been married for 39 years.
This spring, The Grand was privileged enough to feature Young as the host for a Grand Session about interracial relationships. Our mission at The Grand is to foster the exchange of wisdom. We believe in making life experience more accessible, and sharing human knowledge across generations to enable everyone to better navigate their own journey.
We’ve created this guide to share the central learnings from Rebecca’s session. It includes uniquely tactical advice from Young’s experiences as well as from the attendees such as Dalmar Hussein, who is also in an interracial marriage.
We know their experience will never encapsulate the full range of learnings and challenges associated with interracial relationships. That’s because there is no universal Interracial Relationship experience. Every person and couple is different. At The Grand we believe in highlighting individual stories as a means of holding up a mirror, and enabling you to see yourself in what feels resonant, recognize your differences where applicable, and take away any learnings or ideas that may help you going forward.
This is designed to be a living document. We’ll continue to add more insights from our community as we host more sessions on this topic, and we invite you to participate in the discussion by joining a session.
When should we talk about race?
One of the most frequent questions Young hears from people entering interracial relationships is when to bring racial differences up with their partner. Her answer: “Right away! Early on. It’s very important to share fears, concerns, issues, and internalized racism right up front. If it had been an issue between us, then we never could have navigated it with family and friends. We always wanted to be proud and respectful of each other, and we knew we needed to be able to talk about anything.”
While the argument can be made that race does not define anyone, and therefore shouldn’t be an early subject of discussion, Young strongly believes that race informs a significant amount of one’s identity, family culture, and traditions.
Most importantly, discussing racial identities should be a fun, and exciting conversation — not something to dread.
In Young’s experience, she and her then-boyfriend-now-husband spent their entire second date asking questions about one another’s family, because they both knew that the differences between them and the way they were raised were going to pose long-term relationships challenges. “After all those questions, I joked that I must have passed the test,” Young recalls.
Young’s husband grew up in Hawaii to parents whose mother immigrated from China, and had an arranged marriage. His parents hoped he would marry a Chinese-American woman, which Young certainly was not. The only Chinese-American family in Elko, Nevada where she grew up ran the local laundry, which, as she explains, was an unfortunate stereotype that was common then. As such, she was hesitant to even mention that.
“After a lot of conversation about our families, my husband and I both realized that each of our families were really important to us. I was very close with my mom, and very grateful to my step father for him paying for me to be in college. I knew I couldn’t live life without my family,” Young says. “And his family is so, so close. So we decided relatively early in our relationship that we would start to talk to our families about us dating, because we knew if they weren’t up for it, we couldn’t continue relationship.”
Thankfully for Young and her husband, these family conversations went relatively well. Such is absolutely not the case for everyone. Next are some top learnings Young extracted from talking to her parents, and her husbands’.
How do you talk to your partner about race and cultural differences?
When your racial identity is a big part of your personal and family history, it can be difficult to imagine integrating someone who doesn’t share this identity into your community. Such was the case when Young’s husband told his parents that he was dating a white woman from rural Nevada. And while Young’s parents weren’t resistant to her dating a Chinese-American man, they weren’t informed about his cultural upbringing. “When we were dating after college, my mother repeatedly asked me whether he’d wear a cowboy hat or shirt,” Young recalls, laughing.
According to Young, the key to these discussions is emphasizing shared values and life desires, which transcend racial groups, languages, and ethnic backgrounds. To do this, you must first get clear on what you, as an individual, want in a relationship, extended family, and your own family if you choose to have children — before you get deeply involved with another person. “Know thyself, and be clear on key life choices like how you make financial decisions, having a family, or the importance of religion, before speaking to your partner’s family,” says Young.
This process is essential to setting expectations and establishing conviction between you as a couple before speaking to people who are poised to assume that you’re not a match.
“Beyond just asking what race means to you, at a higher level, it was important for my husband and I to ask one another what we believed in, what religion meant to us, and what we cared about doing with our lives,” Young explains. “Once we figured out, ‘Oh, he’s from a middle class family and values hard work and getting ahead, and I’m from a middle class family and I value accountability, personal growth, and treating people kindly,’ it was easy to see that our values matched. Our traditions may be different, but we come from the same values, and I can live with that.”
How do you talk about interracial relationships with your family?
Young and her husband’s alignment on values above all proved essential when they explained their relationship to their respective families. Beyond just having a conversation on their own values, they also shared what their parents’ and family’s value. This helped ensure they each understood the family’s priorities and could highlight stories and anecdotes that demonstrated shared values.
For example, having developed and operated their own cattle ranch, Young’s family was impressed to learn about the various investment properties Arnold had already purchased early in his working career and how deeply he valued financial stability and upward mobility. Early on, Arnold’s aunt grilled Rebecca at a family dinner, spending an hour drilling questions about family loyalty, property ownership, and academic studies. Young emphasized her commitment to her family in Nevada, how she became one of the few women in her family to individually buy a home in her 20s, all of which impressed and aligned with her husband’s family focus.
When you’re really clear on your personal values, you’ll never feel like you’re compromising your individual identity in a cross-cultural relationship.
Young explains, “For me, I really wanted to be in a relationship that was devoted, supported, and connected with my husband and his family, and my family,” she says. “This meant regularly making compromises on some traditions but not on values.”
For example, Young explains that she grew up in a family where, on your birthday you get to select activities and festivities. In her husband’s family, where group happiness was encouraged over individual preferences, some family members felt uncomfortable selecting an activity, even on their own birthday. So, when Young’s family from Hawaii visits her and her husband, she often thinks about what they’d really enjoy doing, then learned to pose two specific choices, instead of an open-ended question. “It’s a small thing, but it seems to make them feel comfortable stating their preference, without feeling selfish,” she says. “It’s not a big deal, but it’s a cultural difference around individual versus collective decision making, that I needed to learn how to adapt to.”
How do you handle familial concerns about interracial relationships?
When having any difficult conversation with loved ones, specificity is essential to conflict mitigation. So, as a side note to emphasizing shared values, Young advises each relationship partner individually ask their parents and family what, specifically, they’re worried about in their child’s relationship, and how significantly different races or cultures can compound those fears.
“Ask what they are most concerned about, and get a verbal list if possible, of the issues they see as troubling,” says Young. “Create several times to discuss solutions with them that you have already worked out with your partner, or eventual spouse. I found the more confident I was, the more willing they were to listen.”
In Young’s experience, her parents were worried about “losing” her to her husband’s large family. “I became more diligent about calling them, including them in multiple conversations with my future husband and introducing him to their favorite activities,” she says. “He was a good sport about trying everything, so was I with his family. It’s hard for parents to negate a serious effort shown by their kids.”