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Navigating Interracial, Intercultural Relationships

Whether you're in a serious relationship or the honeymoon phase, mutual respect and understanding of your partner's background is vital.

The last law barring interracial relationships was only abolished in the year 2000 (in Alabama). Over the past twenty years, the United States has come a long way in protecting and establishing parental and marital rights. Families are more mixed than ever, whether in the form of blended families, interracial couples, or same-sex couples adopting children. Still, interracial relationships only make up 17% of American marriages, a 14% leap since the Loving v. Virginia victory. Among those who are reading this article, you may feel alone in your experiences, with no one to turn to about your trials in an intercultural, interracial relationship.

There are many reasons why the majority of marriages in our country are between two people of the same race, but the primary reason is that it's just easier. There are no adjustments to be made. While love is love, and all meaningful relationships experience hurdles, the addition of intersectional identities can complicate everything. Whether you're in a serious relationship or the honeymoon phase, mutual respect and understanding of your partner's background is vital.

On a personal note, I am in an intercultural, interracial relationship. My boyfriend is a first generation Indian American whose parents are Hindu. I am a second generation Greek American, raised in the Orthodox Christian faith. Our individual experiences overlap in many ways, especially in regards to our big, involved families. On the other hand, we have entirely different beliefs. He's Agnostic, and I identify heavily with my Greek Orthodox faith. When we began having serious discussions about the future and the potential of having a family together, it became apparent quite quickly that we have conflicting desires for what we, individually, want that to look like.

I've always wanted to raise my children as Greek Orthodox. Aware that my partner isn't spiritual, I assumed he'd be okay with that. While he's not religious, as a first-generation Indian American, it's incredibly important to him to maintain his cultural roots and pass them on. Initially, I reacted defensively and somewhat aggressively to his discomfort about the idea of raising children in my religion. I thought, "If he's not religious, why should it matter to him, if it matters more to me?" I now recognize how selfish that thought is and have worked on my own biases.

As our relationship progressed, it became more complicated when our families became involved. At times, I feel lost in conversations, as his family switches between Bengali and English. Other times, my partner feels intimidated by my religious, overbearing, bickering family. When it's just the two of us, all these differences fade away, but that doesn't erase their presence or the need to discuss them.

Most consider interracial relationships to include intercultural relationships, but the tools to navigate the two concurrently are, unfortunately, not widely discussed. Although I am only a couple of years into my relationship, I believe I have learned a lot about finding common ground. The following advice may seem simple, but as the saying goes, "It's easier said than done."

Be Open-Minded and Proactive

When you're exposed to anything new, you can either react positively or negatively: You can choose to be intimidated and shut down or embrace the unknown. Demonstrating your desire to learn more about your partner's background can go a long way.

Trust me, they will greatly appreciate your efforts to try new foods, learn their family's language, or even sit back and listen to their experiences and history surrounding their cultural identity. Your excitement about exposure to their culture, faith, etc. can create mutual respect and positive exchanges.

Don't Hold Off on Having Important Conversations

The first time my partner and I discussed how religion and cultural customs would play into raising children, we got into a heated conversation for an entire evening. Afterwards, we had an unspoken agreement that we wouldn't discuss it, since it was irrelevant; we won't have kids anytime soon. Over the next year, that quickly caught up to us. The more we tried to avoid those serious conversations, the greater the divide that formed between us. Since then, we have gotten to know each other on a deeper level, discussing our upbringings, families, friends, and connections.

A big step occurred when he came with me to church for Easter. He had never been exposed to that part of my life, because I never really talked about my faith, but he knew it was important to me. A year and a half into our relationship, I felt respected in a new way.

Recently, my boyfriend has become an uncle, and it's changed his perspective. He wants to be more involved, because in Bengali culture Aunts and Uncles act as secondary parents. As he contributes to raising this child, he has felt closer to his roots.

Notably, as people get older, many turn back to what they know best. It helps if you're equipped to handle those changes when the time comes. Prioritize building a foundation and trust, so it's possible to be open about these central truths and have hard conversations. This will elevate your relationship to new heights.

Establish Boundaries and Learn to Compromise

In intersectional relationships, greater compromises will occur more frequently than in most relationships. Finding space for both your cultures (food, traditions, family, etc.) requires open communication. Although, one person should never have to give up whatever they consider necessary to their identity and everyday life. In any relationship, you should never lose a part of yourself for the benefit of your partner. The benefit of interracial and intercultural relationships is the possibility to integrate both perspectives, expand mentalities, and increase the variety of experiences—not only for you two, but anyone involved in your lives.

No matter what, we all have our own biases that affect the way we see and navigate our "world." Keeping yourself in check by recognizing your racial or gendered privilege will ground your relationship instead of causing a divide. Self-awareness is key to the success of your relationship.

Don't Allow Your Differences to Outweigh Your Love

I remember at a young age, my mother advised me to marry someone Greek; it would make life so much simpler. I believe she recognized that I was put off by relationship norms in my culture and wanted to convince me to feel otherwise. Like in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I was taught Greek women should breed Greek children and raise them Orthodox Christian. Going against that will offset our lineage and decrease the potential that our traditions, language, and faith that will be carried on for generations to come.

When I first began dating my boyfriend, people asked if he'd be willing to convert. Others asked me why I would want to bring children into the world that would face prejudice. I would retort, "The only way to combat that mentality is by increasing understanding and by there being more children in the world exposed to multiple cultures."

We cannot deny that interracial and intercultural relationships are political. As daunting as that can be, there's power and beauty in a relationship's ability to bridge understanding and people who would otherwise remain separated. Like I mentioned, my relationship is secure when it's just the two of us. In the end, remember how wonderful life is with that person in your life. Then, all the noise will dissipate and remind you why all the bumps are worth it— because they should be.