For several decades, researchers (and mainstream media) have been interested in the prevalence of interracial relationships as a way to understand the shifts in social distance between racial groups and the impacts of racism on intimate life, particularly within online dating spaces. The excitement that spills over on social media every year on Loving Day – the holiday celebrating the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia U.S. Supreme Court decision that overruled bans on miscegenation – is a clear indicator of the value some place on interracial love as a cypher for social progress. However, it is only more recently that studies have begun to explore these questions for multiracial populations – people identifying with two or more racial and/or ethnic categories.
In exploring how racial boundaries are made and remade through things like partner choice and individual perceptions of difference, we can better understand what it means to “share” racial or ethnic background with a romantic partner. My recently published research investigating how multiracial women define interracial relationships and who makes an acceptable partner finds that several factors matter: a) the physical appearances of the partners in the relationship (predominantly skin color), b) cultural differences, and finally, c) familiarity in terms of reminding these women of male family members (therefore making them undesirable partners).
Combinations of these frames are used by multiracial women to define their relationships, forming a vocabulary for discussing race. The frames also enable them to uphold aspects of dominant U.S. racial hierarchy and discourse, claiming they “do not see race” while being aware of how both their skin tone and that of their partner(s) can impact how they and those outside of the relationship view a couple and using logics about race/ethnicity as a reason to reject certain partners. For instance, skin color is especially salient for part-Black multiracial women, as they are consistently “visible” as a different race from their partners, even in cases where they share some identity (such as a Black and White woman dating a White man). Women who are not part-Black were more likely to be lighter skinned in appearance and therefore, more inclined to rely on cultural difference as the way to explain how partners are different, even if they look the same and share racial ancestries (such as a White and Hispanic woman dating a White man – also referred to as a “gringo” by my participants).
Determining racial boundaries in these ways probably is a bit expected; we certainly have decades of data illustrating the importance of physical appearance and cultural difference in all sorts of relationships. In terms of multiracials, scholars like Miri Song have documented how multiracial people in romantic relationships in the UK even employ nationality as part of their discourse of describing “sameness” between themselves and their (typically white) partners. So, a vocabulary that relies on racial or ethnic “overlap” and shared cultural practices as the primary means of drawing boundaries makes sense. However, a particularly interesting framing utilized by multiracial women in my study are the ways that they negotiate potential partners who share some of their racial/ethnic background by viewing these men as being too closely similar to male family members.
Some might expect people to take comfort in someone reminding them of a family member, as psychologists have explored how early relationships with parents can influence how we connect to other in our adult lives. For some of the women I spoke with, there was not a desire to connect with the familiar; instead, there were often feelings of revulsion. For women with Asian backgrounds in particular, Asian men who reminded them of fathers, brothers, cousins, or uncles were viewed as undesirable sometimes for cultural reasons (religion or other cultural beliefs) or other characteristics (appearance, sound of their voices, accents). Sometimes, Black or Latinx multiracials also indicated a desire to avoid men who shared their racial/ethnic background. Interestingly, however, none of my respondents ever indicated a desire to reject white men for reminding them of white family members. In fact, white men were really only rejected as potential partners in a few cases and that was often because of fear of racism and/or negative past experiences, not necessarily that white men are uniformly unattractive in the way that men of color would sometimes be discussed. So, this means of framing rejection and setting romantic boundaries consistently only applied to non-white men, effectively reinforcing racial hierarchies demonstrated in other studies of race and romantic relationships.
While the primary conclusion of this article is that multiracial people internalize racial, gendered, and fetishistic framings about potential partners in ways that align with monoracial people, it is important to continue to investigate how racial boundaries and degrees of intimacy are still being (re)constructed for a demographic that will continue to grow as rates of intermarriage increase and more people develop a comfort with identifying themselves with two or more races.
Dr. Shantel Buggs is an assistant professor in the department of Sociology. This article is published in the Journal of Marriage of Family.
The feature image is from Getty Images.