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Parents don't approve of interracial relationship

Alice,

My question is about interracial relationships. I came here from a really small town, very conservative — well, you get the idea. Now, my second week in, I met the most wonderful man. Only he is black. We have been dating now for over a year. He treats me wonderfully but I still get odd looks from people and my parents really don't approve.

I told them it shouldn't matter what color his skin is if I love him, but their small town values seem to say otherwise. How can I cope with the odd looks and my parents without losing my man?

Dear Reader, 

It’s great that you’ve found a partner whom you love and who treats you well! Unfortunately, discrimination based on race, religion, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender (and that’s just naming a few) still exists. You mentioned receiving “odd looks from people” along with parental disapproval about your relationship. These could be caused by objections towards your boyfriend specifically, or of you two as a couple, but there’s no way to know for sure without asking. Having a deeper discussion with your parents about why they may disapprove and communicating with your boyfriend about what you both have been experiencing might help to alleviate some of the tensions. 

As a person in an interracial relationship, you may already be aware of how race impacts society, from the individual experience to larger systemic issues. Though race doesn't exist biologically, it's been socially constructed to give power to some and oppress others based on skin color. Therefore, race, whether self or socially described, often leads to discrimination against people of color because of historical precedents that give white communities more power in society. Because of this, racism can occur at multiple levels of society: 

  • Individual racism happens in one person and usually refers to discriminatory beliefs or attitudes towards people of a certain race. 
  • Interpersonal racism happens between people, such as if the “odd looks” you and your boyfriend were getting are because of his race. 
  • Institutional racism happens in organizations, such as policies or traditions that create racial inequities. 
  • Structural racism is the concept that racism reaches all parts of society and is perpetuated throughout history. 

Strides towards racial equality and equity have occurred over the last 50 years, with people of color gaining many rights and privileges that weren't previously attainable. Interracial relationships have also become more common and less stigmatized by society. However, they may still be viewed negatively by some. If this is something that you and your boyfriend are experiencing, you might try to remember that how others react to your relationship isn’t your fault (or your boyfriend’s fault), but rather a reflection of their biases. 

You mentioned being from a conservative, small town, and your parents’ small-town values being a reason they disapprove of your boyfriend. While you can't change their experiences, being from a small town isn’t an excuse for racism. Anyone can be racist, and likewise, anyone can be anti-racist. Just as racism is defined by racist choices and actions, anti-racism means acting against racism, whether at the individual, interpersonal, or institutional levels. It's also true that people may be influenced by their friends and family when thinking about race. Growing up in the same small town, for example, might mean you hold similar biases to your parents without even being conscious of it. Acknowledging that your beliefs could’ve been shaped by others may lead to more productive conversations about race should you choose to discuss it. Since everyone has different life experiences, understandings of race, ethnicity, culture, and identity can vary based on the people you are surrounded by and what you’re willing to learn from others. 

With a foundational background on race and racism, moving forward there are a few strategies you might choose to try in your situation. Have you ever discussed with your partner how you feel? Especially since you have concerns about your perception as a couple, have you asked about his experience? Being open and listening to how he feels about the looks you get, your parents’ disapproval, and what he experiences as a Black man in your relationship and in society could give you his perspective on the situation. Objections to your relationship affect him as much as—and maybe more than—they affect you, so it's likely helpful to consider his points too. For more information on conversing with your partner, check out other Relating & Communicating questions in the Relationships section of Go Ask Alice!

As for your parents, have you had a conversation with them about what they disapprove of? If it's because of discrimination or racism, it may be helpful to discuss with them the role of race and racism in society, and how it has changed over time. Simply being aware of institutional racism may help you parents better understand your relationship with your boyfriend. Emphasizing that although racism influences many aspects of our world, a conscious effort to learn about other people and other races may provide insight into everyone’s distinct struggles. On the other hand, if they’re wary of your boyfriend because they’re unfamiliar with him, allowing them to meet may provide them with a way to connect and ease their concern. A civil and honest conversation with your parents about your feelings, your partner’s feelings, and their thoughts on your relationship may lead you to a decision about what to do. 

If these discussions are overwhelming or causing you an unnecessary amount of stress, you may want to speak with a health care provider or mental health provider about effective coping mechanisms. Conversations with your boyfriend and with your parents might be a step towards resolving your issue. Ultimately, a decision may be made based on what you feel comfortable with and what makes the most sense for both you and your partner. 

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Last updated Jun 16, 2023
Originally published Sep 10, 1999