So, what’s his name again?” I was asked, over and over, after my family had learned that I, an African American Virginian, was dating a half-Mexican, half-Caucasian kid, also from Virginia.
“It’s Enrique, but everybody calls him Rick or Ricky,” I’d respond. “His last name is Rodriguez.”
My mother had always raised us to believe skin color was not a barrier to friendship. “You surround yourself with people who love you for who you are, no matter what they look like,” she’d said.
From my family, I could feel slight anxiety, mixed with a reserved acceptance of my interracial relationship. The feeling seemed to swell once our relationship graduated to an engagement. However, as our marriage has grown and evolved, so has respect for it, as we’ve navigated differences in religious beliefs and practices, expectations of gender roles, preferences in marital traditions and more.
From the early days of dating, through our courtship and our 12-year marriage, we’ve endured, and are able to see the best parts of ourselves in our 4-year-old daughter. Oh, the things we have learned along the way.
1. Talk it out, but know when to shut up.
In a traditional, same-race, same-religion, same-ethnicity household, learning strong communication skills is a challenge. And when your backgrounds and traditions differ, the possibility of misunderstanding and misinterpretation is heightened. If there is a complication about blending traditions – such as my spiritual practice involving a church community and regular attendance, compared to my husband’s spirituality, which is more personal and not church-based – then explain to your spouse why your tradition is important to you.Then close your mouth and listen, without judgment, to what your spouse has to say about his or her traditions. And, learn to respect them.
2. Support and celebrate.
Embrace, or at the very least, support, your spouse’s traditions, even if they are drastically different from your own. On the flipside, whether your spouses chooses to participate or not, make time to celebrate your own cultural traditions. Best-case scenario? The two of you support one another and find opportunities to share your traditions with your child, but if that’s not possible, at least respect one another. My hubby isn’t into Kwanzaa, and I’m not completely comfortable with the traditional depictions of skeletons and death in Chicano art, but we both offer support and give one another the healthy space to honor our respective family heritage. Our 4-year-old is exposed to, and taught to respect, both.
3. Build a positive bridge.
Focus on the similarities you share, not your differences. Early in my relationship with my husband, he taught me that we had more in common than we didn’t have in common. He emphasized focusing on those similarities, and we built a strong bridge of love and respect between us.We don’t always agree, but we default to those activities and hobbies that we both enjoy. My husband does not necessarily understand that “doing the hair” is a ritual, a very traditional mother-daughter bonding Experience for African American women. To him, it seems like a lot of work, when a haircut would be a lot easier. And there have been several occasions when daddy and daughter are laughing and talking in Spanish, and I did not understand them. However, we both recognize that respecting the differences is very healthy for her – and us.
4. Blaze your own trail in blended parenthood.
When naming our daughter Isla, we decided on a name we both liked, rather than following the southern tradition of naming her after a family member. Her middle name, Dali, comes from an interest that both of us have in the artwork of the artist Salvador Dali. In raising her, we make decisions based on our own personal preferences, but also pull from our parents’ musical backgrounds, spirituality and life experiences. Isla respects jazz and loves soul music, and goes to church with me most Sundays. She has also jumped on the drums at seven in the morning, or played a few guitar riffs before school, and periodically practices speaking and singing Spanish. To us, it’s all good.
5. Tune the outside out.
When I got married, my pop told me to put my husband first, and to heck with everyone else – and this was excellent advice. Hopefully, you are surrounded by loving, supportive family and friends, but from time to time you will need to be ready to put the family in check. Sometimes, your well-intentioned relatives will view your interracial marriage as a handicap because it is non-traditional, and think you need extra “help.” Gently remind them to ease up on the unsolicited advice.
6. Celebrate your marriage.
As many successful couples will tell you, spending time alone together is essential after you get married and even more important after having kids. Date night, Valentine’s Day and your anniversary are great opportunities to share your traditions and culture with your spouse. Years ago, when my husband first starting going to the Second Street Festival with me, I shared with him my love of African American art, jewelry and cuisine. He introduced me to the concept of Latino traditions such as Cinco de Mayo, El Dia de los Muertos and different aspects of Aztec and Mayan culture that were completely foreign to me.Today, we both respect and embrace these aspects of each other’s family heritage and culture.
7. Seek support from other multiracial and diverse families.
This happened by accident for us, but in hindsight, I wish I’d intentionally sought out other interracial couples at the beginning of our marriage. As I stated earlier, blending traditions and cultures presents unique challenges to an interracial marriage. Just as with any targeted support group, other men and women in interracial marriages can provide support and insight for each other as they face and endure those challenges.