As a hopeless romantic and newly partnered person, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how to maintain a strong relationship. We all know that it’s not easy to mesh different world views, no matter how in love you are. But consider adding yet another layer to the mix: different ethnicities, cultures or faiths. So, I sat down with three interracial couples to talk about what they’ve learned…
LAUREN AND HASAN
Lauren and Hasan met in college. Lauren is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Hasan is the son of Pakistani immigrants and was raised in a devout Sunni Muslim household. What struck me was how these differences were not top of mind as they embarked on their relationship. It helped that Hasan’s family was accepting right from the start. Lauren’s family, however, was another story…
Lauren: I kept our relationship secret for six years. We lived together but pretended to be roommates. I wanted to give my parents the chance to get to know Hasan. Then we got a dog and my parents got suspicious. Who gets a dog with their roommate? So, I told my mom the truth — right there in the laundry room. And she ran upstairs to tell my dad. From there it was like a horrible scene out of a bad movie. They objected to Hasan because he wasn’t Jewish, magnified by their ignorance around Islam. There was a lot of yelling that day, then a barrage of texts and emails. It was incredibly hurtful and traumatizing. Hasan and I got engaged shortly afterward and they didn’t acknowledge it. They did end up coming to our wedding but my dad didn’t give me away — my grandmother did.
Imagine how hard it would be to try to build a life with your partner, while knowing it might mean sacrificing your family. I asked Lauren how she dealt with it.
Lauren: I felt strongly that their stance was wrong and selfish. I stopped responding to their angry calls and held firm to my boundaries. Eventually they came around. All these years later, Hasan is a beloved son-in-law. My parents see that he is a great dad, and they love our kids to death. But they haven’t fully reconciled the trauma they induced in us for years. Luckily, I have a good therapist! and I’ll always admire how Hasan handled it. It was very much not about him and his feelings; he was so patient.
I, too, marveled at Hasan’s equanimity. Where there could have been resentment, there was an enormous amount of grace.
Hasan: Our relationship has made me more open-minded. I was raised to think Jews are this and Jews are that; and, in our culture, Pakistani Muslims think Hindus are this and Indians are that. It was ingrained in my parents to think a certain way. When a Jewish woman married into our family, it changed my family, and it changed me. We have differences in how we were raised, but we have more things in common.
Sometimes Lauren’s parents still want clarity and will ask, ‘Is this a Muslim household? Is this a Jewish household? Is it neutral?’ The answer is that Hasan and Lauren incorporate different traditions and holidays into their home to ensure their two young kids understand and celebrate their identities.
AILSA AND DAVID
Ailsa and David met while serving in the armed forces. David is still a Marine, currently stationed in North Carolina. Ailsa grew up in a large Dominican family in the Bronx, while David was raised by a single mother in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Right off the bat, Ailsa tells me, “I never thought I’d date a white guy.” She always imagined marrying a guy from her culture who would “get it.” When she and David met, they were friends with “no expectations” and that allowed her to warm to the idea of dating someone outside her race, specifically him. Meanwhile, David had always been curious about other cultures, a worldliness fostered by spending years stationed in dozens of countries all over the world, from Costa Rica to Russia.
David: My being with Ailsa was a surprise to my mom because I had been away for so long in the military and when I came back I had Ailsa in my life. It was less about race than my mom adjusting to sharing me with another woman.
Ailsa: Some of our biggest cultural differences center around expectations of time with family. I have a big one that wants to be together a lot; it’s chaotic with lots of food. And David’s family holidays were always quieter. He’s German and more stoic.
Another cultural learning came up around hair, as it so often does.
Ailsa: David never understood why I spent so much time straightening my hair. He loved it curly. But I was taught you went to the salon every week, you got your hair done, you got it chemically treated. It was almost an epiphany to realize, oh my gosh, we were trying to acclimate, you know? Even after I started wearing it natural, I would get negative comments from people, my people, like, ‘You gonna walk around with your hair like that?’ But David helped me embrace my hair. And now I have extra time, not spending six to eight hours at a salon!
Connecting with another person can reflect your culture back to you in eye-opening ways. For David and Ailsa, that extends to helping their daughters embrace being bi-racial. Since the family has frequently moved around in the military, their kids have had to start new schools, which can be challenging given that social groups are often segregated by race.
Ailsa: Growing up in New York, I knew I was Hispanic but I never saw my friends as a ‘white girl’ or a ‘Black kid.’ They were just my friends. Then, when I was 15 or so, it was like, oh, we really are different. We worked hard for our own kids to understand their identities and how to integrate with other kids no matter where we lived. But it was a challenge. We were stationed in Florida when the girls were young; we had a lot of Jewish friends and participated in the High Holidays. When we moved to North Carolina, people asked the girls, are you Jewish or Christian? And they said, ‘Oh, we’re Jewish.’ And I’m like, no.
I was curious if David and Ailsa felt differently about their relationship in the wake of all the social upheaval in 2020.
Ailsa: I’ve realized what an advocate David has been for me. He continually listens and reads and tries to be better. There are times when I’m the only woman of color at military events and there can be microaggressions, like ‘Who are you?’ I appreciate our marriage because I’ve always felt safe, and I realized that’s partly because David has been showing up for me all along.
RAKESH AND JOHN
A gay bar in San Francisco in 2012 is the backdrop of this meet-cute. Rakesh catches the eye of a handsome stranger — who, little did he know, would be the love of his life. Rakesh is the son of South Indian immigrants living in Ohio, and John is a white man from Wisconsin. Two things that primed them to fall for each other was that both their families were supportive of cross-cultural connections and the two men already had diverse social circles.
Rakesh: One thing I appreciated was that John didn’t qualify any of his relationships with people by race. For example, when I met his two friends from college, whom he had talked about at length, they were Asian American. And it wasn’t like he made it a point to say that, like, ‘Oh, so-and-so is my Black friend,’ like it was some sort of accomplishment. It spoke to the fact that John having friends of various backgrounds was so ingrained and expected that he felt it wasn’t notable.
John: I actually came out to my parents around the time that Rakesh and I started dating, so there was a lot to sift through with them. It was complicated, but race wasn’t top of mind.
We talked about this intersectionality — being in the minority as both an interracial couple and same-sex couple — and people’s reactions, particularly when the couple leaves the “bubble” of New York City to travel to their Midwestern hometowns.
Rakesh: There will always be people who are surprised by our being a same-sex couple. When we’re checking into a hotel, for example, it sometimes takes people a second, if they even make that connection. If we’re in a place where there aren’t many interracial couples, race becomes more salient. We could be two friends, so what’s conspicuous is not our orientations, but my being a person who isn’t white in those spaces.
John: The flip side is we’ve also had reactions from people who are happy to see us as a couple. Soon after we started dating, we were at a beach holding hands, and this white woman on rollerblades passed us and said, ‘Oh, you guys make me happy.’ It didn’t feel pedantic or otherizing. She just found the fact that we were very affectionate to be cute. It was the opposite of what you worry about.
This sort of celebration is telling as we see the number of same-sex couples steadily increasing. Another demographic trend: Gay couples are more likely to be interracial than hetero couples. In 2016, John and Rakesh decided to elope but said that the upside to a big wedding would have been representation.
Rakesh: An Indian friend from Ohio, where I grew up, said he wished we had done a proper wedding so people could have seen it happen. A same-sex religious wedding would have been eye-opening for our South Asian community to be a part of.
John: When we visited Rakesh’s family after we eloped, Rakesh’s mom did a puja to celebrate our marriage. I don’t think a puja is a given for a gay marriage, so it was really meaningful to me that it mattered to her to extend that practice.
I left these conversations inspired by the palpable connections between these couples. It was a powerful reminder that the world, harsh as it may be, is a much softer place when you find your people. And that, for all the divisions that we have, when the stereotypes falter and people tune out the noise, love wins. What better lesson to take away this February.
Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant. Her upcoming novel, You Were Always Mine, written with Jo Piazza, comes out this June. She lives in Harlem, New York. Find her on Instagram @cpride.
(Portrait of Christine Pride by Christine Han. All other photos provided by the couples.)