The truth is that we are all different from one another. So, why does it matter if we love someone who is of a different race or culture than ours?
In one way, it really doesn’t matter. The silences you don’t share, the grudges you harbor or the arguments you and your partner get into—whether over religion, money or long-held family traditions—make you just like most other couples. These topics typify common obstacles to any committed relationship. But, our perceptions of race and culture affect us in profound, and often unconscious ways that, when combined with the predictable struggles associated with any relationship, can make for a challenging time.
Carol* is an attractive and successful African-American female entrepreneur who has been married to a Caucasian man for 25-years. “It’s a relationship without color,” she says. “A relationship between a man and woman. Also, better than any relationship that I've been in and that it's lasted over 25 years says a lot.” Yes! That does say a lot. But, for many couples, the ways in which they are different can become exactly the factors that erode a once passionate and fully committed relationship.
For instance, consider the story of Eileen, a Boston Brahmin and Donald, a Caribbean immigrant, who were coupled for 17 years. “Early on, we had problems with communication,” Eileen told me. “We had very, very different styles of communicating. In my family, we didn’t talk about feelings. In fact, our entire emotional vocabulary was very short: It ran from angry to stifled, there was really no in-between. Donald, on the other hand was well versed in “making mock”, the West Indian version of “playing The Dozens”, and I got my feelings hurt—a lot. The first time it happened, I was even kind of shell-shocked.”
For the uninitiated, “making mock” and The Dozens come out of an African diasporic oral tradition of joking. They can be intentionally mean-spirited, as in the case of the Dozens, where insults are lodged against a family member—“your mother’s so____”. Or they can be lodged against the person directly, where they become “signifyin’”, a milder though still sharp way of communicating (Abrahams in Perspectives on the Caribbean, Scher, 2010). But, just as jokes are often used as vehicles to convey a more critical message, they can easily be misconstrued, especially if you are unfamiliar with their intent.
In one culture, this type of communication signifies affinity (“I love you so much I can make fun of/with you”) while in the other it signifies attack (“To confront me with a weakness in so blunt a manner is to throw down the gauntlet”).
When Donald ribs his lover in this manner, he is playing the Jungian archetypal role of the Trickster--one who agitates in order to teach, who speaks truth to power via humor and deflection. The trickster role makes sense as a communication style for Donald when we consider how the dynamics of race, citizenship and gender have affected him.
People of color often “code-shift” in the presence of white people: They may dumb down a joke or cultural reference, change their pattern of speech, and avoid certain topics altogether, i.e., current events related to racial intolerance.
So even though Donald has taken the emotional risk of falling in love with a privileged white woman, he cannot erase decades of bias and discrimination he has endured at the hands of white people. This dilemma represents an inherent tension for this couple. Thus, when his lover acts unconsciously biased, Donald has to figure out how to address this dilemma without disaffecting the one he loves. Eileen’s comments make it apparent that, in this instance, that strategy was unsuccessful.
This is where therapy can help because committed relationships require dedicated work. Therapy is a useful tool to help couples stay connected to each other, especially when they are also dealing with societally charged issues like race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation. It keeps the lines of communication open, educates as well as soothes cultural divides and deepens that natural loving feeling.
Therapy is a useful tool to help couples stay connected to each other, especially when they are also dealing with societally charged issues like race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation. It keeps the lines of communication open, educates as well as soothes cultural divides and deepens that natural loving feeling.
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