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Ethnic Intermarriage: Love Is Not Enough
Bina Radia-Bond
Bina Radia-Bond

Mixed relationships are indubitably a rising global trend. Britain has the highest rate in Europe. This should not, however, be taken as a utopian move towards the romantic blurring of ethnic boundaries: the majority of people are still most comfortable with a partner who shares their cultural background and social history.

Of the 10.3 million marriages at the time of the 2001 census, only 219,000 (2%) were inter-ethnic. Within this, there is notable variance, which highlights the different levels of acceptance of exogamous relations amongst ethnic groups that is often, but not always, guided by religious and cultural differences; (e.g. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are considerably less likely than Chinese or African-Caribbean communities to accept intermarriage involving a White partner).

Defiance of ethnic expectations, could lead to ostracism and a withdrawal of familial, cultural and social support for the couple and their future family. But, when you've 'fallen in love', does all that really matter? My research with parents from a variety of backgrounds in ethnic intermarriages, which was inspired by own experiences, illuminates the challenges of the realities of these still anomalous unions.

Behind closed doors
Mutual attraction or love is important in any marriage (at least by Western measures); social class facilitates mobility of the couple and family within external social structures, but it is naïve to presume that these evaporate behind closed doors: the social, cultural, racial and ethnic tensions may loosen their grip, but they do not fade away in a haze of romantic love.

The realities are accentuated when the children's skin tones vary (from the parents' and each others') and their external experiences are differentiated accordingly; (e.g. the fairer children being subjected to less racism; the darker Asian/White children being belittled for not observing/ knowing cultural traditions and speaking their 'mother tongue', when none such is expected of their fairer siblings). The culture of the home can inadvertently reinforce these hegemonies, particularly if aspects of either parent's cultural dimensions are suppressed (even if willingly), if they do not correspond with prevailing social dictates.

Language, for example, is not only a significant part of our cultural identity; it is, I argue, the only medium through which our emotional pulse can be felt. These sentiments were echoed by the Minority parents in my study, who strongly affiliated with their cultural identity through their heritage language, but did not share this with their spouse or children.

Of the many Mixed (Asian/White) families I approached (admittedly within a predominantly White borough in Hertfordshire), only one (so far) comprises bilingual children! Parents' explanations centre on rifts from their own family; geographic distancing (imposed or self-selected) from coethnics and discouragement or disinterest from health visitors; doctors and schools or simply that there was no apparent benefit in the children's bilingualism, which could, on the contrary, have held them back at school!

With no interest or encouragement by the English-speaking spouse either, the task, single-handed, is impossible. The result - monolingual children of a bilingual parent - is an unnavigable cultural and emotional chasm between one's own children. This reveals itself as children reach adolescence and struggle to negotiate their own place in the wider social and cultural landscape outside the familiarity of the home.

They may recognise the communities to which they may belong as their birthright, but with which they cannot participate fully as they lack the linguistic tools. For the parent, it is a painful closure of a vital cultural dimension in their lives, of which their children can never be part. One of my respondents articulated what this meant to him:

'I know my other friends who are Mixed and have taken the trouble of speaking their language, whatever, I haven't, it was so much easier to just speak in English. And as a result they really don't know who I am'

I share the unique sense of isolation that this statement inheres, despite enjoying a very close and deeply affectionate relationship with my own children.

The rare achievement of the one Mixed bilingual family (all except the English father) is explained by the relentless determination and sheer stubbornness of the mother from the outset and her self-confidence in being able to rebut doubts from her husband and objections by teachers. Her inspiration and strength stemmed from the support and input from her own strong family base. The fruit of her perseverance is visible in the children's supreme confidence and unquestioned sense of belonging in both their linguistic and cultural communities (and their academic excellence). The proudest promoter of the children's bilingualism is their dad!

The unsurpassed reward, however, is in the undisguised mutual affection between the son and his maternal grandfather, who sits detachedly and quietly in the company of monolingual English speakers, but explodes into incessant, jovial chatter with his grandson as soon as he enters the room! Both revel in each other's company and share a closeness that epitomises the enviable essence of 'family' that would be lost in any attempt to translate to another language. It is this privilege of being a living part of the entirety of one's rich cultural heritage that is unwittingly withdrawn, when potentially-bilingual Mixed children are only facilitated to access one of their linguistic channels.

There are more than two people in a marriage
Even though couples may steadfastly claim that 'marriage is between individuals', their families, together with their long cultural heritages, become de facto (even if silent) bedfellows! Their indelible influence will inevitably manifest itself in the fabric of the unique culture that will synthesise in the couple's own home, informing big and small decisions from daily, mundane practices; choice of parenting styles to aspirations for their children - and their preferred marriage partners.

Marriage is the constant negotiation of choices and compromises, which increase tenfold in an ethnic intermarriage and multiply further, with the arrival of children. It requires daily combined effort in the preparation and constant nurturing of a solid and reliable base, from which the children eventually springboard to pursue their own dreams.

The stability of the base is strengthened by a criss-crossing of contribution from each parent, which must have equal value and importance. If one is lauded and used exclusively and the other relegated, the structure is compromised and the children are likely to fall through the resultant gaps. A consistent sentiment from every parent in my study is that intermarriage is sheer hard work, with a bigger emotional price to pay for those cut off from their cultural networks! Love simply makes it temporarily bearable.

This paper was first submitted as part of the e-conference mixedness and mixing 4-6 September 2007.

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