Interracial couples can face extra pressures to make it work: experts

Before Shefali Burns and her husband divorced, some people couldn’t even picture them together.

When Burns, a North Indian woman, and her ex-husband, a white man, went to restaurants together with their children, staff would assume her husband wasn’t part of the family.

“People would look at us and then not realize we were all together,” said Burns, who grew up in Ottawa. “So there was always that separation that was always there, even though we were a family unit.”

“It really stuck out that we were two different races, that we were two different colours,” she said. “That was like a disconnect… People are still not used to seeing interracial families.”

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Couples from two different races and backgrounds can face a multitude of issues that same-race couples don’t always deal with, explained Burns, who works as an author and consultant now in Vienna, Austria.

Burns and her husband were married in 1993 and got divorced 18 years later in 2011. In the same year, a census report found that 4.6 per cent of Canadians were in mixed unions, which was the last time this data was calculated. 

“There was more pressure to stay together because of the different races and cultures,” she said. “And when I finally got divorced … I had no support from anybody, other than my kids.”

Her side of the family didn’t support the idea of divorce and her husband’s family didn’t either, she said. “In the Indian culture, you don’t get divorced, no matter what.” 

But along with the pressure from both families to work out their relationship, Burns felt that her husband didn’t treat her culture and traditions as equal to his own. 

Shefali Burns. Photo provided by Shefali Burns. Shefali Burns. Photo provided by Shefali Burns.

“My husband never fully accepted the culture or the religion or some traditions,” she said. “He never really fully participated … even though I was fully into Christmas and everything else.”

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The relationship was also exoticized by family members, which made her feel strange, she said. 

“It’s like they just thought it was so exotic, that I’m from a different culture and a different race,” she said. 

“I’m still considered different. But I’m not… I’m me,” she said. “Can you not just see me?”

In Canada, many consider interracial couples a symbol of the country being more open-minded, inclusive and multicultural. 

Interracial couples do face additional pressures, as their unions do not exist in a vacuum — Canada is a country where racism exists, and those couples will have to confront those issues, said Tamari Kitossa, an associate sociology professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. 

How an interracial couple is treated will change based on factors like where they live and how diverse the community they live in is, he said.

“They will be visible in different sorts of ways. And that might have different sorts of impacts on their unions,” he said.

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But beyond the dynamics of a couple’s own relationship and whether they are able to accept each other’s differences, they also have to confront beliefs in Canada that mixed unions are utopian and a symbol of an ideal multicultural society, he said.

Kitossa’s research, performed alongside assistant professor Kathy Delivosky, examines why interracial marriages are viewed as “anti-racist” and are propped up as “progressive.” 

Click to play video: 'How race shapes personal relationships in Canada'
How race shapes personal relationships in Canada

“Canada is marketing itself in a globalized world as a go-to place for immigrants,” he said.

But at the same time, some white people are creating a narrative that they are being marginalized and are facing a demographic decline. Around 80 per cent of Canada’s population did not identify as a visible minority in 2011. 

“This is creating a toxic brew, for making people in interracial relationships much more visible and exposing them to social pressure,” he said.

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Burns said interracial relationships, like any relationship, are not perfect.

“Even interracial couples, they have problems just like any other couple,” Burns said. “Just because they’re from two different races does not make them any more open, or better.”

For anyone who knows an interracial couple, support them in open communication and understand that they may be facing serious issues. Ask how you can help, Burns recommended. 

Data on marriage no longer collected

Statistics Canada stopped collecting data on marriages, making it difficult to discern the divorce rate of interracial couples and to identify concerns, said Kitossa. The national statistical office confirmed to Global News that it no longer collects data on marriage and divorce.

“Then how do we know what’s going on? How do we know if there really is an increase in [interracial marriage] instead of a decrease, or it’s flat-lined?” Kitossa said.
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Celebrating mixed unions without truly assessing or understanding whether they succeed or not also means ignoring racism these couples and their children face. 

Growing up in Kingston, Ont., journalist Natalie Harmsen remembers her family standing out compared to the many white families she knew. Her father is white, the child of Dutch immigrants, and her mother is a Black woman from Guyana. 

Harmsen’s parents divorced when she started university. It’s clear that interracial couples face all kinds of pressures same-race partners do not, Harmsen expressed in a personal essay for Maisonneuve Magazine

“Canada tries to present itself as a place where we’re so multicultural and diverse and everything’s great here and we all love one another … which in some cases is true,” she said.

“But it’s definitely a way of avoiding having these difficult discussions around racism and especially around interracial relationships.”

Couples who are of different races have to overcome issues like families being “shocked” and have to confront prejudices continuously, she said. 

The challenges her parents faced in their relationship included her father not always empathizing with her mom’s experience as a Black woman, she said. 

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Natalie Harmsen. Photo by Magda Knyszynski. Natalie Harmsen. Photo by Magda Knyszynski
“Even if you don’t understand that, my father wouldn’t necessarily try to grasp the situation,” she explained. “It obviously strained [the relationship] in some ways”
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Harmsen recalls travelling to the U.S. with her family and the drive across the border being smoother if her father was in the driver’s seat. They would get stopped if her mother was driving, she said.

Those microaggressions and communication about them might have been missing from her parents’ relationship, she said. 

“That was definitely a factor, for sure,” she said. 

Interracial couples are often portrayed in film and media as only having to overcome initial family discomfort that’s all solved after they get married, suggesting that love conquers racism, Harmsen explained in her piece. 

Removing those kinds of expectations on interracial unions is important, she said, as that pressure can harm the relationship.

“It’s a subconscious kind of pressure that we don’t always see just because of this whole idea that we’re a very multicultural place.”

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