Friday, January 13, 2023

Multiracial or Transcultural: Part 2

I'd like to follow up on a post from last month concerning interracial marriages and the differences between multiracial marriage and transcultural marriage. To recap, multiracial marriage means exactly what it sounds like - a marriage between two people of different races or ethnicities. Nothing more. Transcultural marriage, on the other hand, according to Kyle J. Howard, means "two people of different cultures come together & build a family that represents both of them," where "both spouses' cultural backgrounds are honored and celebrated." I couldn't agree with the distinction more, and I've seen examples of both. I've witnessed interracial marriages where one partner felt consistently disrespected and excluded because of their culture, either by their spouse or by in-laws whom the spouse failed to put in check. I've also seen interracial marriages in which both partners made the effort to celebrate and respect the other's culture and traditions.

So the question to me is, how do I know if I'm in a transcultural relationship, especially before I commit to marriage, instead of a possibly toxic and merely "multiracial" one? How can I be sure that my partner is willing to truly unite with all of the parts of me, my family, and my culture? I'm not an expert in the sense of marriage therapy or counseling, but I do have some markers I would look for based on my own experience.

1) Does your spouse spend intentional time with your family? Do they look forward to seeing your parents and siblings, along with all of the extended family, play cousins and fake aunties? Or do they avoid family events, always finding some excuse why they can't be there? When they're around your family, do they isolate themselves or do they engage as if they're trying to become part of the family? Or worse, are they always making snide remarks about what people are doing, and expecting you to participate in their mockery or laugh at their jokes? A person who tolerates, desires, or even "loves" a person of another race, ethnicity, or culture, but can't stand to be around any others of the same group is very likely tokenizing their partner. It may be that they have some fetish, and only want to dip their ... toe ... into those dark waters to see what it feels like, with no real respect for the actual personhood of those they claim to love. It may be that they think of their partner as "one of the good ones," someone to be tutored and reimagined like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a prodigy who needs to be rescued from their race. Either way, it's a bad sign if you are the only person of your race that your partner can tolerate being around. It's very possible that you've become their "Black friend." 

However, I would add that some people are naturally introverts, like myself, and find it difficult to fully participate in social events. For us it's draining to be around so many people and feel like we're in the spotlight, expected to perform. That dynamic should be considered. Still, there's a crucial difference between the guy on the fringe of the party watching the festivities and smiling at all the joy and fun and interacting in positive, if more low-key, ways with your family members, as opposed to the guy on the fringe smirking at what he sees as antics and madness, flexing his imagined superiority by refusing to join in, or even joining in as some sort of parody or insult. 

2) Does your spouse or partner make an attempt to speak the language? I'm not talking about the cringy appropriation of slang that often sets out teeth on edge, but actually learning a second language. If your culture includes a different language or dialect, does your partner make an attempt to learn that language and use it around you and your people? Or do they treat it as an inferior language, worthy of mockery or at best, not worth learning? This is especially important for English speakers. As much as I love my language, it has often been used as a weapon, and often forced on others against their will. There's a little bit of that colonizer instinct in forcing in-laws to communicate with you in your language rather than making an effort to really understand them in theirs. It may take time, but in the long run, you gain not only a deepened trust and relationship with your spouse and in-laws, but you also become bilingual, and in ways that other people don't have access to. Immersing oneself in Spanish or Kreyol or Xhosa for a weekend is far more effective in achieving fluency than several months of Duolingo or Rosetta Stone lessons. 

In addition, the desire to learn your in-laws' language should apply if your spouse is a child of deaf parents. ASL is a beautiful language, and becoming not only more popular today, but also more useful in social and professional settings. If you have an opportunity to learn to sign in order to connect with an in-law, as opposed to isolating them or yourself from the family functions, you should definitely do so.

Overall, the effort a partner makes to engage on equal terms with in-laws is a good predictor of whether the marriage is, or will be, merely multiracial or truly transcultural. The desire to separate oneself from in-laws or extended family can be a sign of problems down the road. It's true that some in-laws can be toxic and should probably be avoided even by the blood relative, but barring that danger, a partner's attempt to isolate a partner, spouse, or lover from their family or from other elements of their culture can be a bright red flag warning of impending abuse and toxicity. I've been blessed with wonderful in-laws who have welcomed me and shared their home, food, language, and culture with me, and I've tried to do the same for my wife, encouraging her to form relationships with my relatives. Every time I see my wife engaged with my family, I get a little choked up and think to myself, "at least they're not bothering me for a while."

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