How to Nurture Interracial Relationships
Insights from four decades of interracial marriage with Grand Guide Rebecca Young
Written By Leah Fessler, Contributing Editor, The Grand
For many Americans, especially those living in progressive coastal cities, it's hard to believe that just 52 years ago interracial marriage was illegal in much of America. Since the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that marriage across racial lines is legal nationwide, interracial marriage has steadily increased.

As of 2015, one-in-six U.S. newlyweds (17%) were married to a person of a different race or ethnicity, up from just 3% in 1967, at the time of Loving. "Among all married people in 2015 (not just those who recently wed), 10% are now intermarried – 11 million in total," Pew reports.

For Rebecca Young, age 67, legal and cultural resistance to interracial marriage isn't a figment of historical imagination — it's lived experience. Born in 1951 to a cattle ranching family in northern Nevada, the chances that Young (née Smith), would marry outside her race were slim to none.

Everyone in Young's community (a 60-mile stretch of rural dirt road passing through 10 cattle ranches) grew up, married, and died without ever leaving the region except for holidays. Besides the local Native Americans of the Shoshone tribe, everyone was very white and very politically conservative. Young learned to drive a tractor at age nine, and attended a one-room school house until sixth grade, where one teacher taught every grade; it was a converted chicken coop with no electricity, and class was regularly canceled on dark, overcast days.

After her father's sudden death when Young was just 15, tides unexpectedly began to shift. Her mother remarried an attorney with four daughters, who insisted all his children go to university out of state — which, conveniently, was Young's life-long dream. With his help, Young left Nevada and Salt Lake City (where she attended boarding high school) to enroll at Santa Clara University, in northern California. For the first time in her life, Young met and became friends with people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Soon after, Young met her husband, Arnold, a wonderful Chinese-American man, and they've now been married for 39 years.

This spring, The Grand was privileged enough to feature Young as the host for a Grand Session about interracial relationships. Our mission at The Grand is to foster the exchange of wisdom. We believe in making life experience more accessible, and sharing human knowledge across generations to enable everyone to better navigate their own journey.

We've created this guide to share the central learnings from Rebecca's session. It includes uniquely tactical advice from Young's experiences as well as from the attendees such as Dalmar Hussein, who is also in an interracial marriage.

We know their experience will never encapsulate the full range of learnings and challenges associated with interracial relationships. That's because there is no universal Interracial Relationship experience. Every person and couple is different. At The Grand we believe in highlighting individual stories as a means of holding up a mirror, and enabling you to see yourself in what feels resonant, recognize your differences where applicable, and take away any learnings or ideas that may help you going forward.

This is a living document. We'll continue to add more insights from our community as we host more sessions on this topic, and we invite you to participate in the discussion by joining a session.
Rebecca and her husband, Arnold.
1. When should we talk about race?
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One of the most frequent questions Young hears from people entering interracial relationships is when to bring racial differences up with their partner. Her answer: "Right away! Early on. It's very important to share fears, concerns, issues, and internalized racism right up front. If it had been an issue between us, then we never could have navigated it with family and friends. We always wanted to be proud and respectful of each other, and we knew we needed to be able to talk about anything."

While the argument can be made that race does not define anyone, and therefore shouldn't be an early subject of discussion, Young strongly believes that race informs a significant amount of one's identity, family culture, and traditions. Most importantly, discussing racial identities should be a thoughtful and engaging conversation — not something to dread.

In Young's experience, she and her then-boyfriend-now-husband spent their entire second date asking questions about one another's family, because they both knew that the differences between them and the way they were raised were going to pose long-term relationships challenges. "After all those questions, I joked that I must have passed the test," Young recalls.

Young's husband, Anrold, grew up in Hawaii to parents whose mother immigrated from China, and had an arranged marriage. His parents hoped he would marry a Chinese-American woman, which Young certainly was not. The only Chinese-American family in Elko, Nevada where she grew up ran the local laundry, which, as she explains, was an unfortunate stereotype that was common then. As such, she was hesitant to even mention that.

"After a lot of conversation about our families, my husband and I both realized that each of our families were really important to us. I was very close with my mom, and very grateful to my step father for him paying for me to be in college. I knew I couldn't live life without my family," Young says. "And his family is so, so close. So we decided relatively early in our relationship that we would start to talk to our families about our dating, because we knew if they weren't up for it, we couldn't continue relationship."

Thankfully for Young and her husband, these family conversations went relatively well. Such is absolutely not the case for everyone. Next are some top learnings Young extracted from talking to her parents, and her husband's.

2. How do you deal with cultural differences rooted in race?
When your racial identity is a big part of your personal and family history, it can be difficult to imagine integrating someone who doesn't share this identity into your community. Such was the case when Young's husband told his parents that he was dating a white woman from rural Nevada. And while Young's parents weren't resistant to her dating a Chinese-American man, they weren't informed about his cultural upbringing. "When we were dating after college, my mother repeatedly asked me whether he'd wear a cowboy hat or shirt," Young recalls, laughing.

According to Young, the key to these discussions is emphasizing shared values and life desires, which transcend racial groups, languages, and ethnic backgrounds. To do this, you must first get clear on what you, as an individual, want in a relationship, extended family, and your own family if you choose to have children — before you get deeply involved with another person. "Know thyself, and be clear on key life choices like how you make financial decisions, having a family, or the importance of religion, before speaking to your partner's family," says Young.

This process is essential to setting expectations and establishing conviction between you as a couple before speaking to people who are poised to assume that you're not a match.

"Beyond just asking what race means to you, at a higher level, it was important for my husband and I to ask one another what we believed in, what religion meant to us, and what we cared about doing with our lives," Young explains. "Once we figured out, 'Oh, he's from a middle class family and values hard work and getting ahead, and I'm from a middle class family and I value accountability, personal growth, and treating people kindly,' it was easy to see that our values matched. Our traditions may be different, but we come from the same values, and I can live with that."
3. How do you talk about interracial relationships with your family?
Young and her husband's alignment on values above all proved essential when they explained their relationship to their respective families. Beyond just having a conversation on their own values, they also shared what their parents' and family's value. This helped ensure they each understood the family's priorities and could highlight stories and anecdotes that demonstrated shared values.

For example, having developed and operated their own cattle ranch, Young's family was impressed to learn about the various investment properties Arnold had already purchased early in his working career and how deeply he valued financial stability and upward mobility. Early on, Arnold's aunt grilled Rebecca at a family dinner, spending an hour drilling questions about family loyalty, property ownership, and academic studies. Young emphasized her commitment to her family in Nevada, how she became one of the few women in her family to individually buy a home in her 20s, all of which impressed and aligned with her husband's family focus.

When you're really clear on your personal values, you'll never feel like you're compromising your individual identity in a cross-cultural relationship. Young explains, "For me, I really wanted to be in a relationship that was devoted, supported, and connected with my husband and his family, and my family," she says. "This meant regularly making compromises on some traditions but not on values."

For example, Young explains that she grew up in a family where, on your birthday you get to select activities and festivities. In her husband's family, where group happiness was encouraged over individual preferences, some family members felt uncomfortable selecting an activity, even on their own birthday. So, when Young's family from Hawaii visits her and her husband, she often thinks about what they'd really enjoy doing, then learned to pose two specific choices, instead of an open-ended question. "It's a small thing, but it seems to make them feel comfortable stating their preference, without feeling selfish," she says. "It's not a big deal, but it's a cultural difference around individual versus collective decision making, that I needed to learn how to adapt to."

4. How do you handle familial concerns about interracial relationships?
When having any difficult conversation with loved ones, specificity is essential to conflict mitigation. So, as a side note to emphasizing shared values, Young advises each relationship partner individually ask their parents and family what, specifically, they're worried about in their child's relationship, and how significantly different races or cultures can compound those fears.

"Ask what they are most concerned about, and get a verbal list if possible, of the issues they see as troubling," says Young. "Create several times to discuss solutions with them that you have already worked out with your partner, or eventual spouse. I found the more confident I was, the more willing they were to listen."

In Young's experience, her parents were worried about "losing" her to her husband's large family. "I became more diligent about calling them, including them in multiple conversations with my future husband and introducing him to their favorite activities," she says. "He was a good sport about trying everything, so was I with his family. It's hard for parents to negate a serious effort shown by their kids."
"When you're really clear on your personal values, you'll never feel like you're compromising your individual identity in a cross-cultural relationship."
5. What can you do to feel comfortable with your partner's family?
When you're from different cultures, behaviors and patterns that are not only normal, but also celebrated within your family culture may be off-putting, and even offensive to your partner or their family. This experience can easily feel sad or disappointing, if viewed in a pessimistic light. We all want to be ourselves, and are often disposed toward thinking our way is the best way.

In an interracial marriage, this mindset can quickly become a recipe for disaster, Young explains. The more effective and enjoyable way to approach cultural differences is to prioritize observation, curiosity, and being inquisitive above skepticism, judgement, or reckless imposition.

"I learned this while on a family vacation, when I enthusiastically shared our son had gotten straight As on his report card. Arnold's father then took me aside and told me that commenting on the success of our son's report card was considered bragging and not appropriate to share with the entire extended family. I was surprised at first because I had grown up celebrating accomplishments, but then after reflecting I understood the welfare and unity of his entire family is valued over individual achievement," says Young.

After recognizing this difference, I became more thoughtful about my mode of expression. She viewed the experience as an opportunity to learn more about a different culture, and celebrate what made her husband who he is.

"The best way to frame this is curiosity," says Young. "Stay curious about all the rituals and traditions that are different than those of your own family. Avoid judgement about their values, have thoughtful intention, and assume they are valuable and good to understand if they are practiced by your partner's family. Ask him or her how important they are to follow in your joint life together. Make it clear you are enthusiastic about the learning process. You value them enough to make the time to learn. Find out who, in his or her family, knows the most about them, what is key in doing them right if you are going to include them in your life."

6. What does "being curious" look like in real life?
Rebecca with her mother-in-law. "Who would have guessed I'd be married to a wonderful Chinese American for 39 years. Or that my mother-in-law would have picked out our wedding date after visiting her Temple," Young reflects. "She said that just one day that year, June 15, was lucky. She has never been wrong."
Here are two seemingly small, but resonant examples of what it looks like to stay curious (rather than upset, confused, or defensive) in Young's interracial relationship:

When Young's father-in-law passed, she wanted to honor him by looking respectful at his funeral. She bought a new black dress and shoes, but soon found out that in his culture, to be respectful she needed to wear white (a mourning color), and no jewelry or make-up. That's exactly what she did.

When Young and her husband's child was two years old, they traveled from California to Hawaii for a large Young-family event. "About 14 of us were gathered around my mother's [in-law] table, for a special Chinese event with all of the food being very specific to Chinese culture," Young recalls. "It was different vegetables, meats, and preparations than I'd ever seen in my life. It was Chinese village food, which is celebration food, and very special."

Upon finding her seat, Young spotted a bowl of pasta next to her plate.

"At that time, my mother in law wasn't very vocal, like my mom, about how she cared for us. And yet, that day she made me feel very loved and cared for as well as she made certain I didn't go hungry if I didn't like the food she's prepared," Young reflects. "So you know what I did? I shared the pasta with others, and ate everything that everyone else did."

Whereas some people might feel alienated by this gesture, or question their mother-in-law's incentives, Young felt absolutely loved.

"It took her extra effort and time to fix more food for me," says Young. "I didn't take offense to that because I know how hard cooking for 14 people is, and then to make something extra for one other person who might go hungry is just extremely kind."

This mindset shift is the epitome of being curious and attentive. Practice assuming positive will, rather than judgmental, of cultural differences, she explains.

7. What do you do if your parents don't approve of your interracial relationship?
Young is the first to admit that she had it far easier than many biracial families do when it comes to parental support. Nor is she hesitant to admit that the minor skin color difference between her, as a white woman, and her husband, as a Chinese-American man, played a factor in this relative ease.

Still, she emphasizes that parental disapproval poses a choice that the couple, as individuals and a collective, need to answer and understand fully. She suggests couples start by thinking deeply about what their whole lives will look like down each path. Have an honest, open, and loving, conversation about how your lives together might deviate from your original expectations. With that picture painted, then decide as a couple if you want to disregard your family's disapproval, and continue the relationship anyway?

If the answer is yes, and you decide you cannot live without your partner then that is saying that your love is more important than staying close to your parents. If you do this, regardless of the resistance, keep reaching out to your parents on a regular basis, says Young. "Send photos, talk about good experiences the two of you share. Perspectives can shift," she says. "One friend I know was disowned for many years for marrying out of his race. His parents eventually reunited with him and his family—true perseverance that paid off for all."
Aditi, Dalmar, and their dog, Goose.
For The Grand commmunity member, Dalmar Hussein, whois of Ethiopian descent and was raised Muslim. His wife, Aditi, is Indian and was brought up to be agnostic. When they first mentioned one another to their parents, the disapproval was a prominent and undeniable reality.

"By the point Aditi and I were seriously dating, my dad had been deceased for a number of years," Hussein explains. "My mother took it upon herself to ensure that there was a proper passage of cultural memories, beliefs, and rituals to myself and my sisters. So when I said I was going to marry someone who didn't have same set of beliefs—she's not Muslim, isn't Ethiopian-Somali, doesn't speak Somali, and wouldn't naturally be carrying on those traditions—it became a point of concern to my mom."

Much like Young, Hussein overcame this skepticism by highlighting the consistencies and overlaps between his wife's and mother's values. "We met as young kids and dated in middle school," he told his mother (true story!). "We had a strong sense of continuity and shared experiences growing and maturing. Aditi was someone I trusted and had built a life with [over 10 years]. So there were more answers and certainties than question marks for my mother."

As much as Hussein's mother empathized with this approach, as a deeply religious person, she held values aside from her own religion—Hussein made it clear that he would never ask his wife to become a Muslim.

Over time, the most impactful strategy Hussein and his wife established to win over their parents' trust and acceptance didn't focus on big conversations about religion and philosophy — it was the adoption of small rituals.

"My mother loves to cook, and while Aditi wasn't familiar with her recipes, she made an effort to stay in the kitchen, help, and learn from my mother as much as she could," says Hussein. "It's difficult to overstate how meaningful this was to my mom."

Hussein, on the other hand, was nothing of a card player, but his wife's family absolutely adored long, intense card games — it was one of the primary ways they bonded and shared time together. "Even though I'm super bad at cards, I plugged myself in, and they'd make fun of me a ton, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Over time, it broke the ice."

Over time, shared values that may not have initially seemed obvious between Hussein's mother and his wife came into focus. Hussein's parents raised him and his sisters internationally across six countries while growing up, and attending international schools until they went to college.

"So when it came to explaining my decision to partner with Aditi, it was made all the easier by appealing to my mom's value of giving children a global cultural experience — 'internationalism,' so to speak," he explains. "Connecting our relationship to the upbringing her and my father wanted for my sisters and I allowed her to trace a line between the upbringing they chose for us, their beliefs about interconnectedness, and the interracial and intercultural relationship that I ultimately decided to build with Aditi."

8. How do you talk to your future kids about being biracial?
Childhood photos of Shaun (Rebecca and Arnold's son) and Rebecca.
If there's one point Young wants to clarify about raising children in a biracial family, it's that there's no single best way to do it. This process absolutely must be customized to the family, their values, and their needs.

That being said, much like the importance of vocalizing values early-on in dating, partners are smart to discuss and agree on key child-rearing guidelines before getting pregnant. "For example, no hitting or spanking for bad behavior. No demeaning in public. And you don't have to do necessarily what your parents did," says Young, reflecting on her own guidelines.

Beyond the basics, Young believes most essential element of raising biracial children is ensuring these children are aware and proud of both family's history and traditions.

"When we went to my hometown in Nevada, people were watching us, and we were different," Young recalls, of her husband, son, and herself. "And it's not that we were treated unkindly, we were just a novelty."

It often happened in places less used to seeing a biracial couple. For example, when Young's son was age six, he was obsessed with Magic Johnson and wore his jersey when the family visited the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. "We were eating at a diner, and several people were just staring at us," she explains. "There were no other non-white people around."

Young's son asked her, whether everyone was staring at him because they also really love Magic Johnson. Given his age and innocence, she said "Yes, I really think that's it," but remembered to bookmark the experience, so to explain the racial dynamics later on.

And once her son was a bit older, conversations about race were common and welcome. "We always focused on talking about the successes of our families, and what they did accomplish," says Young:

"While we touched on issues tied to race, we really emphasized the common thread

between our elders, which is that they were all very good people. My mother-in-law

raised seven children, and they're all married, successful, with happy and healthy children. There are 44 of us in the immediate family, and every one of us feels special in her eyes. That's what you talk about.

Sure, you can talk about fun traditions of making sushi or fried rice or whatever, but I think the most important thing is to actively incorporate both traditions in everything we do. We had traditions from both families on every holiday. We talked a lot about all the things that happened in my and my husband's family growing up, and we spent time with both families frequently."

As impactful as this approach is, biracial children are bound to face difficult experiences deserving of conversation that can be eased by open and candid conversation with their parents before, during and when it happens. One strategy Young advises is having a short conversation every night with your child about something that happened that day.

"My son was very observant of reactions to him from a very early age," she explains. "So when we talked at night, our conversations transitioned from 'I lost my lunch box' to perceived discrimination." The key, says Young, is ensuring your child knows you are open to communicate about any topic, regardless of how it might make you feel.

Interracial relationships are complex. Here are more tips that resonated with us:
Frequently vocalize the specific things you love about one another.

Every relationship is complicated and difficult at times, and when you're from drastically different cultures, tension can amplify. One of the easiest ways to mitigate relationship tension on a regular basis is to know what you love about your partner as a human being, and vocalize it often, says Young. Hussein and his wife Aditi have formalized this process by carving out a few minutes every night to share one "happy thing" they like about one another. It could be as small as "I loved how you knew I didn't want to clean the dishes tonight," or as big as "you're the best mother I've ever met."

Create a support plan in advance of conflict.

Mitigating tension in a heated moment is difficult for everyone. One of the best ways to sustain a loving and supportive relationship long-term is learning how to support one another during intense times, says Young: "Always discuss in advance when you are calm what you will need when you are on edge. My husband and I need very different support when each of us are stressed, and that's okay."

Invest the time to understand your partner's family history.

At the end of the day, the only thing most families want is for their children to be happy and supported, and for their family traditions to live on. When your child marries someone of a different racial or ethnic background, the survival of your culture can seem like it's threatened. It doesn't have to be.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to communicate your investment in perpetuating family history is making the effort to know specific details about your in-laws' family history and traditions, says Young. Drawing a family tree together and acknowledging the cultural values of each generation is a great place to start. "My in-laws appreciated my knowing which Uncle was the eldest in the family, and each of his kids' names, for example," says Young.

Reach out solo on important dates

As an extension of knowing your partner's family history, Hussein strongly suggests sitting down with your partner and creating a shared list of all the most important dates for each family, including birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths. When these days roll around, rather than calling together as a couple, each partner should individually call the affected family member or in-law.

"For example, my wife's mother had a dog that she absolutely adored, which passed away suddenly," says Dalmar. "Every year when the anniversary of her dog's passing comes, I message her on my own rather than with Aditi, telling her I'm thinking about her and Pico, and hope she's doing okay. It goes a long way."

How do you nurture interracial relationships?
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