After the inundation of additional tragic deaths of Black bodies in America (i.e. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery) and the Black Lives Matter movement advocating for racial justice this year—many people including those in interracial relationships found themselves thrust into discussing racial injustice for the first time. Intimate partners play a significant role when it comes to providing emotional support in the relationship and how one validates, affirms, acknowledges and comforts their partner when experiencing race-related trauma, stress, discrimination and microaggressions is vital to mitigating mental health-related symptoms ( Carter & Sant-Barket, 2015; Khaylis, Waelde, & Brice, 2007; Pieterse et al., 2010). For this reason, the way couples empathize, validate and provide support to one another around racial injustices; race-based traumatic and stressful microaggressive experiences in society is essential in 2020 and beyond ( Carter, 2007; Currie et al., 2013; Flores et al., 2010; Torres & Taknint, 2015). Thus, the research question for this study was: how do partners of the same racial identity groups;different minoritized racial identity groups;and of Caucasian (White)identity support their partners of color differently when said partner experiences something that they perceive as racist? The hypothesis was that couples of the same racial identity group will know how to support each other best, while partners from other minoritized racial identities will support each other but still lack understanding and ways to respond that are validating and affirming; while White partners will attempt to support their partners but will become defensive during the subsequent discussions around race ( DiAngelo, 2018). The researchers explored the following variables: 1) Racial identity combination of the couple; 2) Level of support and understanding that is presented when one of the partners’ in the relationship experiences race-related discrimination. In addition, based on the results from this study recommendation for couples’ therapists who are providing therapeutic services to interracial couples navigate through these nuanced interpersonal dynamics in today’s society will be explored utilizing Critical Race Theory tenets.
Terminology used in the article:
Intra-racial: This term means of the same race. Throughout the study, the term same-race will be used interchangeably with intra-racial only so that it is not confused with interracial.
Racial identity combination: This is how the racial identity of a couple will be referred to in this study. An example of a racial identity combination would be inter-racial couple including one white partner and one Black partner.
Holding space: This is a clinical term that will be used to describe a form of responding to someone, who is sharing their lived experience, with intent curiosity and absent of the need to insert one’s own knowledge or opinions, which may invalidate or make assumptions about the other person’s experience.
2. Literature Review
There has been a rise over the past two decades in the amount of research being published pertaining to interracial couples and the issues that are unique to them ( Killian, 2012; Lawton et al., 2013; Osuji, 2014). Although research is beginning to give additional visibility to interracial couples, research has not explored the ways in which they are able to support each other when one partner deals with racism, compared to the way intra-racial couples do. In 2014, Ingram & Chaudhary’s (2014) study sought to better understand the ways that interracial couples raise and teach their children to understand their biracial identity. The study revealed that most interracial couples teach their children to embrace their biracial identity, though many students report that they wish they were taught more about their multiple cultures and race relations so they would know what to expect from society and be prepared to defend themselves ( Ingram & Chaudhary, 2014). That following year, a research study by Annamaria Csizmadia contradicted part of Ingram’s research and revealed that biracial children often identify with one race more than the other, as determined by the racial consciousness of the Black parent ( Csizmadia et al., 2014). It was also discovered that “relative to their biracial and Black-identified peers, White-identified biracial children were less likely to have frequent discussions about ethnic-racial heritage” ( Csizmadia et al., 2014: 259). These articles highlight some of the ambiguity and potential conflict that interracial couples face while racially socializing their children as an interracial couple. Another critical factor of parenting that often hinges on culture is education and the choices that impact the educational opportunities of the couple’s children. Lawton et al.’s (2013) article explored the different ways that interracial couples negotiate this crucial decision. Throughout the study, it was realized that three components of this decision stuck out among the rest, “a) distinct attitudes about the meaning of a good education, b) distinct identification priorities depending on their particular minority background, and c) the influence of intersecting factors such as generational variables related to socioeconomic status, immigrant background, and individual and partner conflict resolution style preferences” ( Lawton et al., 2013: p. 215). The research suggests that being in an interracial relationship actually “mitigates stringent educational attitudes found within each culture and works against racist attitudes for the most part” ( Lawton et al., 2013: p. 233). Also, while being female is a disadvantage in most social settings, motherhood was found to be highly valued in educational decisions ( Lawton et al., 2013).
The second phase of this research centered on exploring the aspects of interracial relationships which differ from those of homogenous couples. The recurring theme throughout the research is that external, social stigma is the biggest source of discomfort and conflict for interracial couples. Leslie & Young’s (2015) research study sought to distinguish and highlight relationship issues that are unique to interracial relationships versus those that are common to all relationships. Issues that were found to be unique to interracial couples included the couple’s current social context (how society’s response to the relationship impacts them), social support (or lack thereof due to bigotry), racial privilege (the vastly different ways that each partner was treated in society), racial histories (and the differing worldviews that stem from them), microaggressions (and the lack of recognition and validation of them) and a couple other similar issues (2015). In line with the same theme, Singla & Holm’s (2012) study surveyed married couples in Denmark where one partner identified as Dane and one as South Asian. The study’s findings indicated that family, personal and internal aspects of the relationship intersect with external aspects like society’s acceptance of the relationship. The authors encourage intermarried couples to seek counseling to help navigate through social issues that they face.
Studies of interracial couples from other countries, like Singla’s, add an important lens to the data on the topic. Additionally, what is fascinating to researchers in the United States is when a study compares the experiences of interracial couples in another country to similar couples in America. Osuji (2014) does just that in his research study. In this study, Osuji analyzed “87 interviews with individuals in black-white couples in Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro to examine the cultural repertoires and discursive traditions they draw on to understand white families’ reactions to black spouses” ( Osuji, 2014: p. 93). It was observed that couples in America use the concept of “color-blindness” to cope with the racism that they face as a result of their interracial relationships, while Brazilian couples experience more overt racism and race-based humor. When the male was Black identified in both countries, couples faced more opposition, which was attributed to white male privilege; in that white men are granted the autonomy to be with any type of woman they choose ( Osuji, 2014). The study reveals that racial mixing may not be a viable solution to improving race relations ( Osuji, 2014).
Most interracial couples when interviewed express that within their home, they interact and live life just like same-race couples ( Killian, 2012). Killian’s (2012) study revealed that interracial couples routinely report, during qualitative interviews, that race only becomes relevant between them when they are reminded of it in public situations. This is consistent with all of the research that has been discussed. The finding in this study that was unique and an important caution to researchers pursuing this topic is that the uniformed assertion by all of the couples that race makes no difference for them can potentially be attributed to a defense mechanism possessed by interracial couples that compels them to protect their relationship from outsiders who assume that their differing races equate to strife or incompatibility between them. The article concludes with suggestions for best practices when treating interracial couples, “Regarding best practices, there are at least three factors to assess when interracial couples come to your door: 1) the partners’ levels of racial awareness and sensitivity, 2) how they negotiate or work through difference, and 3) what is their narrative about race” ( Killian, 2012: 133).
This research is beneficial for clinicians who may have clients within this population. When it comes to couples in general, not just interracial couples, researchers have come up with a systematic approach that can help couples identify each other’s goals and expectations between one another. They found that when couples complete the 4 Factor Goal Support System (4FGS) that they have developed, it produced better communication amongst each other and increased the level of support within their relationship. “This technique is also used to help identify the level of support your partner gives to you when he or she meets seemingly insurmountable obstacles or roadblocks when working on growth goals” ( Hydock & Eckstein, 2006). Additionally, an area that was measured is how each partner perceived the level of support from their spouse for his or her own personal goals.
There has been a rise in literature, explaining the unique challenges faced by interracial couples. The article, “But will it last?”:Marital Instability Among Interracial and Same-Race Couples, written by Bratter and King (2008), suggests that crossing racial lines still violates enduring norms of who should and should not be married. Although research suggested that interracial couples endure stigma, there hasn’t been any research that fully examines whether their interracial relationship caused them higher divorce rates than that of same-race marriages. Bratter and King used the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (Cycle VI), to compare the likelihood of divorce rates for interracial couples to that of same-race couples. Data reveals that overall, interracial couples have higher rates of divorce, giving focus to those married in the late 1980s. They were able to see a variation in race and gender as well. For example, White/White couples, White female/Black male, and White Female/Asian male marriages were more susceptible to divorce. Those who were non-White females and White males and Latinx and non-Latinx persons had similar or lower risks of divorce ( Bratter & King, 2008).
According to the article “Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic, and Interfaith Relationships”, interracial couples can be successful when it comes to supporting each other’s identity if they are willing to put in a little work. Joel Crohn, Ph.D., promotes successful building of relationships between persons with different backgrounds ( Hai-Jew, 1995). Crohn believes that interracial couples can be successful if they deal with their differences, and if each partner fully understands their own culture and background as well as being open to learning about their partners. Crohn states that “an individual who has worked through ambivalence towards his/her own identity may be a strong partner”. This study highlights the importance of the responsibility of individuals being introspective in order to be successful and open minded when involved in an interracial commitment.
While the literature has increased when it comes to studying interracial couples and raced related challenges (i.e. raising multiracial children; protective factors; and navigating stigma etc.) there is still a dearth in the literature that specifically explores how various racial minoritized couples both inter and intra-racially in the United States support the other partner when it comes to race-related discrimination, stress and trauma utilizing a critical race theoretical lens. Thus, necessitating the importance and relevance of the current study.
3. Conceptual Framework
For this study, the researchers utilized Critical Race Theory (CRT) to interpret, analyze the data collected, and provide recommendations to clinicians working with interracial couples. This theory was selected because it centralizes the concept of racism as an institutional barrier that impacts all of society in both overt but mainly covert ways ( Solorzano, 1998). This part of the theory is vital because the purpose of the research is not to call out or demonize individuals, but rather to highlight another way that racism impacts a large population of people, of all races and how shows up in the relationship among interracial couples. An additional tenant of CRT that was utilized to conceptualize the research data is the concept of intersectionality, the recognition of people having multiple identities that intersect in relation to the ways which privilege and oppression operates within systems and institutions. The final component of CRT that is crucial to this research is its inherent obligation for researchers to utilize the theory to eliminate “racial oppression as a broad goal of ending all forms of oppression” ( Solorzano, 1998).
4. Research Methodology
Participants (n = 48) were eligible to participate in this study if they were at least 18 years of age and identify as being in an intimate relationship. The individual also had to be in a relationship which included at least one partner who identifies as a racial ethnic minority. Individuals/couples were eligible to participate in this study if they are at least 18 years of age and identify as being in a relationship. The individual also had to be in a relationship which included at least one partner who identifies as an ethnic minority. Participants engaged in the study initially received the anonymous survey once they agreed to participate. Participants answered 33 semi-structured questions, which took 10 - 15 minutes to complete.
4.2. Data Collection
Upon receiving the anonymous survey participants answered 33 questions, which took approximately 10 - 15 minutes to complete. This form of data collection was utilized in order to promote honest and authentic answers to the questions. Researchers believed that having them do this on their own rather in person conducted by a research team member might influence or skew the participants’ responses to the questions. Once participants completed the survey, they clicked the word done to conclude their participation in the study. There was no compensation or incentives offered to participants and no deception involved in this study. The data collection occurred by way of a self-administered, electronic survey via Qualtrics. It comprised of 33 questions designed to capture a comprehensive and representative picture of the beliefs regarding whether or not having a partner who is within your own racial group is a protective factor for coping with racism. The researchers selected the participants based on depth and breadth of their answers to the questions. The survey sought to explore whether the belief of verbalized support and understanding is correlated with race.
4.3. Sampling Method
Participants in the study were recruited via social media platforms (Facebook and Instagram) and emails using an anonymous online survey (i.e. Qualtrics) via snowball sampling.
4.4. Method of Analysis
Researchers analyzed the responses given by participants coupled with their demographic information. No identifiable information was collected during this study. Thus, the anonymous data was used for analysis and was stored via Qualtrics. Data was analyzed by both researchers through coding and categorizing to identify themes and patterns that emerged through an iterative process.
Of the (n = 48) participants, 37 identified as being female, while 10 identified as being male and one participant identified as being gender non-conforming. Additionally, of the participants, 14 reported being in a relationship with a female partner and 34 reported being in a relationship with a male partner. When it came to race, 26 participants identified as being in an interracial relationship, while 22 participants identified as being in a relationship with a member of their own race, giving the researchers a near even number off examples between participants along the main distinction of the study. The survey allowed for participants to racially identify as “mixed” and specify all the races that they are mixed with, but did not allow for them to specify the specific ratio of each race that they are mixed with. This was done for the purpose of recognizing diversity within individuals, but while the information would have been useful and interesting, getting into percentages of each race within an individual would have made the data too difficult to operationalize.
The ethnic makeup of the participants was diverse, yet the majority (29) of the people who responded either identified as Latinx or mixed with Latinx. The results collected provided a substantial representation (9) of people who identified as being “mixed” or multiracial. What was most important to the racial identities of participants was not the race that they themselves identified as, but the combination of their identity and the identity of their partner. The racial combinations were as follows: (1) Mixed and Armenian couple, (4) Black and Black couples, (2) Black and Latinx couples, (3) Mixed and Black couples, (1) Black and “Other” couple, (1) Black and Pacific Islander couple, (11) Latinx and Latinx couples, (4) Mixed and Latinx couples, (10) Latinx and white couples, (1) Mixed and Asian couple, (1) Mixed and Mixed couple who self-identified as same-race, (4) Mixed and Mixed couple who self-identified as interracial, (3) Mixed and white couples, (1) white and other couple, and (1) Latinx and Pacific Islander couple.
The study compared the levels of support between the 14 couples; the 16 couples who are with partners of their same-race and the 18 couples who identify as being interracial. When it came to sexual orientation and gender identity, four participants were part of same-sex couples, three of those four identified as being interracial and their racial identity combinations as couples were (1) Black and Pacific Islander couple, (1) white and mixed couple and (1) Black and “other” couple while one same-race lesbian couple had the racial identity combination of Latinx. One participant identified as being part of a gay couple who identified the racial identity of he and his partner as Latinx and white. Lastly, one participant identified as being gender nonconforming and in a relationship with a female and reported that they were both Latinx. Therefore, forty-two of the participants were part of heterosexual partnerships and six participants were part of LGBTQ+ partnerships.
The data shows that white participants reported that they talk about race less often, proportionally, than any other race in the study. Table 1 also shows that among racial groups with a sample size of at least five, people who identify as Black talk about race at least five times a month at a higher rate than white, Latinx or “mixed” participants. This may be an indicator of what groups are reminded of their racial identity by society most often. For each response that was coded within a supportive category, respondents received one point for a score between zero and four points. Once each survey was scored on this scale, the researchers grouped the scores of respondents with the same racial identity combinations and found the average of those scores. Once the averages were calculated, each racial identity combination was ranked, based on average score, against all other racial identity combinations. The following Table 2 represents these results.
Because the study did not set out to compare different racial identity combinations within same-race couples and interracial couples, but instead to compare couples of the same race versus interracial couples including partners from different minority races versus interracial couples including white partners, the researchers had to place the 15 different racial identity combinations into those three categories. The results of the updated comparison are represented in Table 3.
Table 1. How often participants talked about race based on their own race? Race identification.
Table 2. Average support score and score ranking of all respondents with the same racial identity combination.
Table 3. Average support score and score ranking of all respondents with the same racial identity combination category.
While the final results of the study do support the initial hypothesis, further research remains necessary. The way that the different types of couples’ racial identity categories ranked was what the researchers’ hypothesized, which said that couples of the same race will know how to support each other best, while partners from different minoritized racial groups will support each other but still lack in-depth understanding which can in turn result in having conflicting views, while White partners will attempt to support their partners but may become defensive, dismissive (including minimization of the experiences), rescue or anxious during subsequent discussions around racial encounters.
6. Discussion and Recommendations
The secondary trauma that can come from receiving skepticism and doubt after sharing details of one’s traumatic, lived experience based on who they are racially can be incredibly painful—especially when received from their intimate partner. When the person causing the secondary trauma is the person who you go to for emotional support only exacerbates the emotional and psychological pain. Not being believed by one’s partner is clearly devastating and soul wounding. Interracial couples that included a White identified partner reported having supportiveness in these scenarios roughly 38% of the time. In addition, other responses from White identified partners in situations of distress from perceived racism by the other partner can cause damage in more insidious ways in the relationship. Being able to pick up on what one partner needs from the other in a given moment is built through trust and consistency which enhances intimacy in the relationship. The ability to hold space and be supportive when a partner is processing race-related traumatic experiences is not only vital but necessary. Partners who have processed their own racial identity, for example, “What does it mean to be a Black man in America?”, are able to more easily relate to and understand their same-race partner’s experience, whether their partner is a Black man, a Black woman, or a Black gender nonconforming individual. Similarly, interracial couples including two different racial/ethnic minoritized identities, although not able to identify with the same racial identity of their partner, were similarly able to identify with processing their own minoritized identity (i.e. drawing from their own experiences with racial discrimination); and support their partner at a moderate level in comparison to other racial identity couple combinations. As stated in the literature, Singla & Holm’s (2012) study encourages interracial couples to seek counseling to help navigate through the unique social issues that they face. The question then becomes, “Will the clinician be socially aware and competent enough,in addition to their skills in assisting couples with conflict resolution,to help a couple navigate this complex and challenging issue?”This study stops short of creating evidence-based practices or clinical interventions for clinicians who treat couples who have tension between them when talking about their experiences with racial discrimination, notably when the offender is a member of one’s intimate partner’s racial identity group.
As indicated in the results, the researchers discussed a coding decision with categories that were not chosen as being supportive responses, which may come across as confusing to some readers. The two examples given were, “Othering the offender (using phrases like ‘They’don’t know any better’)”or “Giving partner firm instructions (using phrases like ‘Ignore them’or ‘Don’t let them affect you’)”.Critical Race Theory tells us that racism is structural and pervasive due to white supremacy and therefore in order for a response to a partner who has perceived that they have faced discrimination based on race, a supportive partner would understand the magnitude of the offense and how impactful it could be on the psyche. Thus, counter-narratives become important to ensure that couples are centering the partner’s lived experience with racial oppression and discrimination. Supportive partners must also be aware of and sensitive to the buildup of “minor” racist offenses (i.e. known as microaggressions) and would be able to properly hold space for their partner in a difficult moment. In moments like these, getting all the facts, disparaging the offender or springing into action is rarely a more effective way to comfort loved ones than hearing them out and expressing empathy. Also, research tells us that a common response in these situations for couples in America is to use the concept of color-blindness to cope with the racism that they face as a result of their interracial relationships ( Osuji, 2014). Responses that were coded as “Colorblind perspective” were not coded as supportive responses either because they invalidate the lived experience of people who identify as ethnic minorities. Even if both partners subscribe to colorblind ideology, the researchers chose to discount such forms of support because within the framework of Critical Race Theory, they show a lack of social awareness, which is a component of properly supporting your partner. “This theoretical framework (Critical Race Theory) reveals how the dominant ideology of color blindness and race neutrality act as a camouflage for the self-interest, power, and privilege of dominant groups in American society” ( Parker & Villalpando, 2007). Even if both partners were not aware of the harm being caused, support in the form of promoting the dominant culture’s ideologies to pacify the feelings of a member of a minoritized culture was not viewed in this study as being supportive or holding space.
In addition, in accordance to CRT tenets the clinician(s) would benefit from engaging and working with interracial (i.e. one of a minoritized identity group) couples in the following five ways: 1) They must be aware of their own racial identity and how it relates to systems of racism an oppression. 2) White presenting or passing clinicians must discuss and check their biases in the space so as to not align with or over identify with the White partner in the relationship. This entails the clinician to actively address their positionality rooted in “whiteness” in the space, because their clients are already thinking about it and how it impacts the work they are doing with couple in couples’ therapy. 3) The goals for the clinician is to be able to separate their own views and opinions enough to be effective in staying focused on the couples’ beliefs, dynamics, and mainly facilitating the session given the nuanced dynamics. 4) The clinician must actively name racist, discriminatory, oppressive practices and microaggressive experiences that are disclosed during the couples’ therapy sessions. 5) By doing so the therapist affirms the experiences of the partner who has the racialized identity and models for the other partner of a dominate racial identity on how to validate, acknowledge and honor their partner’s experiences without questioning, denying or rescuing them.
7. Limitations and Conclusion
The number of participants overall seemed to be sufficient to make comparisons between same-race and interracial couples, however, we did not collect a sufficient representation of each of the other various racial/ethnicity groups. This was not detrimental to the data since the research question was not exploring which types of interracial couples were most supportive, but instead grouped all non-white interracial couples together and all interracial couples that included a white partner together. Race is, and for the foreseeable future, will be a challenging topic to discuss with anyone. Ideally, we would like for our intimate partners to be able to hold space and be supportive in conversations about race, especially when we feel we have been discriminated against. Yet this study has shown that, on average, even the racial identity category of couples who were most successful in this study’s measurement, same-race couples, were able to support and hold space in just over half the situations that were inquired about. Interracial couples including two different ethnic minorities scored moderately between the two racial identity combinations. The authors believe that all racial identity combinations of couples would benefit from learning how to better support their partners when it comes to racial discrimination and miroaggressive experiences.
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