How to Talk to Your Parents About Your Interracial Relationship
Prepare for and navigate this potentially awkward conversation using these tips.by Kelsey Yandura
For interracial couples, the whole “telling your parents about the person you’re dating” thing can be extra tricky.
Vidya Rao, an Indian American writer and editor who grew up in Minnesota, has parents who always had things to say about her dating life.
“Growing up, I went out with people of many different cultures and races, and my parents were not always accepting,” Rao said. “In fact, when I was in my 20s, they were pretty awkward and a little prejudiced. They would say, ‘Interracial relationships don’t work,’ or, ‘You’re embarrassing the family.’”
Although the number of interracial couples in the U.S. is increasing and visibility is growing in the media and advertising, one in 10 Americans still say they would oppose a close relative marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity, according to the Pew Research Center.
Even then, the other nine may have implicit biases they are unaware of. Stepping into the conversation can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield.
“There’s still a very strong norm in society to express color-blindness," said Jennifer Skinner, a psychology researcher at Northwestern University. "But many families are going to have a sort of ongoing complex relationship of navigating biases and assumptions and stereotypes they don’t even realize they have."
So, how do you prepare for and navigate this necessary, but potentially awkward, conversation?
Don’t sidestep the conversation about race
No matter how you’re afraid your parents will react, avoiding the conversation is not the answer, Rao said.
“Don’t let it be a ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ sort of thing,” she said. “If they’re surprised by the way someone looks, it will likely make them feel defensive right off the bat. It’s much better, even if it’s awkward, to have the conversation in advance.”
Sometimes, parents take it personally
Some parents see their child dating someone of a different culture or race as an act of rebellion, Rao said.
“When you find someone who’s different, your parents can think, ‘They’re so different from us. You’re ashamed of us and everything we taught you,’ and they can be hurt," she said. "Some parents may see it like, ‘Are you trying to run away?’”
Jewel Love, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Interracial Couples Counseling, said that, often, parents are trying and wanting to preserve their own culture moving forward.
“There can be disappointment when their children don’t share that goal.”
If you're concerned this might be the case with your parents, Rao recommends letting them know up front that this isn’t true. Instead, focusing on why you like this person can help them understand.
“Let them know that this isn’t a rebellion. This just makes you happy.”
Highlight the similarities
When Rao met her husband, the differences in their backgrounds were undeniable.
“On paper, where we come from is opposite in every way — he’s a white Catholic guy from Louisiana, and my family immigrated from India," she said. "My family is super liberal, and his family is hardcore Republican. My parents are pacifists, vegetarian and Hindu. They’re gun-toting hunters."
But highlighting their similarities rather than focusing on the differences helped a lot when having a conversation with her own parents.
“Maybe they’re aligned politically, or they went to the same type of college,” she said. “It’s so much about finding those little similarities that make you realize that you aren’t so different after all.”
When her parents saw similarities between themselves and her husband, Brian, they softened tremendously.
Approach with empathy and understanding
An empathetic approach to the conversation is crucial.
“It’s important to lay the groundwork for understanding and empathy if you want someone to really listen,” Love said.
He recommends making sure your parents feel heard.
“Validate their emotional and psychological landscape, and just allow that moment to happen. Let them sit in their own emotions — let them know it’s not about taking sides and that you realize they may be disappointed.”
Let the meeting do the real talking
Love explained that most parents will respond with a mixture of openness and concern, but the actual face-to-face interaction with your love interest will likely be the biggest tell.
“A conversation on the front end can be helpful, but ultimately meeting the person and interacting with the person really is what makes a significant difference," he said. "They’re no longer acting on a stereotype of a group of people, but the actual individual is going to have their own personality and quirks.”