Cultural Expeditions: Exploring Diversity Within Families

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This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned state laws prohibiting interracial marriage based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This milestone, and the compelling story of Mildred and Richard Loving is emblematic of the adversity and challenges experienced by interracial couples as well as the many opportunities for these same couples and their families. In popular and academic culture, there has been much greater attention on the former due to the historical stigma of intermarriage and the gravitation to stories of conflict over cooperation.

Couples from different cultural backgrounds who are considering a life together hear messages such as “It’s not that I’m against you marrying someone from ____, but you will have such a more difficult life.” Or the veiled disapproval framed in concern that “it’s fine unless you have children because they will be teased in school.” And yet, most intercultural couples are resilient and persist despite the social messages and challenges. These couples and families go unnoticed as they go about the daily hustle and grind of life. Their stories, the ones that are not published or reported, describe experiences of transformative growth BECAUSE OF their cross-cultural relationships and culturally blended families.

I became fascinated with the dynamics of cross-cultural relationships as an exchange student in high school (Sweden) and then as an international student at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.  In both cases, every day was filled with new adventures and excitement and yet simultaneously there was always some degree of adversity—culture shock, misunderstandings, isolation.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Although I was a student of international relations among countries, I was drawn to the ways in which cultural diversity impacted interpersonal relationships at the micro rather than the global level.[/perfectpullquote]

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, I was ecstatically running through the streets of Nairobi with thousands of university students in celebration of this seemingly impossible victory. Immediately I knew something was different about my presence (one of few women, and the only white woman) when I was asked repeatedly if I was “happy about his release.”

As an idealistic 20-year-old student who had a loud, critical voice against the apartheid regime, I had not yet begun the process of examining my various privileges. I felt confused, guilty, ashamed of my race, and also angry and betrayed that my new peers would separate me from an “other” at this historic moment. This experience had a profound impact on my perception of being different, feeling marginalized based on this difference, and how our diverse life experiences shape these perceptions. And this became the foundation of my exploration of relationships that transcend these differences.

After taking the scenic route through international careers for a decade or so, I transitioned back to school to pursue a degree in counseling. In my graduate counselor training program, there was a comparatively large focus on cultural competency in general, yet very little (if any) attention to the unique qualities of intercultural couples, multi-heritage individuals, or multicultural families despite the demographic trends in California that reflect this increasing diversity. Thus began my quest to integrate my prior graduate training in international relations with the counseling profession.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I was personally motivated, as someone in an intercultural marriage and planning to expand my family through international adoption at the time of my initial research, as well as professionally motivated to understand the clinical applications of working with this under-researched and somewhat academically invisible population.[/perfectpullquote]

I have since collected hundreds of narratives of the experiences of intercultural couples, multi-heritage individuals, and clinicians working with cultural diversity within families. Their stories reflect the rich landscape of diversity within families, including dimensions of cultural dissonance and opportunities for transformative growth found in cross-cultural interactions. There are common themes as well as idiosyncratic personal anecdotes—all of which contribute to our understanding of how individuals and couples negotiate diversity within their families.

One of the most common themes expressed by individuals in an intercultural partnership is a feeling of being an outsider. Samantha characterized this phenomenon when she visited her in-laws in Spain, “I always feel like I am at a parlor game and I am the only one who doesn’t know the rules.” And yet couples find ways to bridge the cultural chasms between each other and their respective families to create new, blended family cultures.

[bctt tweet=”Couples bridge the cultural chasms between each other and their respective families to create new, blended family cultures” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

For example, Katherine reflected that “I think we have had to discuss more because of our differences than if we were both Japanese or both white because I guess we would have just assumed that we were going to do things a certain way. It’s almost like we were liberated because the rulebooks were a little more open.” As a result of more flexible rulebooks and cultural diversity within their families, children gain cognitive flexibility and empathy. As Zinzi noted, “[our daughter] won’t have rigid beliefs about ‘this is how people are’ because she will have grandparents that are so different [from Zaire and Texas].”

Despite the focused attention in popular culture and academic/clinical research on adversity, conflict, and identity confusion “inherent” in cross-cultural relationships, there are clearly opportunities in developing through the dissonance, akin to the process of culture shock leading to cultural adaptation for those who have migrated or sojourned to another country.

As I present different aspects of my research at professional conferences, attendees often approach me afterward with some variation of, “I have a story to tell you…” or “You MUST speak with my friend/colleague/family member.”  The interest in these topics leads me to wonder if the lack of representation in our society in general and academic publishing in particular, compounded by the resonance of stories of intercultural-ness, result in a need for couples to share their own stories and continue the conversation since there are so few outlets. My hope is that this website can be one such outlet.

Please feel free to contact me at cheryl@theparentvoice.com to share your stories of cultural expeditions in relationships.


The views and opinions expressed by columnists are their own and may or may not represent those of theParentVoice.com or its team. 

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