& mixing

New perspectives on mixed-race Britons

A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007

Ethnic Intermarriage: Love is not enough (Bina Radia-Bond, University of London)
18 August 2007

Ethnic Intermarriage: Love is not enough

Posted on: Saturday 18 August 2007

Bina Radia-Bond

Bina Radia-Bond

Mixed relationships are indubitably a rising global trend. Britain has the highest rate in Europe. This should not, however, be taken as a utopian move towards the romantic blurring of ethnic boundaries: the majority of people are still most comfortable with a partner who shares their cultural background and social history.

Of the 10.3 million marriages at the time of the 2001 census, only 219,000 (2%) were inter-ethnic. Within this, there is notable variance, which highlights the different levels of acceptance of exogamous relations amongst ethnic groups that is often, but not always, guided by religious and cultural differences; (e.g. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are considerably less likely than Chinese or African-Caribbean communities to accept intermarriage involving a White partner).

Defiance of ethnic expectations, could lead to ostracism and a withdrawal of familial, cultural and social support for the couple and their future family. But, when you've 'fallen in love', does all that really matter? My research with parents from a variety of backgrounds in ethnic intermarriages, which was inspired by own experiences, illuminates the challenges of the realities of these still anomalous unions.

Behind closed doors

Mutual attraction or love is important in any marriage (at least by Western measures); social class facilitates mobility of the couple and family within external social structures, but it is naïve to presume that these evaporate behind closed doors: the social, cultural, racial and ethnic tensions may loosen their grip, but they do not fade away in a haze of romantic love.

The realities are accentuated when the children's skin tones vary (from the parents' and each others') and their external experiences are differentiated accordingly; (e.g. the fairer children being subjected to less racism; the darker Asian/White children being belittled for not observing/ knowing cultural traditions and speaking their 'mother tongue', when none such is expected of their fairer siblings). The culture of the home can inadvertently reinforce these hegemonies, particularly if aspects of either parent's cultural dimensions are suppressed (even if willingly), if they do not correspond with prevailing social dictates.


Language, for example, is not only a significant part of our cultural identity; it is, I argue, the only medium through which our emotional pulse can be felt. These sentiments were echoed by the Minority parents in my study, who strongly affiliated with their cultural identity through their heritage language, but did not share this with their spouse or children.

Of the many Mixed (Asian/White) families I approached (admittedly within a predominantly White borough in Hertfordshire), only one (so far) comprises bilingual children! Parents' explanations centre on rifts from their own family; geographic distancing (imposed or self-selected) from coethnics and discouragement or disinterest from health visitors; doctors and schools or simply that there was no apparent benefit in the children's bilingualism, which could, on the contrary, have held them back at school!

With no interest or encouragement by the English-speaking spouse either, the task, single-handed, is impossible. The result - monolingual children of a bilingual parent - is an unnavigable cultural and emotional chasm between one's own children. This reveals itself as children reach adolescence and struggle to negotiate their own place in the wider social and cultural landscape outside the familiarity of the home.

They may recognise the communities to which they may belong as their birthright, but with which they cannot participate fully as they lack the linguistic tools. For the parent, it is a painful closure of a vital cultural dimension in their lives, of which their children can never be part. One of my respondents articulated what this meant to him:

"I know my other friends who are Mixed and have taken the trouble of speaking their language, whatever, I haven't, it was so much easier to just speak in English. And as a result they really don't know who I am"

I share the unique sense of isolation that this statement inheres, despite enjoying a very close and deeply affectionate relationship with my own children.

The rare achievement of the one Mixed bilingual family (all except the English father) is explained by the relentless determination and sheer stubbornness of the mother from the outset and her self-confidence in being able to rebut doubts from her husband and objections by teachers. Her inspiration and strength stemmed from the support and input from her own strong family base. The fruit of her perseverance is visible in the children's supreme confidence and unquestioned sense of belonging in both their linguistic and cultural communities (and their academic excellence). The proudest promoter of the children's bilingualism is their dad!

The unsurpassed reward, however, is in the undisguised mutual affection between the son and his maternal grandfather, who sits detachedly and quietly in the company of monolingual English speakers, but explodes into incessant, jovial chatter with his grandson as soon as he enters the room! Both revel in each other's company and share a closeness that epitomises the enviable essence of 'family' that would be lost in any attempt to translate to another language. It is this privilege of being a living part of the entirety of one's rich cultural heritage that is unwittingly withdrawn, when potentially-bilingual Mixed children are only facilitated to access one of their linguistic channels.

There are more than two people in a marriage

Even though couples may steadfastly claim that 'marriage is between individuals', their families, together with their long cultural heritages, become de facto (even if silent) bedfellows! Their indelible influence will inevitably manifest itself in the fabric of the unique culture that will synthesise in the couple's own home, informing big and small decisions from daily, mundane practices; choice of parenting styles to aspirations for their children - and their preferred marriage partners.

Marriage is the constant negotiation of choices and compromises, which increase tenfold in an ethnic intermarriage and multiply further, with the arrival of children. It requires daily combined effort in the preparation and constant nurturing of a solid and reliable base, from which the children eventually springboard to pursue their own dreams.

The stability of the base is strengthened by a criss-crossing of contribution from each parent, which must have equal value and importance. If one is lauded and used exclusively and the other relegated, the structure is compromised and the children are likely to fall through the resultant gaps. A consistent sentiment from every parent in my study is that intermarriage is sheer hard work, with a bigger emotional price to pay for those cut off from their cultural networks! Love simply makes it temporarily bearable.

About the author

Bina Radia-Bond isa PhD Student at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Thank you for the signposting to Parveen’s resources, Ashley; this is much appreciated.

David: Thank you for sharing your experiences, with which I have much empathy. I do like the point you’ve raised that the additional dimensions of the different communities and families that have to be negotiated enforce a focus on the content and direction of the couple’s relationship: this highlights – and strengthens - the things you might have in common (e.g. humour; politics, etc) and introduces diversity to synthesise into your own home culture (e.g. food; music; traditions and practices). When each partner’s contribution is valued equally, both are enriched with privileged insights into different worldviews to which they would otherwise not have had such personal access. From my own experience, which is endorsed by that of some of my respondents who are in Asian/White relationships, I would identify Language as the portal into the cultural dimensions. Whilst I have not, as yet, met any White partners who have committed to learning the heritage language of their partner and can cannot, therefore, know them at that emotional level, it is important not to throw out the cultural baby with the linguistic bath water. Traditions, ceremonies and rituals carry considerable cultural weight as many illuminate the foundations of beliefs and values and these could be discussed, explained and shared – in any language.

This dual heritage sharing in interethnic relationships, where both partners learn each other’s language and culture, aspects of which are reflected in their home, is an approach that has been adopted by Asian/White couples in other countries, such as Australia, with the result that their families develop global identities, which allow them to communicate internationally and inter-generationally. It is this internationalism that we can encourage in our families and which, I believe, will equip our children to succeed, not only at economic levels in increasingly multilingual environments, but also as individuals whose self-identification is constantly affirmed and nourished by their sense of belonging in their diverse communities. The investment in terms of practical and emotional support at the level of the couple; social collaboration with coethnics and cultural compromise with extended families in the realisation of this idealistic aspiration is not underestimated. The rewards, however, in terms of personal growth; marital satisfaction; family cohesiveness and community advancement are immeasurable!

To quote my eloquent respondent, once again, “Children in Mixed marriages are greater than the sum of their parts”: it is an excellent sentiment that could be the orienting ethos for interethnic relationships (and also others). As a couple, we have the opportunity to develop our own fuller understanding of the inheritance that makes our special partners who they are. As parents, we recognise that our children will want to locate their own place in their evolving cultural landscape and equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need in that navigation; for children from interethnic families, I believe that bilingualism would be the most versatile resource in the toolkit.

Bina Radia-Bond
06 September 2007

A site worth noting:


It is a site started by Parveen Bird, who is herself in a mixed marriage (to the founder of The Big Issue).

She also runs


which is a really great idea.

Ashley Chisholm
06 September 2007

Bina, you make so many interesting points. As somebody involved for the past five years in an inter-ethnic relationship (white/Pakistani), I can wholeheartedly concur with your statement that 'There are more than two people in a marriage'. As the white part in the relationship I have felt only too closely the impact this can have. I have to say that we, my partner and I, have managed so far to tread that narrow line, taking things only as far as we can at any one time. And our relationship is still developing and strengthening. However, I have seen the relationships of my friends blossom and move on so fast, burgeoning without the constraints of 'community' and 'family' disapproval. In certain ways though, having 'more than two people' in our relationship has made us question deeply and seriously our commitment to one another. What are the implications for society at large for relationships such as mine? Perhaps more pertinantly, what are the implications for the relationships themselves?
David Garnier
05 September 2007

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Rob.
Race and Language emerged as the core themes from the issues that the parents themselves identified. They intersect, of course, but this was only highlighted by one White mother, who rejects her son’s identification on race alone (if at all!). She emphasised the importance of profiling Caribbean English by schools and was effusive about how her shy son “comes alive” when her Caribbean friends visit and he is able to share this aspect of his cultural identity with them. It is written off as patois or part of street culture at school, where it has no place (particularly in mainly-white ones, where the pressures to conform are accentuated). Her experience epitomises the pervasiveness of racist structures in the home, where her son is much loved by the White grandparents and relatives, but only as an exception as he’s not like “them”. One can imagine the adaptive nature of identities that develop in the children, who learn that they can speak in certain ways with some relatives and recognising that others would find this bewildering. The emotional investment by the mother in understanding these complexities and, yet, facilitating her son to explore his identities and be proud of all of them, without the daily input of his father, is considerable and hugely admirable. This reinforces that a great deal of practical support needs to substantiate reassuring statements of love.

My research is a small ethnographic study, involving 10 parents from different ethnic backgrounds. I have focussed on their phenomenological perspectives and have not included comparison with monoethnic marriages at this stage. It is a precursor to exploring the experiences of the experiences of Mixed children (which are very different from their parents’), but which would be limited in their explanation without understanding their antecedence. You are right, of course, that many people are involved in relationships that do not have the approval of their social groups. I expect that there would be parallels in these in the context of ostracism, hostility and withdrawal of support, which are mostly managed as an expected ‘price to pay’. Gay and Lesbian relationships have to negotiate an added social dimension, which may be less intrusive in the daily practices of the home (presuming partners from the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds). There are two disparate cultural belief systems that need to be considered in interethnic and interfaith relationships, which add an emotional dimension that may be less easy to articulate, understand and accommodate.

One of my respondents said, “Language is who we are”, which illustrates the depth of its meaning to our self-identification. Paradoxically, he does not speak his language, having decided that English would better serve his children in the mainstream, a decision which he now regrets in its corresponding distancing from his cultural identity, which he cannot share with his children. Consequently, they know only selected aspects of their father (and his considerable, rich heritage). It is not merely the devaluing of the community languages in the mainstream that contributes to these well-intended decisions, but the derogative stereotypes of the ethnic groups in the wider society, which transfer to the school arena. Not surprisingly, children dissociate themselves from these, if they can and which, particularly in Asian/White children, is determined by their skin tone. Despite the small sample, my study reveals this considerable range of inequalities, that has implications for other Mixed couples and the decisions they may make for their children’s futures.

Bina Radia-Bond
05 September 2007

Bina, your research sounds fascinating. This topic was the subject of hours of soul-searching at various Black-led groups that I attended while at college. We never came to any conclusions, beyond the realisation that despite our romantic notions of love, 'race' remains pervasive, intrusive, and present in even our closest relationships. We also realised that this was true for people in interethnic as well as for those in mono-ethnic relationships (especially those who are from minority ethnic communities dealing with structural racisms in society).

All marriages need work and it is not surprising that those you interviewed referred to the interethnic nature of their marriages as providing a particular dynamic. I wondered whether in your research you garnered the views of those in monoethnic relationships as a means of comparison? Others also enter into relationships without the social support of their communities e.g. many gay and lesbian partnerships, or inter 'caste' relationships - do you think there are similarities in these experiences to explore?

I am also struck by your findings regarding language. It is true that our education system values multilingualism selectively. French is regarded as a high status language, while so called 'community langauages' are perceived as worthless. This is lilely to be another way that our racist discourses impact on the value that interethnic couples place on language. Did your research pick up differences dependent on what the particular language was?

Rob Berkeley
05 September 2007

... and as Bina's husband, I am proud that she is the maternal influence for our 'mixing' daughters and, of course, still in love with the girl in our 'mixedness'.
David H Bond
05 September 2007

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