A Recipe for Love: My Love Story, Part 1 InterRacial Love
Updated: Jan 13, 2021
When I met my now husband a few years ago, I could not have predicted the many, discomforting comments and conversations that would come thereafter. As an interracial couple, the type of racism we've encountered has been disheartening. Though I come from a community of "progressive" minded individuals, it's important for me to share this experience to help us understand the unique ways racism seeps into our lives. The explicit hateful kind of racism is easier to spot than the implicit kind embedded within many "liberal" immigrant communities. For instance, the idea of marrying a White individual is often readily accepted-- but when other races are mentioned, an insistence on being able to understand one another comes in more strongly. My aim is to share my story for us to help understand this phenomenon in greater depth.
Who We Are
In order to understand our experiences, I want to take a moment to introduce you into our lives. My husband, Juma, is a Kenyan American. He's more of a global citizen than I am, as the son of a diplomat, he truly traveled the world and saw places I've only read about it in books. Though we are both 1.5 generation immigrants (born elsewhere, raised in the States), we come from two distinct cultures that we both take immense pride in.
For those who don't know me, and are meeting me on this post for the first time, I'm an Afghan American. I was born en route out of war, a twice over refugee. The Afghan Soviet War and then the Gulf War displaced my family, leading us to the Industrial Rustbelt of America: Toledo, Ohio. It was here that from the age of 2 I was raised, spending summers in Little Kabul, California, family vacations consisting of road trips to different hubs of the Afghan diaspora where various family members lived across the US.
Though I am considered an anomaly in the Afghan community, "mixed" for being a child of individuals from two different provinces (Kabul and Herat), the seeds of a deep love and longing for Afghanistan were planted deep within my heart just like my Afghan peers across the States. I learned how to read Dari/Farsi at the same time that I learned how to read in English, and Sundays were spent with my 30+ first cousins under the loud and boisterous roof of my grandparents’ home in Ohio.
My husband, in contrast, went to one of the finest boarding schools, learning how to tie a tie perfectly from the fifth grade, wearing one every day thereon through senior year of high school. They traveled frequently to Kenya to visit family, while I dreamt up the world my parents had described to me in vivid detail of Afghanistan. At home, he spoke Swahili with his parents while I spoke in Dari/Farsi with mine. And the list of surface level differences goes on and on.
And so on the surface, my husband's world and mine appear in stark contrast to one another. On a superficial level, it would seem that we are a story of opposites attract. But in the reality of what makes a successful marriage, ours was a foundation built on compatibility of values, character, personalities, and temperaments. These are the four pillars which I believe are essential to a healthy marriage.*
What is Implicit Racism
And so we circle back, to the painful reflections on implicit racism that brought me to this post. To acknowledging the awkward pauses, the passing comments, and the larger issue at hand of racism within our "liberal" community. My mind finds peace in understanding the world through the lens of my Sociological training, and so I approach this issue with that same perspective.
As a Sociologist** whose areas of expertise are race and ethnicity, my doctoral training involved an intense undertaking of studying and understanding essential points of research conducted across the discipline. In an effort to communicate what years of research has concluded, I seek to simplify and condense much of it in an accessible manner.
The consensus in Sociological research on the topic come across as thus: present day racism manifests in different ways, implicit and explicit. The hateful statements of White Nationalists like those seen attacking the Capitol building are considered explicit racism. But just as powerful and hurtful is implicit racism, the more subtle kind we are inundated with in daily instances. It is this implicit racism that I seek to explain in further depth.
Implicit racism occurs in communicating racist sentiment by expressing oneself in more convoluted forms by statements such as expressing disappointment in the BLM movement, being against affirmative action, asking racialized generalizations such as “why is their hair like x” or “why do those people act like such at a park all the time”.*** Implicit racism is more subtle and less explicit than the explicit racism of for instance the 60’s. It is no longer socially acceptable amongst "social progressives" or "social liberals" to express explicit hate, but individuals still utilize language, actions, and support policies that maintain and demonstrate racist sentiment.
When I speak of "social progressives" or "social liberals," I'm referring to individuals who think of themselves as more "open minded" than the explicitly racist White nationalist type of individuals. It is trendy at the moment to be 'socially progressive' and support minorities, but often times posting a black box on your Instagram feed or putting up a hashtag on Twitter is where it ends-- because we utilize these superficial mechanisms to ease our own conscious, continuing about our lives as usual. I challenge us to understand that this does not make us "anti-racist," because the way racism is deeply rooted in the fabric of American society permeates into many other areas of our lives.
Academic Understanding of Racism
What race one falls into is a socially created category, a hierarchy of artificial groupings of people into imagined communities (the following is a continuation of terms & concepts from Sociological research). As immigrants, individuals enter the US with an attachment to their ethnic group, but also desire to integrate to what they perceive to be the highest level of success, which is Whiteness. On the racial ladder, Whiteness is at the top, with Asians just below them. Blacks are at the bottom, with Latinos and all others above them.
Blumer's theory of race prejudice argues that prejudice exists in a sense of group position. So you form an image of your racial group that you feel you belong to and define your position in society in relation to other racial groups. Thus, the prejudices you hold are socially learned ways to maintain a particular group status or position. Therefore, racism extends beyond your individual views and occurs as a way to maintain your group position away from being at the “bottom”.
For instance, in studies of neighborhoods and segregation, Sociologists have found that the desire for upward social mobility is more pronounced among the foreign-born, part of "making it" in America. Therefore, immigrants aversion to what they perceive as low-status neighbors (especially Blacks) and preferences for perceived high-status neighbors (especially Whites) stem from this sense of group position.
In several Sociological studies, there are various markers used to measure if an individual is racist, one being looking at interpersonal relationships. It begins at a surface level— Are they comfortable being neighbors with a Black person? an Asian? A Hispanic? It then moves to one level of a closer relationship— Are they comfortable being friends with a Black person? It then gradually increases— Would they allow their child to date a Black person? Are they comfortable having their child marry a Black person? Would they themselves marry a Black person?
The findings of these studies on interpersonal relationships reflect in many ways the nuanced way that racism seeps into our lives. Even for the most “woke” of folks, there are varying levels to which we have bought into this idea of the racial order and uphold it based on our expression of our “comfort levels”. We may not consider ourselves racist, but wouldn’t want Black neighbors. We may not consider ourselves racist and even have friends of different races, but wouldn’t marry a Black person. These reflect a buying into the idea of the racial order, and that certain races denote certain stereotypes attached to them.
Why the lengthy explanation of what modern day racism looks like? Because the statements and challenges I share here are related to this phenomenon. They may come across as innocent comments, but I write this as an effort to challenge ourselves and our frame of mind.
Racism Within Our Communities
The Afghan community, for instance, is a fiercely insular community**. Perhaps it is because of a longing to sustain a lost homeland, or fears of losing one’s culture after the forcible migration process of being refugees, they cling strongly to an in-group identity. The idea of marrying outside the Afghan community is a rare occurrence, especially as older generations argue that it's about maintaining the culture, being able to understand one another and understand the language of your spouse.
Even for the 1.5 and second generation children, they hold tightly to these ideals passed down to them. Even if they speak English as their primary language, they still highly desire marrying “their own,” an Afghan, because how else can someone understand their experiences and culture truly. This is not unique or limited to the Afghan community, whether Syrian, Pakistani, Turkish, the list goes on and on, many immigrant communities share these sentiments. My purpose here is not to pass judgment on this matter; rather, it's to demonstrate how this norm plays into the larger phenomenon of racism in regards to interracial marriage. However, in those moments when an individual breaks this norm of marrying within, there’s varying levels of resistance and acceptance that occur. The idea of marrying a White individual is often readily accepted— but when other races are mentioned, an insistence on being able to understand one another comes in much more strongly. From my own generation to that of my elders, the consistency of which I have witnessed this in various forms is painful.
The interesting phenomenon I witnessed as I studied the Afghan community is how these words of marrying one’s own in order to understand each other’s culture often fell flat. Within the Afghan community, whether it be my parents or grandparents generation, or that of my own, there exists a constant grappling to lay claim to what is authentic Afghan culture. Among the “elder” generations who spent a majority of their lives in Afghanistan, critiques of other community members particularly around key moments in which culture becomes significant, such as funerals, weddings, engagement, Afghan New Years, births, and so on. In these instances, how to swaddle a child, when to bury a body, what gifts to expect and give at a wedding, what kind of food is appropriate at an occasion and if the food has been cooked authentically and well, etc.— these matters become a significant point of debate, disagreement, and filled with deeply emotionally charged feelings around the matter.
This again is not a phenomenon unique to the Afghan community, but one shared across immigrant diaspora groups. Therefore, it's evident that even within the same culture, a one size fits all identical understanding of culture and each other does not exist. For in each region of the country, in each neighborhood, and within each family, different aspects of culture are stressed, different norms of behavior develop, and these small nuances become magnified in moments where individuals feel passionately that they want their perspective to be present and honored. Thus, even within the same culture of peoples from the "same" community, these differences in interpretations demonstrate that culture is not an all inclusive umbrella that looks the same for all people who share the same geographic region that they call home.
I acknowledge that there are broad shared traditions across a culture, this is not to diminish that, but to demonstrate that the argument that "they can't understand us" occurs even within a shared culture. Ultimately, when it comes to a marriage what truly becomes significant are shared values*. What do you place importance on, what principles guide how you live, why are you passionate about x things— those are the matters that if the closest person to you (your spouse) doesn’t understand, it feels like a deep personal violation.
This is only the tip of the iceberg on discussing racial tensions in interracial relationships, and has not delved as deeply into my own personal experiences yet. However, in order to have this conversation, I think it's important for us all to be on the same page in terms of understanding the unique ways racism seeps into our lives. Keep an eye out for part 2 where I take a step back from the academic context I have provided and share my personal experiences with racial tensions being in an interracial marriage.
Follow along on my Instagram page: @imanistan as I continue the discussion there in stories, posts, and an upcoming live conversation.
* I'm not a Marriage & Family expert by any means, just an academic whose curiosity about every tangible subject leads me to immense readings from academic sources on the topic. I know this is still a limited scope by which to understand a topic, as being a student and engaging with experts and guided by teachers on the source is the way one achieves a proper education of a subject matter.
**I obtained my PhD in Sociology from Northwestern University. My dissertation study was an 18 month ethnographic study of the largest Afghan diaspora in the States. Therefore, when I speak in generalities about my peers, it's in reference to the data and observations based out of this study.
***For more on this, read
Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva