Historically, family scholarship has been guided by a Eurocentric perspective including the notion that families are ethnically homogeneous. Over the last few decades, a shift in social acceptance of interethnic relationships coupled with changes in national laws (e.g., a 1967 US Supreme Court ruling abolished the last legal barrier to interracial marriages) has resulted in an increase in interethnic families. Ethnic identity is a sense of affiliation with a specific ethnic group manifested in communication patterns, cultural and religious traditions, political ideologies, peer networks, or family roles (Phinney 1990). Thus, interethnic families are family systems where partners and/or children identify with different ethnic groups.
Ethnicity And Multiethnic Families
Specific demographic information or historical comparisons on interethnic families can vary due to the national practices of documenting race and ethnicity. Yet, many countries still do not document interethnic marriages or multiethnic identity. However, data from national census reports indicate the prevalence of these relationships. For example, according to the 2000 US Census, 7.4 percent of marriages are interethnic relationships with African-American/Euro-American and Hispanic/Non-Hispanic as the most common type of relationship. However, other sources have estimated this to be from 5 percent to 10 percent of the married population. Likewise, the Office of National Statistics reports a multiethnic population exceeding 675,000 in the United Kingdom. Further, interethnic families are more common in regions with diverse populations. For example, an estimated 36 percent of the married population in Hawaii is comprised of interethnic couples and, overall, interethnic families are more common in the western United States (e.g., California). Likewise, western Europe has larger populations of interethnic families compared to eastern Europe. In these national regions, the increase in interethnic families over the last decade is well documented.
The terms interracial, intercultural, and interethnic have been used interchangeably to describe relationships in which the different racial/ethnic identities can create unique experiences and challenges. However, the term intercultural may be too broad as it can refer to a variety of contexts where divergent orientations other than race/ethnicity (e.g., nationality) influence interactions. Conversely, employing the term interracial can be limiting in that it may fail to capture the breadth of these relationships. Whereas many people perceive race to be socially constructed, race can also imply strict biological and physiological constraints. For example, the US Census allows for 57 interracial combinations based on five specific racial categorizations. However, these combinations do not account for Hispanic/non-Hispanic families or interethnic families within one race (e.g., Japanese-American/Chinese-American). Hence, the term interethnic is more inclusive as it highlights ethnic variations in both interracial and intraracial relationships.
As Gudykunst & Lee (2001) suggest, ethnic identity (e.g., Chinese-American) should not be confused with panethnic identity (e.g., Asian-American) because doing so would minimize the importance of the heterogeneity of ethnic groups. Moreover, cultural identity should refer to identification with the dominant culture in which they live. Hence, communication in interethnic families is characterized by various “layers” of influence: the idiosyncratic personal characteristics of the individual family member, salience of the ethnic identity of the family members, and the macro-cultural influence.
The primary method of inquiry for research on interethnic families has been in-depth interviews with small samples due to availability and willingness of family members to participate in research. Further, a majority of the research has focused on African-American/Euro-American relationships as these are common interethnic relationships and the most socially scrutinized relationships. However, more recent scholarship is being conducted with larger, survey-based studies, which also include more diverse samples of interethnic couples or families.
A common perception of interethnic families is that they face unique challenges that make it difficult to achieve harmonious relationships. Whereas interethnic families obviously have unique experiences, they are not inherently problematic. The nature of family communication is what differentiates positive and negative family functioning. In fact, research has shifted from a focus on demography and challenges of interethnic families to an emphasis on communication and the multiethnic family experience (Socha & Diggs 1999).
Communication In The Multiethnic Family System
Communication goes well beyond issues of language differences that may impede proper family functioning. Intergroup and interpersonal factors may affect communication in interethnic families (Gaines & Liu 2000). In one sense, interactions may be influenced by norms and modes of communication characteristic of an ethnic identity. Alternatively, interactions may be influenced by the shared family communication practices and standards reflective of a more interpersonal orientation. Hence, a common ingroup identity of family may supplant the potential conflict associated with separate ethnic identities.
Because family members’ communication modes may be influenced by their ethnic identity, the extent to which couples accommodate the communicative needs and desires of family members may be associated with a shared family identity. For example, adapting communication to a partner’s preferences may transcend differences stemming from divergent ethnic identities which, in turn, could highlight the common family identity as the interactions are more personalized. Conversely, failing to adapt communication behavior may accentuate differences. At times, this behavior may be a strategy for intentionally highlighting one’s ethnic identity. Hence, creating and maintaining a shared family identity by recognizing and/or transcending ethnic difference is an important aspect of positive family functioning. Yet, in doing so, family members may experience a shift in their ingroup/outgroup communication practices outside of the family as the shared family identity blurs the boundaries of what constitutes an ethnic ingroup/outgroup (Foeman & Nance 2002).
Because ethnic identification includes a sense of shared histories and experiences, recurring discussions may center on these divergent worldviews which can create challenges when discussing issues such as discrimination, historical oppression, and segregation. In fact, early stages of relational development for interethnic couples often include discussions of societal perceptions of racial/ethnic groups and the partner’s experiences (Foeman & Nance 2002). The process of negotiating and maintaining a family identity includes overcoming these challenges, although research does not point to a single, prescriptive method for achieving this goal. Some couples have open discussions in an attempt to compromise on these issues whereas other couples may explicitly recognize and accept these differences, realizing that they may not be understood or validated by their partner (Killian 2001).
In addition to the everyday talk and recurring discussions, family rituals and narratives serve as communicative acts that can create a shared family identity and/or maintain individual ethnic identity. For example, creation of new, unique family rituals or sharing “origin of family” narratives may transcend ethnic difference by highlighting the couple/family identity (Killian 2001). Conversely, family members may choose to maintain individual ethnic identity by highlighting specific cultural rituals in important events (e.g., wedding customs) or sharing stories of history and experiences relevant to a particular ethnic group.
Communication with the larger family system (e.g., parents, siblings, grandparents) can also create unique challenges, as lack of support or explicit disapproval from the larger family can act as a relational stressor (Negy & Snyder 2000). For couples, disclosing the relationship to family members is an important aspect of relational development (Foeman & Nance 2002) and, obviously, contains elements not present in intraethnic relationships. For example, a couple must not only disclose the relationship, but also communicate the importance of their different ethnic identities as a way of establishing their couple/family identity. The reaction of the larger family and peers creates one of the more common challenges for maintaining the relationship, but can also serve as a catalyst for bonding between the couple or family.
Parent–Child Communication In Multiethnic Families
As a means of transmitting cultural ideals from one generation to another, family communication plays an integral role in ethnic socialization and identity development of children. Although identity is influenced by social class, ethnic makeup of peers, physical appearance, and our societal expectations for possessing a monoethnic identity, family communication plays the major role in identity development. For multiethnic children, this process may be more complex since their identity can be influenced by various ethnicities. The extent and nature (i.e., positive versus negative) of a parent’s discussion about their ethnic heritage as well as the partner’s heritage is influential in a child’s identity formation. Rockquemore’s (1999) discussion on identity “options” for biracial persons is relevant to multiethnic individuals. Specifically, individuals can identify with one specific ethnic/racial group, embrace their multiethnicity, shift ethnic identity based on context, or transcend ethnic identification. Hence, multiethnic children may have an ethnic identity that differs from one or both parents (i.e., identifying as multiethnic). Thus, in family interactions, multiethnic individuals negotiate and/or maintain their own ethnic identity. Therefore, it is not simply a matter of how children identify, but how they communicate their identity to their family, peers, and community.
Historically, it has been assumed that there were negative consequences for the emotional well-being of multiethnic individuals. Specifically, family counselors and scholars claimed that the lack of a specific, singular ethnic identity frame of reference results in a lack of affiliation or sense of belonging. Although this is still the case for some, multiethnicity can also be a positive attribute in that individuals may be better able to adapt to intercultural interactions, have greater intercultural competence, and have lower tendencies to express ingroup favoritism, for example, discrimination (Navarrete-Vivero & Jenkins 1999). In fact, while some interethnic couples may be concerned about their children’s well-being, many view the children’s experience with various ethnic influences as a positive aspect of their relationship (Negy & Snyder 2000). Still, depending on the norms of the maternal and paternal families, children may experience complicated and, hence, confusing, expectations of communication. Although language may be the most obvious example, even cultural norms of verbal and nonverbal communication may differ depending on the family member with whom the child interacts. The extent to which a child feels “trapped” or forced to choose a singular identity may be associated with a loss of ethnic identity which is related to negative well-being. Therefore, for the well-being of children and to foster an environment for development of a multiethnic identity, ethnic socialization involves clearly transmitting communicative norms and expectations as well as customs and traditions related to the socio-cultural heritage of the paternal and maternal family (Navarrete-Vivero & Jenkins 1999).
The limited scholarship on children in multiethnic families has focused on biological children of interethnic couples. However, families formed through international and transracial adoption also create a context where communication about family, ethnic, and cultural identity are important in the identity development process for the children. For example, sharing adoption stories, creating and maintaining the family identity, discussing ethnic/racial identity, and socializing to cultural norms are all important in the development of the family and children’s identity (Galvin 2003).
Whether formed through the union of individuals with divergent ethnic identities or through adoption, interethnic families exemplify the diversity in family forms common today and illustrate the constitutive nature of communication in creating and maintaining personal, ethnic, and family identities.
- Foeman, A., & Nance, T. (2002). Building new cultures, reframing old images: Success strategies of interracial couples. Howard Journal of Communication, 13, 237–249.
- Gaines, S. O., & Liu, J. H. (2000). Multicultural/multiracial relationships. In C. Hendrick & S. S. Hendrick (eds.), Close relationships: A sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 97–110.
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- Socha, T. J., & Diggs, R. C. (1999). Communication, race, and family: Exploring communication in black, white, and biracial families. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.