Monday, December 20, 2010

Unlike the Others... Interracial Families and Holiday Gatherings

Yesterday, my black and white family attended a lovely holiday party thrown by my brother and his wife at their home. There were probably 50 people there: her sisters and their families, my brother and my other siblings and their kids. It was a great time with plenty of food, music, football and good cheer.

My husband was the only white person in the room.

At this time of the year-- and certainly any time our families gather-- one of us is that awkward position. As an "in-law" every spouse has those awkward moments of feeling like an outsider-- especially when dealing with family one doesn't know well or sees rarely. But race certainly adds a level of complication to the matter.

Kevin handles it well-- as do I, I think. We both are outgoing enough to start conversations, tactful enough not bring up topics that are likely to make people uncomfortable and pretty good at being charming (LOL!). But I know from time to time around his extended family when I'm the only black person around, I've felt a bit uncomfortable and in spite of his gregariousness most of the evening, on the way home, I asked him whether he felt the same as the only white one.

"Yeah, a little bit," he confessed. "I mean, I knew I was the only one. It didn't really matter-- people are people-- but when you don't know a lot of the people, there's this moment where you really become self-conscious."

Then we talked about the various experiences of the evening, through the lens of his experience as the only white guy in the room.

I know that many of you in interracial couples and families know exactly what I'm talking about. It's just a feeling you get when you suddenly notice that there's no one else around who looks like you. Not "hostility"-- I've never felt anything like that from anyone in Kevin's family and I know he's never felt that from mine-- but more like the little jingle from Sesame Street "One of these things is not like the others..."

You just feel...a little weird. The closest thing I can compare it to is walking into a room full of complete strangers who don't appear to speak your language. If anyone has a better analogy, I'd love to hear it.

Being good at being the "only one" or the person who is "not like the others" is a skill that requires confidence and practice. I think many minority people become used to it: often in our academic or professional lives, we've been the only ones before. While there's always a consciousness of it, with time and practice the feeling is minimized. But as members of the majority, most white people don't have as much practice with the experience.

Those of us in interracial relationships are exceptions: we get plenty of practice as we blend and bend cultural lines between our families and friends. All of us, regardless of cultural orientation or racial background learn through to find common ground with others through these opportunities. We learn that like many things between extended families, "racial" awkwardness fades with time and experiences. The better we know our spouses' family, friends and extended networks-- and the better those folks get to know us-- the more comfortable we al become. I see Kevin's siblings often enough that there's absolutely no awkwardness at all; I love them like my own sisters and brothers. Similarly, Kevin sees my siblings often too-- he calls my youngest sister is "girlfriend"-- they're that close.

But for those big, once-a-year gatherings with far-flung relations, the best medicine for being the only one is a generous dose of goodwill toward mankind-- followed by a shot of solidarity between the members of the interracial union. Being positive, friendly and up-beat can certainly serve to neutralize any discomfort. And so can knowing that, during the evening and at the end of it, your spouse will listen to your take on the experience and offer his or her support.

Happy Holidays to you all!