Melissa Pam remembers her first meeting with the in-laws.
As she walked through a black neighborhood in Mississippi, kids would yell, “Hey, white girl!” while others would just stare.
Her husband was just as nervous. He remembers thinking, “Man, what is my grandma going to think?”
Today, Melissa is used to being the only white woman at in-law events, and her husband, Antonio, is used to being the only black man. When they were married last November the couple knew there might be a little awkwardness, but they have gradually grown more comfortable in these situations.
Melissa and Antonio are examples of a national trend in marriage. Recent U.S. Census Bureau data show that a record 14.6 percent, or about one in seven, of all new marriages in 2008 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity. Of these marriages, 16 percent of blacks married someone whose race or ethnicity was different from their own, nearly tripling since 1980.
The study also showed that 22 percent of all black male newlyweds in 2008 married outside their race, compared with 9 percent of black females.
The case is the opposite among Asian and Hispanic women, making black women the least likely to marry outside her race.
Some sociologists say this is not necessarily by choice.
Kelly Chong, assistant professor of sociology at KU, said class and economic status may play an important role. Chong pointed out a well-known sociological theory called the “hypergamy theory,” which suggests that people marry outside their races to maximize the status of each marital partner. For example, black men can exchange their educational or financial capital for the race capital of white partners. Similarly, white women can “marry up” when choosing well-to-do black men.
“If one adds economic stability and educational achievement, black men become desirable as marital partners,” Chong said.
However, some sociological studies show that interracial marriage puts educated black women at a disadvantage because they no longer have as large of a marriage market from which to choose their partner.
Randal Jelks, associate professor of American Studies at KU, said that, in general, more black men go to college than black women, which leads to more black men with better incomes and an increased likelihood to marry inter-racially. Jelks expects that trend to change as more women attend college and the black middle class continues to grow.
Among all new marriages in 2008, 26 percent of Hispanics married outside of their race or ethnicity. And 41 percent of the 280,000 new intermarriages were between white and Hispanic spouses compared with 11 percent white and black.
Shirley Hill, KU sociology professor, said racial and cultural differences are part of the reason for more intermarriage between whites and Hispanics than between blacks and whites.
“So many Hispanics consider themselves ‘white’ that the Census Bureau has to designate ‘non-Hispanic whites’ to count them,” Hill said.
Jessica Vasquez, KU assistant professor of sociology, said immigration may also be a reason for more white-Hispanic pairings than white-black ones. She said that as the number of Hispanics in the U.S. increases, so does ethnic and racial diversity and, therefore, intermarriage.
For three years, Jennifer Simpson, KU graduate, has been dating a man who immigrated from Mexico. Simpson said it would be impossible not to be conscious of their cultural differences, but it’s the perspectives they learn from each other that make the relationship special.
“Sometimes it takes extra effort to be able to understand each other when these differences become obvious, but we try to focus on our common values and interests rather than on race,” Simpson said.
Diego Bonsignore, a native Uruguayan, said differences in culture didn’t affect his relationship with his wife, who is from western Kansas. He said they get through the obstacles of marriage just like any other couple: by talking.
“We talk a lot — we talk through our problems, ask for opinions and give each other a lot of respect,” Bonsignore said.
State trends in interracial and inter-ethnic marriages have followed the national pattern. Of the 18,717 new marriages in Kansas in 2008, 459 were among black-white couples while 1,361 were Hispanic-white. Gender trends were the same as well. There were triple the number of black grooms-white brides than white grooms and black brides, according to a 2008 report prepared by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
In Douglas County, there were only two new marriages in 2008 between a black bride and a white groom, and 13 of the reverse. Hispanic-white pairings were nearly the same: 23 and 25.
While interracial and inter-ethnic marriages are increasing, so is the public’s acceptance of them. According to a Pew Research Center study, most Americans approve of intermarriage, and 83 percent of the 2,884 survey participants said it was OK for whites and blacks to date each other.
Matt Labuda, a senior at KU, said he does think about the race of the person he is dating, but not in a negative way. Labuda, who is white, recently ended a two-year relationship with a black woman, but said race was never a problem because the couple talked about it openly.
“Growing up in a small conservative town, I was a little nervous about telling my parents, but they welcomed her with open arms — no hesitation,” he said.
Despite Labuda’s experience, statistics show that older populations are still more hesitant to approve of interracial marriage or dating. Of the participants in Pew’s nationwide telephone survey, 93 percent of adults ages 18 to 32 approved, compared with 68 percent of adults ages 64 and older. Race, geographical location and other factors play a role as well.
With changing societal attitudes and increasing multiculturalism, many experts say higher numbers of intermarriages are not surprising.
Hill said it is a trend that builds upon itself.
“The more people that marry across racial lines, the more acceptable it becomes to do so,” Hill said.