In the summer of 2013, General Mills did something apparently unthinkable: they depicted an interracial (i.e., mixed-race) couple and their biracial daughter in a Cheerios ad. Despite being almost 50 years removed from the landmark civil rights Supreme Court ruling in Loving v Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage, the backlash observed in response to the Cheerios ad reminded all who were paying attention just how stigmatized and polarizing the topic of interracial relationships remains. In fact, when I typed the following into a google search window:
Why are int
The first search to populate the search was “Why are interracial relationships bad?” (Note: Results may vary by region, but I had never previously conducted this search).
Interestingly, although most people are aware that support from society, particularly family and friends, for one’s relationship is a key component (i.e., generally necessary, but not necessarily sufficient) of a healthy, satisfying romance, the prevalence of interracial relationships and marriages has increased dramatically over the past 40 years.
Such statistics beg the question: Why are more and more people getting involved with others of different races, despite the stigma associated with such unions? Past research on this question has generally focused on demographic factors. For example, male, ethnic/racial minority individuals, and those with liberal attitudes, in general, are more likely to be open to interracial dating (and, thus, marriage) than are other groups of individuals.1
In a recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships2, the research team wanted to go beyond demographic features that predict involvement in mixed-race relationships and focus on individual characteristics of the relationship partners themselves. Specifically, the researchers presumed that because interracial daters face potential ostracism and stigmatization from outsiders, the perceived benefits of being involved in an interracial relationship have to be particularly pronounced. They felt those benefits very likely derive from the qualities the partners bring with them into their interracial relationships.
In their first study, they asked almost 250 undergraduates, all of whom were in dating relationships (24% dating interracially) to complete several measures via questionnaire. Participants rated themselves and their partners on how descriptive a number of desirable characteristics were of them. The research team focused on four broad categories of desirable characteristics, which they labeled: (a) Cerebral (e.g., intelligence), (b) relational (e.g., trustworthy), (c) vibrancy (e.g., confident, exciting), and (d) attractiveness (e.g., sexy, well-groomed). The primary objective of this first study was to determine whether individuals in interracial relationships, versus those in intraracial (i.e., same race) relationships, viewed themselves and their partners as having more desirable characteristics.
Providing initial evidence that individuals involved in interracial relationships do so because different-race partners are more attractive partners (in terms of their desirable characteristics), individuals in interracial relationships rated their partners as more cerebral, relational, and attractive than did those in intraracial relationships; however, there were no differences in the ratings of self-attributes.
But the first study only included perceptions of partners – and it is possible that people in interracial relationships might justify their relationships by exaggerating the positive qualities of their partners. Thus, in the next study the researchers recruited 100 couples (29% interracial) and asked couple members to rate themselves on the same desirable characteristics (recruiting couples rather than individuals provided a much larger sample of people involved in an interracial relationship). This time the interracial partners rated themselves as more cerebral and attractive than did those in intraracial relationships. The ratings for vibrancy and relational characteristics were in the same direction, but were not statistically significant.
This second study does a better job of addressing subjectivity concerns by focusing on ratings people make of themselves versus the ratings they make of their partners. In the final study the researchers wanted to take it one step further — by testing whether outsiders perceived those in interracial relationships as more attractive than those in intraracial relationships. This time they had 101 couples (31% interracial) come into the lab to be photographed. The researchers then had a group of 10 individuals rate the physical attractiveness of those 202 individuals (i.e., 101 couples X 2) without having any knowledge of the photographed subjects’ relationships. Guess what? The 10 raters judged those in interracial relationships as more attractive individuals compared to those in intraracial relationships.
Collectively, these studies provide some understanding for why individuals are attracted to partners of a different race, despite the intolerance they will likely face once involved with such an individual. Specifically, those open to mixed-race relationships are more attractive people and attractive relationship partners than those in same-race relationships. Score one for the fundamental assumption of interpersonal attraction: we are attracted to those whose presence is rewarding to us. And what’s more rewarding than attractive people who also make good relationship partners?
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1Herman, M. R., & Campbell, M. E. (2012). I wouldn’t but you can: Attitudes toward interracial relationships. Social Science Research, 41, 343–358.
2Wu, K., Chen, C., & Greenberger, E. (2015). The sweetness of forbidden fruit: Interracial daters are more attractive than intraracial daters. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 650-666.
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.