While reading Laura Banks’ dissertation about interracial relationships with a Chinese partner, something in the conclusion caught my eye:
Each couple has different ways of viewing their own situation. Some address it directly and define the boundaries and what must be done to ensure cultural understanding. For example one couple said; ‘from the outset of our relationship, we have been conscious of intercultural issues and keen to address them by talking then through and explaining to each other what we are thinking.’ Other couples like B…and L…have addressed it in a completely different way and have ‘done something that is very unusual in Chinese-foreign relationships; we have never talked about that I am from a different country especially not in the case of conflicts’ and they feel that ‘many people like to overemphasize the influence of cultural differences.’ The way in which they address the situation is what works for them as a couple and as with many things in life there is no wrong or right way of dealing with it.
Naturally, since I write a blog meant to promote cross-cultural understanding between Chinese-Western couples, it seemed bizarre to just ignore cultural differences in a cross-cultural relationship. But as much as I would love to say that “there is no wrong or right way,” I can’t agree. In fact, the B/L way — essentially, a colorblind approach to interracial/cross-cultural relationships — is harmful.
Why? This article, titled Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism, explains the problem:
Colorblindness is the racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity….
In a colorblind society, White people, who are unlikely to experience disadvantages due to race, can effectively ignore racism in American life, justify the current social order, and feel more comfortable with their relatively privileged standing in society (Fryberg, 2010). Most minorities, however, who regularly encounter difficulties due to race, experience colorblind ideologies quite differently. Colorblindness creates a society that denies their negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.
Let’s break it down into simple terms: Color-Blind = “People of color — we don’t see you (at least not that bad ‘colored’ part).” ….colorblindness has helped make race into a taboo topic that polite people cannot openly discuss. And if you can’t talk about it, you can’t understand it, much less fix the racial problems that plague our society.
….When race-related problems arise, colorblindness tends to individualize conflicts and shortcomings, rather than examining the larger picture with cultural differences, stereotypes, and values placed into context. Instead of resulting from an enlightened (albeit well-meaning) position, colorblindness comes from a lack of awareness of racial privilege conferred by Whiteness (Tarca, 2005). White people can guiltlessly subscribe to colorblindness because they are usually unaware of how race affects people of color and American society as a whole.
The American Psychological Association’s Multicultural Guidelines offer further evidence of the damage that colorblindness can cause:
While the color-blind approach is based in an attempt to reduce inequities, social psychologists have provided evidence that a color-blind approach does not, in fact, lead to equitable treatment across groups. Brewer and Brown (1998), in their review of the literature, note “…ignoring group differences often means that, by default, existing intergroup inequalities are perpetuated” (p. 583). For example, Schofield (1986) found that disregarding cultural differences in a school led to reestablishing segregation by ethnicity. Color-blind policies have also been documented as playing a role in differential employment practices (Brewer & Brown). In these cases, the color-blind approach may have the effect of maintaining a status quo in which Whites have more power than do People of Color. There is also some evidence that a colorblind approach is less accurate than a multicultural approach. Wolsko et al., (2000) for example, found that when White students were instructed to adopt a color-blind or multicultural approach, those with a multicultural approach had stronger stereotypes of other ethnic groups as well as more positive regard for other groups. White students in a multicultural approach also had more accurate perceptions of differences due to race/ethnicity and used category information about both ethnicity and individual characteristics more than those in the color-blind condition. Wolsko et al. concluded, “When operating under a colorblind set of assumptions, social categories are viewed as negative information to be avoided, or suppressed. … In contrast, when operating under a multicultural set of assumptions, social categories are viewed as simply a consequence of cultural diversity. Failing to recognize and appreciate group similarities and differences is considered to inhibit more harmonious interactions between people from different backgrounds.” (p. 649)
In essence, if you choose to ignore cultural, ethnic and/or racial differences between you and your partner, you end up treating him or her in an unintentionally racist or discriminatory manner.
Let’s explore this through the couple B and L. Since they avoid conversations about cultural differences, I assume that if you asked them why, they would argue they’re emphasizing those “universal” behaviors or qualities that all people share. But that’s the problem. What exactly is “universal”? If you’ve ever traveled, you soon realize that many behaviors and assumptions change from culture to culture and country to country — which makes determining what’s “universal” and “normal” practically impossible.
But I imagine B and L probably never even ventured into a discussion about what’s “normal” or “universal”. And if so, then chances are they’re going by someone’s idea of “universal” or “normal.” Given that colorblindness is a concept often preferred by Whites, I’m willing to bet that if one of them is White, they’re going primarily according to the “normal” for the White individual in the relationship. He or she probably feels relieved — no more “uncomfortable” discussions about culture or race. But you can’t say the same for the Chinese partner, who now has to operate according to expectations that weren’t theirs growing up. That’s another way of telling them, “Your culture isn’t important.” And because culture is a part of who we are, in essence they’re also saying, “You’re not that important.”
(Yes, theoretically, this can also work in reverse, if the non-Chinese partner is expected to conform to Chinese cultural expectations. But I expect that happens less often because, in China, white foreigners still enjoy preferential treatment — something Chinese will never experience in a Western country.)
I hope this post reminds anyone in a cross-cultural/interracial relationship with a Chinese partner to think twice about forgoing conversations about cultural differences and preferences. It’s not that we’re “overemphasizing the influence of cultural differences,” as B and L suggest. It’s about finally acknowledging that everyone is a cultural being, whether you’re a white girl from Cleveland, Ohio, USA (like me) or a guy from Hangzhou, China (like John).
What do you think?