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Living and Loving in a Diverse Society

Living and Loving in a Diverse Society
Living and Loving in a Diverse Society


North America has long been a melting pot of cultures as centuries of immigrants came to settle in the New World. But the attitude has long been that people should stick to their own kind, both in friendship and in romance.

Certainly, there have always been those who fell in love across racial or ethnic boundaries, but it was long believed that such “mixed marriages” were doomed to failure. And thanks to the discrimination and ostracism these couples faced, this often became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In recent years, however, attitudes have changed, and society has become accepting of racial and ethnic diversity in neighborhoods, at work, among friends, and even between lovers. And with this change in social attitudes, more and more people are seeking relationships outside their own culture. That is, they view compatibility more in terms of personality than superficial features like skin color or ethnic group.

Ways of Thinking About Diversity

It appears that today’s youth are largely accepting of differences in race and ethnicity, especially in more urban areas. However, as University of Toronto (Canada) psychologist Hanieh Naeimi and her colleagues point out in an article they recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, there are various ways of thinking about diversity. Furthermore, they provide evidence from studies of intercultural couples that people’s diversity ideology can have a significant impact on the quality of their relationships.

Naeimi and her colleagues point out that past research has identified three types of diversity ideology:

  • Colorblindness is the perspective that all people should be treated equally despite their cultural differences, which are seen as superficial. Deep down, according to this viewpoint, people are all the same, and cultural differences should be ignored. It calls on intercultural couples to act as though there were no meaningful cultural differences between them.
  • Multiculturalism is an ideology that acknowledges cultural differences as real and significant but nevertheless worth learning about and celebrating. Like colorblindness, multiculturalism sees culture as an immutable part of a person, but unlike colorblindness, cultural differences should be accepted rather than ignored. It calls on intercultural couples to each maintain their own culture.
  • Polyculturalism is similar to multiculturalism in that it accepts cultural differences as real and meaningful, but unlike multiculturalism or colorblindness, it sees culture as ever-evolving. It calls on intercultural couples to celebrate both cultures and even to blend them together.

In sum, each of these diversity ideologies provides a program for how intercultural couples should share their cultures with each other, both in terms of how each person expresses their own culture and how they accept their partner’s culture.

How Thinking About Diversity Affects Intercultural Relationships

In three studies, Naeimi and her colleagues investigated how diversity ideology impacted relationship outcomes through the practice of cultural sharing.

People who endorsed colorblindness tended to be less accepting of their partner’s culture, which resulted in less satisfaction and more conflict in their relationship. Because they claim to see no significant differences between cultures, they tend to assume that their partner’s culture is pretty much the same as their own, which can come across as dismissive. The researchers noted that this was less of a problem for couples whose cultures are similar, but conflict and dissatisfaction increase when the cultures are farther apart or if there has been significant historical discord between the two heritages.

Overall, people who endorsed multiculturalism showed greater acceptance of their partner’s culture and more willingness to express their own. In other words, they showed mutual respect for each other’s culture and traditions. As a result, they were happier in their relationships than were those who endorsed colorblindness.

However, the happiest relationships were those in which the partners endorsed polyculturalism. Not only do they respect each other’s cultures, but they also take part in each partner’s cultural activities and traditions. That is, the partners enjoy the food and music and celebrate the holidays and ceremonies of both cultures.

How Thinking About Diversity Affects Children of Intercultural Couples

The researchers also note that diversity ideology has an important impact on the personality development of the children of intercultural couples. When parents endorse colorblindness, the family’s culture tends to default to the dominant culture of the society in which they live. As a result, the children lose the cultural heritage of the other parent.

Likewise, children of parents who endorse multiculturalism will struggle with the formation of self-identity. They will ask if they belong to their mother’s or their father’s culture. Again, they’re most likely to default to the culture of the society in which they live.

Only when parents endorse polyculturalism will children benefit from their parents’ cultural diversity. These are the children who grow up to be adults who move seamlessly from one culture to the other and feel at ease in either one.

Living and loving in a diverse society requires all three diversity ideologies. Colorblindness teaches us to respect all persons as equals regardless of their cultural background. Multiculturalism raises our awareness and acceptance of the rich and colorful traditions and practices of each culture. And finally, polyculturalism encourages us to celebrate the diverse cultures of our friends and lovers and even make them our own.


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