by Vianca Masucci
Although people all around can communicate in the language of love, differences in culture contribute to things getting lost in translation. Unless your life exists on the set of a Disney movie, love and an open mind are not enough to overcome the issues that arise in intercultural relationships. A great deal of political, cultural, and self awareness are needed to sustain fulfilling and mutually-empowering intercultural relationships. Here are some practices that have worked for me:
Put It in Context
I once knew a fierce Black lesbian couple comprised of a light-skinned American queen and a dark-skinned Jamaican goddess. The Jamaican goddess worked as a waitress and her American queen constantly urged her to get a ‘more serious’ job. Because they lived in America, the queen’s arguments were validated by mainstream society and she leveraged this against her goddess anytime they argued on the matter. What the queen didn’t realize is that as a light-skinned American girl with a bougie upbringing her nagging of her dark-skinned Jamaican girlfriend with a working-class background was more than just aggressive encouragement. Her nagging was an attempt to impose oppressive, classist, and racist capitalist values on her goddess.
A relationship, no matter how fierce it is, does not exist in a political vacuum. You, your body, and your culture, may have a legacy of privilege that is not afforded to your partner and vice-versa. Make sure you understand these and where this privilege factors into your relationship. It is easy to unwittingly replicate oppressive power structures in your relationship, especially if one partner prescribes to mainstream culture more than the other.
Yes, Cultural Exchange; No, Cultural Exploration
Once long ago, during the period of my life when I discovered that I do like a little dick sometimes, I dated an adorable Egyptian boy. The first time he met my brothers, he decided to call one of them ‘nephew’. *Record screech* Though this was a common term of endearment used by my brothers and other people in my community, the way that Egyptian boyfriend was ‘trying it out’ on my brother made my brother feel some typa way. Egyptian boyfriend didn’t understand that a) the term is most appropriate for oldheads addressing youngheads b) ‘nephew’ was used to substitute ‘nigga’ and c) you can really only call someone ‘nephew’ if you’re cool with them which was not the case.
Egyptian boyfriend was doing a bit of cultural exploration at my brother’s expense. The best practice for intercultural relationships is cultural exchange not cultural exploration. It is fundamentally important to respect your partner’s culture. Demonstrating respect for your partner’s culture goes deeper than adopting their cultural expressions. Yes, you can share cultural expressions–like food, music, clothing–with your partner. However, without understanding the social and historical significance of these cultural expressions, exploring the mainstream exploitation or prejudice associated with them, and inviting your partner to similarly understand your cultural expressions, you are not fully partaking in cultural exchange.
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Be Aware and Beware of Self
Consistently reflect on what specific cultural values and norms influence your perception of the world. This is vitally important for two reasons:
1. You need to understand where to set boundaries. Intercultural relationships can require a fair amount of compromise. But, compromise should be a constructive power, not a destructive power. Never lose yourself for the benefit of your partner. If there are some aspects of your culture that are vitally important to you, do not compromise on them. Instead, clearly communicate them to your partner and facilitate the integration of these things into your relationship.
2. No matter how socially conscious you are, a lifetime of social conditioning within your culture have left you with preconceived biases of which you are not wholly conscious. These biases influence how you perceive your partner’s culture and may dictate how you interact with them. For example, I’ve had partners who have accused me of being aggressive during arguments even though I’m mostly level-headed when I have a disagreement with my partner. These impressions of me are rooted in the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype, not fact. Beware of any impressions of your partner that are not rooted in experiences that you’ve had with them and constantly examine where they come from. If they’re not evidence-based, they are your prejudice. Understand your pattern of prejudice so that you can consciously address your prejudiced thought-trains.
Learn When to Step Back; Learn When to Advocate
When the time came for me to meet my Indian (now ex-) girlfriend’s parents, I worried about making a good impression. Even though my girlfriend and I were both American and related primarily within this shared culture, her family was, by her description, “very conservative, very Indian”. I knew that, in going to meet her parents in their house, I would have to adhere to their cultural expectations. Luckily, my girlfriend prepped me–she told what topics of conversation to avoid, rehearsed customs with me, and picked out a suitable outfit. At first, everything went well until her parents started asking me about myself. These questions were, by my cultural standards, highly intrusive and inappropriate. The Newark homegirl inside me bubbled–these bustas were just one question away from an eyeroll-’nunya’ combo. I looked to my girlfriend for help and she returned the same helpless stare. She was the only one who could advocate for me…and she didn’t.
If you are inviting your partner into a space dominated by your culture’s influence, advocate for them when necessary. Though your partner should be affording you more cultural space at this time, do not allow anyone to insult them or attack their cultural priorities. As the member of the dominate culture at that time, you have a responsibility to your partner to facilitate appropriate exchanges between other members of your community and them.
Conversely, if you’re the partner entering this cultural space, it’s appropriate to step back and respect that culture’s expectations of you. Though you and your partner have negotiated cultural compromises that work for you, these compromises are not ‘carried over’ outside of your relationship.
If You’re Getting Serious, Tackle Those Tough Issues
If you realize that your relationship is getting serious, make sure that you talk about those tough issues with your partner. In a relationship, it is normal to avoid serious points of contention for the sake of peace. But, if these issues are important to you, they become more difficult to solve the longer they go unaddressed. Talk to your partner about these issues upfront instead of waiting for them to come into play. For intercultural relationships, common sources of contention are: how/under which religion/under which principles you’d like to raise your children, how do you budget finances, how open you are publicly as a couple about your queerness, and what roles you’d each fill in a domestic partnership.
Humility is Key
Learning to make space for your partner’s culture is no easy feat. You will fail in accounting for their cultural needs, misunderstand their perspective, or trespass their cultural boundaries sometimes. It is okay—fucking up sometimes is part of the intercultural experience. When it happens, affirm your partner’s feelings and experiences. Don’t try to resist their objections or become defensive. They are entitled to their feelings. Take responsibility for your mistakes and try to learn from them.
Hailing from Newark, New Jersey, Vianca Masucci is a health advocate working to eliminate health disparities in underserved populations. Her voice is influenced by her experiences navigating this world as a queer, Afro-Latina with a thousand-year-old soul and an insatiable appetite for social justice. Her Meyers-Briggs personality type is IDGAF.
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