[deck]The west coast leads the country as interracial marriages increase.[/deck]
When Brittany and Joey Horner got engaged four years ago, their friends and families were concerned.
Joey was 20, about to move from Oregon to Montana and still searching for his place in the world. At 18, Brittany was about to leave for college and a fresh start. Though it would be two years before they married, she would still be unable to legally drink at their wedding.
Everyone told them they were too young, too impulsive. But no one told them they were too different.
Like 20 percent of Oregon newlyweds, the Horners are an interracial couple. Brittany is the child of an African American mother and a Caucasian father, while Joey is Caucasian. The Horners didn’t think twice about their racial differences before saying “I do,” choosing instead to focus on their shared values. And forty-six years after interracial marriage was officially made legal, their outlook is becoming increasingly common.
Interracial marriages are on the rise in the United States, according to a national study conducted by the Pew Research Center. One in seven new marriages are between people of different races or ethnicities, more than double the rate it was in 1980.
This is especially true on the west coast where 22 percent of new marriages are interracial. Likewise, all states with interracial marriage rates of 20 percent or higher are west of the Mississippi River.
Most interracial marriages are between a Caucasian and a person of a different race, according to the study, but the specific pairings vary greatly. For example, African American men are more likely to marry outside their race than African American women. However, for Caucasians and Latinos, gender is not a factor.
Brittany, now a professional photographer, knew from an early age that her husband would share her father’s skin tone.
“I grew up with a white dad and I’ve just always been accustomed to that,” she says.
She spent her early years in the predominantly Caucasian city of Salem, Oregon, where she feared that any of the few African American boys might be related to her. Raised by a mother who stressed the importance of accepting others for exactly who they are, she was encouraged to “just love everyone.”
Joey had exclusively dated Caucasian girls before Brittany, but feels his dating patterns weren’t a result of prejudices. Instead, he says they were a result of the limited cultural exposure he received while growing up in Montana.
The two met in high school after Joey moved to Woodburn, Oregon, but they didn’t start dating until after Brittany graduated in 2008. Inseparable until Joey moved to Montana to be closer to his family, their connection was strong enough to maintain a long-distance relationship. Four months later, Brittany proposed.
In the two and a half years the Horners have been married, their challenges have been unrelated to race. Their struggles are those of a couple growing up and growing together—months spent long-distance, the death of a beloved dog, and learning each other’s communication styles.
For the most part, theirs is a typical story of an interracial couple in 2013. But it wasn’t always this way.
Until 1967, sixteen states still had laws banning what was then called “miscegenation,” or the mixing of different racial groups. The couple that brought the issue to the national stage was the aptly-named Lovings.
It all began in Caroline Country, Virginia. Richard Loving, a Caucasian, and Mildred Jeter, an African American, met there and fell in love. When the young couple decided to marry in 1958, they drove to Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was legal. However, upon their return to Virginia, the Lovings were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for their crime, according to an article by The Washington Post. The sentence was lifted before they served their time, but they were told to leave Virginia and not return for at least twenty-five years.
Almost a decade later, the Supreme Court sided with the Lovings and ruled all interracial marriage bans as unconstitutional. Oregon, for its part, had repealed its own laws barring interracial marriage sixteen years earlier.
Since then, social acceptance of interracial marriage has risen along with the numbers. A 2009 Pew Research survey found that 63 percent of Americans were accepting of a family member marrying outside of his or her race, with the level of acceptance depending on the races in question.
According to the study, the biggest factor in determining whether a person marries inside or outside his or her race is largely due to the person’s individual personalities. For some members of a mixed marriage, the partnership is a surprise even to them.
Nick Gonzalez-Bush, a 29-year-old independent insurance salesman, has a Latina mother and a Caucasian father. Growing up, he was certain he would marry a Latina or African American woman, but no African Americans attended his high school just outside of Corvallis, Oregon. Eventually, he married Alycia, a fair-skinned, blonde-haired woman a couple weeks after his twenty-first birthday.
Alycia Gonzalez-Bush, who is pregnant with their fourth child, says the pairing was unexpected for her too.
“I’m like, ‘Wow,’ ” she says. “I really don’t know who or what my husband is going to look like.”
For this couple, a shared faith was far more important than physical appearance. Since meeting the summer after high school graduation, Nick and Alycia’s biggest connection has been through Christianity. Without their relationship with God, the couple believes their own marriage would be missing an element.
“It multiplies it, magnifies it, makes it better,” Nick says. “It showed me in a bigger picture how I met Alycia and where we came from.”
But interracial unions are not without their challenges—particularly when the partners are also from different cultures.
In 2006, Tanell Ogbeide, 37, met a native Nigerian named Wilson Ogbeide, 35. She fell in love with his warm and upbeat personality, and he was drawn to her passion for life. They were married six years later.
“When I was dating, I wasn’t looking at her culturally,” says Wilson. “I was looking at her individually, you know? We get along.” His accent is heavy, but toned from years of bouncing between countries like Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy before landing in the United States. When he tells a story, he takes up the whole room with gestures, standing up and spreading his arms as wide as they go. When conversation is more serious, he sits down and leans in.
Although the Ogbeides have a solid, loving relationship and a growing family, they acknowledge that marrying someone with a different background can sometimes be hard.
For example, Wilson says he was surprised at the way Tanell made a simple cup of tea. Instead of adding milk after the tea was ready, Tanell added it first. If a Nigerian had made tea this way, Wilson says he would have been frustrated. However, he understood that his wife didn’t know the Nigerian custom of tea-making. Tanell smiles and defends herself through Wilson’s playful re-telling. When the story ends, they sit even closer together.
“You should know that you will be able to handle the cultural differences before(hand),” Tanell says. “And if someone isn’t sure, then they shouldn’t commit for life.”
In addition to the internal compromises that every couple must face, interracial couples are often subjected to the scrutiny—and sometimes, the outright disapproval—of the outside world.
Though the Pew study reports that four in ten Americans view interracial marriage as good for society, 11 percent of Americans feel its increase is a change for the worse. Brittany and Joey Horner found themselves on the receiving end of that statistic at a Wal-Mart in Woodburn, Oregon several years ago. A woman in her seventies or eighties completely stopped shopping and glared at them as they shopped.
“She was just looking us up and down with that look,” Brittany says. “She was obviously judging us because of who we are together.”
Although the Horners felt the experience was eye-opening to the realities of modern prejudices, it didn’t affect the their relationship. In the four years they’ve been together, they’ve grown as any loving couple does, regardless of race.
“Our relationship is better now than it was then,” Joey says. “I think we know now that we can only be strong and move on together in our relationship.”
The young couple sits next to each other on their tan loveseat in their dimly lit, immaculate apartment with its perfectly mismatched pictures on the wall. Joey occasionally rubs Brittany’s back; she occasionally squeezes his knee as they reflect upon their relationship so far.
“Things have been perfect,” Brittany says. “Beyond perfect. Almost too good.”
While Brittany continues to reminisce, Joey slips his hand between the couch cushions, leans into his wife, and crosses his fingers—a secret wish for their continued happiness.