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Despite Progress, Many Still Find Interracial Marriage Icky

People say they’re OK with it, but new experiments suggest otherwise.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Ferran Jordà/Flickr)

In the years since Loving v. Virginia,the landmark case that ended anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, Americans have grown increasingly more comfortable with the idea of interracial couples. Or so they say—a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that, beneath our explicit approval, lies an implicit disgust with the idea of interracial relationships.

There have been hints to that effect for years. While only 11 percent of those surveyed in a recent Pew Research Center report said that the growing number of interracial marriages in the U.S. was a change for the worse, only 43 percent said that it was a good thing; the remainder saw it as neither good nor bad. What’s more, only about two-thirds of Americans—black, white, Asian, and Hispanic—said they’d be OK with a family member marrying someone of a different ethnicity. (Predictably, those numbers increase substantially among younger Americans.)

Researchers Allison Skinner and Caitlin Hudac wanted to get to the bottom of Americans’ complicated feelings toward interracial relationships. Their hypothesis: Deep down, we find blacks’ and whites’ romantic interminglings kind of gross. To test that idea, they first asked 152 undergraduates to rate how disgusted they felt by the thought of blacks and whites in romantic relationships, and how acceptable they found such relationships. Although the disgust ratings were, on average, quite low—6.5 points on a 100-point scale—they were strongly correlated to how acceptable students thought interracial romances were.

Only about two-thirds of Americans said they’d be OK with a family member marrying someone of a different ethnicity.

More compelling evidence comes from an implicit association test (IAT), which psychologists use to uncover prejudices we might not like to admit, or that we’re not even aware we harbor. In a standard IAT, participants are asked to sort pictures (on a computer screen) of black and white people mixed in with words that evoke positive or negative feelings, such as “triumph” or “scorn.”

The first task is to categorize those pictures and words, though in an unusual fashion: pressing one key on a keyboard for “black or good,” and another for “white or bad.” The second task flips that, so that now the categories are “black or bad” versus “white or good.” The trick is that, if people associate “black” with “bad”—consciously or not—it’ll be easier for them to categorize pictures and words in the second than in the first. In practice, that shows up when people take slightly less time to perform the second task versus the first.

In Skinner and Hudac’s version, the pictures were wedding photographs of same-race and different-race couples, and good-versus-bad was replaced by a notion of dehumanization, represented by silhouettes of people and animals. Disconcertingly, when 200 undergrads took that IAT, their results indicated they dehumanized interracial couples to some extant. Skinner and Hudac also found they could amplify the effect. Prior to the IAT, half the subjects looked at a series of disgusting images, such as dirty toilets or people vomiting, while the other half looked at cityscapes and other more pleasant images. Those who saw disgusting images showed an even greater tendency to dehumanize interracial couples, compared with those who saw pleasant images.

“[A]lthough most of the extant evidence suggests that people in the U.S. are explicitly accepting of interracial romance,” Skinner and Hudac write, “our findings suggest that there may still be considerable affective and implicit bias against interracial couples.”