Books & Arts
Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.
Posted December 18, 2005
nytlogo.gif (3067 bytes) ny weekinreview.gif (1173 bytes)

Home for the Holidays


In-Laws in the Age of the Outsisers
in-laws 2.jpg (8571 bytes)

Everett Collection

Coming to Terms Meeting new family can be touchy. A scene from the 1967 film "Gues Who's Coming to Dinner."       
in-laws 1.gif (26108 bytes)

Scott Menchin


SHE was in the kitchen trying to bond with her boyfriend's mother and help prepare the food when the older woman made a remark that effectively shut the conversation down.

I asked to try one of the chicken wings she was cooking, and she says, 'Oh, these might be a little too spicy for what you're used to,' " said Serene Hammond, 25, of Washington, recalling a cookout she attended five years ago.

Ms. Hammond said she felt odd at the time, and later, insulted. Her father is Haitian, her mother Irish, and she is fair-skinned. The boyfriend's family is black.

"The way I took that comment was, 'Well, this is too hot for what y'all white people eat,' " said Ms. Hammond, who since founded a group called the National Advocacy for the Multiethnic, a clearinghouse for multiracial education. "I said, 'No, I'm from Louisiana.' " She added, "I think a lot of white women who date black men get some of that treatment."

He's black. She's white. And the relatives? Well, they may need some special handling.

Whether innocent or intentional, even a casual remark or gesture can turn a rainbow holiday feast into a version of "Meet the Parents" or "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" - without the laughs and tearful hugs.

According to Census data, the number of mixed families and couples is increasing each year, from 4.4 percent of all marriages in 1990 to 6.7 percent in 2000. Fully a third of marriages involving Hispanics are interracial, ditto for Asian marriages, and the rate among black Americans is now about 13 percent, and among whites 7 percent, Dr. William Frey of the Brookings Institution concluded from a further analysis of the data.

Many families are delighted or unfazed by having an outsider join them. But many others know another reality: the imminent arrival of a new spouse or girlfriend who is a cultural foreigner almost always amplifies the anxiety they already feel as they try to live up to the holiday-card photos they send out with everyone hugging the Irish setter, or gathered around the tree, psychologists say. It is hard not to resent having to play ambassador when routine domestic relations themselves are tense, when it's hard enough to keep dad and junior from coming to blows at Thanksgiving, say, or to ease the awkwardness between sisters who are not speaking.

Artful entertaining, psychologists say, requires some understanding of both the traps inherent in hosting a cultural outsider and the opportunities.

Most obviously, the new person can buffer or distract from simmering family problems by acting as an outside witness of the family's behavior and an obligatory conversation partner, family therapists say. When a new person enters any closed group, whether in business, sports or in a family, sociologists have found, there is a tacit agreement that the newcomer initially take a place on the margin: often literally, by sitting against the wall, say, a few chairs away from the insiders. Typically, in a family gathering, people take turns approaching the new arrival and opening communication, which can divert attention away from the usual jealousies and grudges that are inflamed in the family's usual rituals.

"Particularly if this person is interesting, he or she can become an attraction," said Dr. Calvin Morrill, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine who studies group interaction.

A guest who has suffered personal hardship, as an immigrant for instance, might also serve to shrink, at least temporarily, the more petty claims of unfairness that swirl around the table at any family gathering.

Psychologists who study interracial marriages have found that two things are particularly divisive and troublesome to these couples. One concerns children. In-laws almost by definition have strong opinions about their grandchildren or future grandchildren - about how they should be raised and where, and how they might be treated by peers. This topic is best left for another time.

"This issue may be most volatile when the husband is black and the wife is white - white wives' parents sometimes reject the offspring and reject the black husband simultaneously," said Dr. Stanley Gaines, a senior lecturer in psychology at Brunel University in England, in an e-mail.

The second problem is the tendency of people to resort to racial stereotypes - when conflict arises, "even if the conflict initially had nothing to do with race per se," Dr. Gaines added.

The bottom line, psychologists say, is that holiday gatherings are perhaps the worst time to try to settle longstanding disputes. Racial stereotyping does not go down well with gravy, no matter how justified the underlying conflicts.

Smaller misunderstandings are almost unavoidable, therapists say. "I think you have to expect that there's going to be some discomfort, some awkwardness when you're entertaining this new person, and to prepare for that" and weather it, said Dr. Constance Ahrons, a psychologist in San Diego and author of the book, "We're Still Family."

When possible, she said, prepare other family members beforehand as well, by informing cousins, aunts and uncles as much about the new spouse or boyfriend as possible. "You may find that some family members decide not to come at all, because they're uncomfortable with the situation," she said. If one of those people came, it might be asking for worse trouble, she said.

Entertaining a guest of a different race or religion can also provide an excuse for one of the most effective strategies to soothe and preempt family discord: structured activities.

In a study of how family reunions affect personal relationships, Dr. Laurence Basirico, dean of international programs at Elon University in Elon, N.C., interviewed 566 readers of Reunions Magazine, a journal for planning reunions of all kinds. Those surveyed included families across the country who attended large gatherings. In his analysis, Dr. Basirico found that the most satisfying reunions were those that were highly planned, with scheduled events each day that were mostly optional.

If the new visitor is a fundamentalist Christian who objects to watching a Harry Potter film, or a Muslim who would rather skip the late-night drinking, they are warned and have an out.

"They simply take a pass, and there are no conflicts over these small decisions about what we should do and when, which can turn into big arguments, especially if you don't know what some of the underlying cultural differences may be," Dr. Basirico said in an interview.

Keep in mind, too, that it is not only the hosts who are worried and plotting. Dr. Ahrons recently had as clients a gay couple, one black and the other white, who, she said, spent weeks preparing for a visit to the white man's family, who was very uncomfortable with the relationship. The pair role-played a bit, and did some of their own scheduling. And they had their own plan for defusing trouble.

"One thing they planned was simply to get out of the house regularly," she said. "They would just excuse themselves at a certain time and off they went to get a drink."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, December 18, 2005., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous