Rise of mixed-race unions in Canada softening identity labels

The elevation of Kamala Harris to vice-president-elect of the United States of America has many probing the significance of mixed-race partnerships.

Many celebrate how the daughter of an Indian mother and Black father went on to marry a white Jewish lawyer named Douglas Emhoff. Optimists see her journey as a creative blurring of ancestries, which might help soften the harder divisions of identity politics.

Interracial couples make up about 10 per cent of all relationships in the U.S. and about five per cent in Britain and Canada.

While many countries have almost no mixed-race unions, in Brazil roughly 33 per cent of marriages cross racial lines, making ethnic identity highly fluid in that nation. What does it mean for such societies?

A peer-reviewed 2019 research study by Richard Alba of City University of New York and Jeffrey Reitz of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto found most people in mixed unions, and their children, feel more integrated into mainstream culture than do members of a single minority group.

In Canada and the U.S., more than four out of five members of minority groups who enter a live-in relationship with someone from another ethnicity do so with a woman or man of European background.

The researchers discovered Americans and Canadians with such “majority-minority” identities tend to feel mainstream and experience less discrimination than offspring of a single ethnic minority.

Statistics Canada figures show mixed unions are rising across the country.

The portion of members of single ethnic groups who were inclined to marry or form common-law relationships beyond their group grew slightly in 2016 compared to 2006. It’s intriguing to note the variations among each group.

Women of Latina, South-East Asian and Japanese descent in Canada are the most likely to form live-in partnerships with men outside their ethnic group, according to 2016 census data. Remarkably, 88 per cent of Japanese women in Canada link up with men of another ethnic group.

Meanwhile, 37 per cent of Korean women seek partners of a different ethnicity, 34 per cent of Filipinas and 24 per cent of Blacks and ethnic Chinese.

The ethnic groups in Canada in which women in 2016 were least likely to find partners beyond their cohort include whites (eight per cent) and South Asians (people from India and Pakistan), seven per cent of whom partner with someone outside their cohort.

In general, Feng Hou, a demographics research scholar, has found members of larger ethnic groups in Canada contain fewer people who marry or form common-law relationships outside their group.

The fresh Statistics Canada figures also point to differences between the readiness that males and females show toward entering mixed unions.

For instance, 85 per cent of men of Chinese descent in Canada partnered in the same ethnic group in 2016, compared to 76 per cent of Chinese women. Only 56 per cent of Black men formed unions with members of their own racial group, compared to 76 per cent of Black women.

What do these intermarriage trends mean for the rapidly growing number of children of such unions?

The percentage of children of mixed ethnicity in Canada, say Alba and Reitz, jumped from eight per cent in 2001 to 15 per cent in 2016 (if Aboriginal people were not included, the 2016 rate would be nine per cent). That compares to 15 per cent of U.S. children, but that figures doesn’t include Aboriginal people.

The researchers found Canadians of mixed heritage were more likely than children of a single minority ancestry to report feeling and acting as if they were mainstream Canadians.

People who had a mix of European and non-European ancestry were far more likely to say they felt “comfortable” in Canada than those of a single minority ethnicity (72 per cent compared to 54 per cent).

They were also more inclined to describe themselves as “white” (57 per cent to seven per cent) and to say they had not been discriminated against (76 per cent to 56 per cent).

The minority group members who partnered with people of European ancestry who were most inclined to feel like “mainstream Canadians” were Latinos and Arabs. The partners of Europeans who felt the least mainstream were Black Canadians.

Although Alba and Reitz found “the distance of white-Black Canadians from the others is not as extreme as is the case for white-Black individuals in the U.S.,” they drew attention to the discouraging results among the offspring of Black-white parents.

While the children of most majority-minority parents end up having roughly the same financial and educational success as children of two white parents, that wasn’t the case for the Canadian children of Black-white parents.

Despite such serious concerns, Alba and Reitz concluded Canada’s rising rates of intermarriage and mixed-race children will contribute to more people feeling integrated into the larger culture in the future.

While the authors didn’t spell out the political consequences, a related British survey by Ipsos Mori found the increasing number of people who have identities that are difficult to label “weakens rigid identity positions” and leads to fewer people being wary of national institutions.

Clearly, people of any and all ethnicities can make a big difference in their societies. As illustrated by the life and career of Kamala Harris, a senator and former California attorney general, studies also suggest the blurring of ethnicities through-intermarriage can help some feel ready to contribute robustly to the wider culture and the common good.

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