Stir It Up: Race and Newlywed Marriages

by Oliver Wang


I attended a wedding this past weekend, the third one this summer. It was a "mixed" wedding of sorts since the bride was half-White, half-Chicano and her husband was "full" Chicano. Their reception had a light Mexican theme to it, including a table of homemade aqua frescas, the Latin Gents band, and the catering was by CaCao, an Eagle Rock "Mexicatessen."

Every wedding I've been to this summer has featured some kind of ethnic theme given the mix of couples. The last one was between a former student of mine (Chinese) and his longtime girlfriend (Filipino); their caterer was a Filipino BBQ joint and during the cocktail hour, they had Chinese-style egg-rolls (sadly, no lumpia though). The wedding previous to that were friends of my wife: groom = Cambodian, bride = White. Their caterers were strictly L.A. carnivore, but they did include a trio of traditional Cambodian wedding ceremonies (reduced from at least triple the number, normally spread over several days), my daughter's favorite being when people threw wheat kernels at the couple.

In fact, in prepping for this column, I asked my wife when was the last time we attended a wedding that wasn't mixed and we couldn't remember. Since our own wedding in 2005 (2nd generation Chinese American/4th generation Japanese American), we've attended about 10 more, with some of the combinations being White/Chinese (old roommate), Chinese/Filipino (my cousin), and Japanese/Chinese (my wife's cousin). Last year, I DJed a wedding for a friend-of-a-friend: Indian/White.

Given all this, I was more than mildly surprised to learn in this new Pew Research Center report[1] that of all the current marriages in America, only 8 percent are mixed. Amongst "new" marriages (based on 2008 and 2009 data), the number almost doubles, to 14.6 percent, but that's still relatively small.

There's a few huge caveats we need to acknowledge right off the bat. First of all, this tracks marriages, not dating patterns (the former being much easier to document). Second, it's only looking at heterosexual marriages (a limitation that I hope will be remedied by 2020, if not sooner). Third, any discussion of "outmarrying" or "mixed marriage" rests on the slippery language of race and ethnicity and the more you try to untangle our classifications, the more you realize just how arbitrary and nonsensical many of these distinctions are.

For example, as anyone who filled out their 2010 Census might have observed, "Hispanic/Latino" is not a race (no doubt, many on both sides of the current immigration debate might contest this) but an "ethnicity" and they are the only group who receive "ethnicity status" on the Census. Regardless, the Pew's data (which uses Census categories) classifies marriages between "Hispanic Whites" and "non-Hispanic Whites" as a form of "outmarrying."

However, though none of the Census' Asian groups - Chinese, Korean, Filipino, etc. - are classified as ethnicities, the Pew's data treat them as belonging to the same race. Therefore, the Chinese/Filipino wedding I attended or my own marriage would be listed as intra-racial pairings, not an inter-racial ones. Suffice to say, the science of measuring race/ethnicity and marriage requires one to just accept certain standards even if they don't make much sense.[2]

This disclaimer out of the way, let's dig into the Pew findings. There's much to chew on here so let me just highlight a few points:

1) Much to my surprise, the group least likely to outmarry = White (less than 10 percent of new marriages). Of course, inter-ethnic marriages aren't tracked (sorry Chelsea/Marc) but given the number of inter-racial marriages I've been to involving a White spouse, I assumed the percentage would be higher. It actually makes more sense when you look at it from the other direction: for all racial groups who outmarry, their partners are predominantly White, ranging from roughly 60 percent for African Americans, ~73 percent for Asian Americans, and ~80 percent for Hispanics. Demographically, this makes sense: Whites are the most numerous amongst American groups so in terms of likelihood of social contact, the odds are in their favor. (Not everyone would necessarily agree that these trends are purely statistical however but we can get to that later).

Of the small minority of Whites who do outmarry, nearly half of their preferred partners are Latino. Again, based on demographics this makes sense, though if one adjusted for relative populations, it's more striking that 27 percent of White men who outmarry, do so with Asian women, who only constitute about 5 percent of the marriage pool, compared to Latinos, who hover around 15 percent.

2) For all the current talk about how Latinos don't assimilate, if marriage is one metric of assimilation (and it certainly has been used as such in the past), it's hard to buy into that argument. About a quarter of Latinos in 2008/9 outmarried (compared with only 9 percent of Whites) and of those, between 77.5 and 83.3 percent did so with non-Hispanic Whites. Among all major American racial/ethnic groups, only Asian American outmarry at a higher rate.

Notably too, Latinos who were polled seem generally accepting of outmarriage within their family, a few points more so than Whites who were polled (African Americans were most accepting and Asians weren't included in the poll).

3) If marriage can be used as a proxy for desirability, what stands out is that the least likely outmarriage partners are Black women and Asian men. Alas, this does not make for natural allies—less than 6 percent of Black women marry Asian men and vice versa. It seems only on reality t.v. or fantasy t.v. are these couples prominent.[3]

4) TNC has delved into interracial marriage trends within the African American community at some length so I won't retread those discussions. I did want to highlight some of the trends amongst Asian Americans, who, according to the Pew study, are the most likely to outmarry (30 percent of newlywed Asians are not married to Asians).

Within the Asian American community, this trend has existed for decades and is a never-ending source of debate and tension. The dumbed down version (emphasis on "dumb") usually finds Asian men accusing Asian women of selling them out in favor of (usually) White men but once you start to look at the newlywed data, it seems that regardless of sex, if you're an American-born Asian, the odds of you marrying a non-Asian skyrocket (and if a study looked at inter-Asian-ethnic marriages amongst American-born men and women, I'd guarantee the percentage would be even higher).

Some 40 percent of Asian women outmarry, compared to only 20 percent of Asian men...and surprisingly, this gap has grown since 1980, when the ratio was 1.5:1 instead of 2:1. But that's looking at all Asians, regardless of generation. For example, about one-third of foreign-born Asian women outmarry compared to roughly half of American-born Asian women. Among men though, while about 12 percent of foreign-born Asian men outmarry, that percentage nearly quadruples to 42 percent when you're counting American-born Asian men. In other words, 1 out 2 American-born Asian women outmarry, 2 out of 5 American-born Asian men do the same; that's not a huge difference and certainly showers cold water on the overheated idea that Asian women are "abandoning their people" in droves. Sex has little to do with it; generation is a far more powerful indicator.

Why this outmarriage trend would be so markedly higher amongst the American-born...well, that's a discussion for another time. All I would say is that demographic arguments are not terribly convincing given that most Asian Americans live in the same urban clusters as other Asian Americans. The old "I was the only Asian in my hometown" chestnut holds less and less water with every generation and besides, the rate of marriage amongst foreign-born and American-born Asians is roughly the same, suggesting that population distribution isn't slowing down the ability of Asians to find marriage partners, regardless of generational status.

Anyways, apologies for this being such a massive first post and I'm sure there's much to unpack here in the comments.


*The photo up top is of Mildred and Richard Loving.

[1] I linked to the full report, but if you want to be lazy about it, you can read the exec. summary).

[2] There's a few outmarriage combinations not addressed in the study at all, for example, how one would classify an Iranian/White wedding (currently, the Census has no categories to designate a Middle Eastern heritage though, had it not been for 9/11, I'm almost certain the 2010 would have included some). I'm also curious how a marriage between a Hispanic White (say, Cuban) and Hispanic Black (say, Dominican) would be classified.

[3] Complex Magazine had a hilarious "Definitive History of Asian Men Dating Outside Their Race" but the overwhelming number of those were of fictional couples. (Weak!)