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When parents don't approve of your interracial relationship

Photo by jude hill/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Not long after actress and writer Diane Farr exchanged her first "I love you" with her now-husband, Seung Yong Chung, he gave her some crushing news: Their relationship would not go over well with his Korean parents. “I’m supposed to marry a Korean girl,” he told her.

Upset as she was, Farr remembered the rules imposed by her own Irish-Italian parents, who had once forbidden her from dating anyone who was black or Puerto Rican. And many of her friends' parents, she later learned, had also imposed similar rules on their children.

She was determined to fight for her beau, and he for his parents to accept her. The couple's story, which has a happy ending, is the basis for Farr's new memoir, titled “Kissing Outside the Lines: A True Story of Love and Race and Happily Ever After,” published by Seal Press. She provided a taste of their story in a recent “Modern Love” column for the New York Times.

Farr, who lives in Los Angeles, talks here about the road to acceptance within her husband's family, how her parents changed their attitudes about race and love, and the road that lies ahead for their three children.

M-A: When your husband told you that his parents would likely not accept you, how did you make peace with that? There was the possibility that they never might, or that your relationship might cause him to be alienated from them. How did you cope with that?

Farr: From the first conversation I had with my husband about his parents' wish that he marry a Korean person, I felt badly for him. Specifically because it was such a double edged sword. He had this new, great love in his life - but he had this fear of telling the other people he loved about it. I think the inherent sadness of that made me want to "help him," find a way to possibly make the two parts work together.

It was a very real possibility that I would never be accepted by his family and even worse, that he might be disowned or at least never spoken to again because he wanted to marry me. As I detail in my book, from our first conversation where Seung "admitted" the long history of conversations about who was welcome for love in his house, and who was not, I told him I would support him if he wanted to persue our relationship because I was a grown woman, with my own job and my own career and my own mommy and daddy.

I wasn't financially dependent on his parents, he did not live with them and I did not "need" them. My real hope was that he would not lose them because I guessed he did need them. I said I was willing to work with him to attain that, first and foremost.

M-A: What was it like meeting them for the first time?

Farr: There was so much vetting done before my first meeting with them that it was incredibly smooth compared to the ardous path I had just climbed to get into their company. My biggest travails were with Seung's aunts and uncles who were, sort of, auditioning me or interviewing me and at times just staring at me without one word, to decide if I should have an audience with his mom and dad. By the time I got to his parents, they were a walk in the park.

M-A: In your essay, you mention being surprised that many of your friends whose parents imposed similar rules were willing to abide by them. Did any of them rationalize their parents' rules, and how?

Farr: Everyone rationalized their parents' rules - including me. My parents were not that different than Seung's. They had their own list of who I could and couldn't date. What surprised me most about so many of my peers and about Seung was that they hadn't fought for their right to pick their own partner with their parents.

Even though Seung and so many people I talked to didn't agree or support the parents' narrow-minded boundaries, they didn't bother to fight them on this. Sometimes out of fear, often out of respect and even more often waiting to see if they absolutely had to, which is what Seung did.

I'm not sure if me fighting with my mom and dad from 18 to 25 was harder won than Seung fighting with his parents over just me at his age. But thankfully, we both got the results we wanted and our parents are more well-rounded people for it.

M-A: On your end, did your decision to date Seung affect any relationships for you? Did you feel any judgment from anyone in your extended family?

Farr: There was a very small adjustment in my family when I said, "I met this man I really like - and he is Korean." Dating an Asian person was not an inflamatory thing for my family. In fact, if there was any stereotype that had to be shed it was that he was a nerd or a geek, who was shorter and thinner than me, who would be socially akward around my loud-mouthed Italian clan.

I can't even say for sure that anyone really felt this, but I see how my friends and relatives try to explain my husband to people before they meet him, and they are teasing and joking that he is not that guy. So I would imagine that is the image they've felt they have to dispel.

M-A: You wrote that your parents learned to like an ex-boyfriend who was black "despite themselves." How did they go about accepting him? Did they truly become more open-minded?

Farr: The boyfriend that "broke them" was an interesting case. He was only half-black and looking at him, this was incredibly obvious, unless perhaps you had told your daughter her entire life that she was forbidden to date a black person. When I brought this particular man home, my parents loved him because he is a kind, funny, hard working person - just like them.

After a weekend at their house my mom made a comment about really liking him and then half jokingly said that I might want to meet his family because he really might be part black. When I explained that I had met his family and that they were just as lovely as him and they were indeed black, my mom really didn't have a leg to stand on.

I further explained that he is the exact child that she feared would never be accepted by either race (which was always why she said she was against this type of partnership) but that he moved with ease in both social circles. This was a hard time in my family because both my parents pleaded with me for quite some time, always couching that they liked him but hoped I wouldn't put myself in "this situation."

But really, I knew some of this was left over fear and posturing. So much so when that boyfriend and I broke up, I never told my parents and continued to let them process the idea of my spending my life with someone different than whom they had imagined. So yes, my parents did have an actual change in heart - not just a party line statement that changed - I think mostly because I did not demand one on the spot or on my own timetable. It was a long, long time after that relationship ended when my mother came to say, "You are right and we are wrong, and I will not only accept anyone in your life you choose, but please know we feel we were wrong to ever impose those boundaries."

My mother was in her late forties at this time, and it was a big turn for her. I'm very proud that we worked on that together. My mom was a huge advocate of me writing this book, and helping other families through this last prejudice that exists primarily at home.

M-A: The book goes on to tell the rest of the story. Without giving it away, can you tell us a bit about how Seung's parents finally came to accept you? Are there any ways in which the relationship with them remains rocky?

Farr: To be honest, there are times when I think that Seung's parents originally came to accept me because he was 35 years old and for them, culturally, they really wanted him to be married. If he and I had been a decade younger, I don't know that they ever would have come around to giving me a chance.

However, by the time I met them, given Seung's age and having met most of the relatives who gave me the green light, when we all finally spent a day together in their home, they really did look at me as a person - not just the person they feared. Specifically, they were open to seeing that I was a person who was a lot like them that day. Polite, respectful, well-read, eager to learn, eager to engage. There was no hallmark moment on the day, it was the patient and diligent work we did before I got to their house that helped our plight. And I share all of that path, the funny points and the sad ones, in my book because if I can help one other family get to that place - the place where they size each other up by their humanity, rather than where their ancestors came from - then it was worth every moment I spent writing it.

M-A: What other notable challenges have their been? How much of a challenge has parenting been in a bicultural relationship?

Farr: My children are young, but I have not seen one challenge parenting biracial or bicultural kids. As a couple, we have a path to work on to continually improve our relationship. For us, specifically, our hardest task is for my husband to open up more and talk about his feelings and for me to quiet down some, and not dominate the emotional content of our conversations. Now you could absolutely argue that this is because of his culture and mine (Asians typically talk less about feelings, and Italians? Do I have to spell it out what we are known for?). But isn't it also true that 90 percent of male/female partnerships are working on this? So let me be the first to say, I don't think anything we are working on currently has a thing to do with race.

M-A: Lastly, you mentioned in your essay how this is by no means a post-racial society, which it's not, even in a place like Los Angeles. What reminders of this have you and your husband - or your children - encountered? What do you hope for when they are grown, and are themselves dating?

Farr: I really wonder what it will be like for my children when they pick dates when they never had a secret conversation about worth or value associated with race, religion or culture. I understand that each of those facets of society is valued differently by what we see on TV, by what we hear from politicians, and by all sorts of statistics, from incarceration rates to what they will see for themselves in the workforce.

But my hope, and it is one I am investing a lot in, is that if I teach them true equality at home, and a firm belief in the golden rule as it pertains to all people, that they will never see any differences in people due to color or faith or ethnicity. Therefore when they see injustices because of it, they may want to do something about it.