By: Marwa Mohkam Sheikh
“Sometimes we will get looks and question marks, but overall I think we’re very lucky because we live in a very diverse and liberal society,” says Adil Kanji, describing his interracial marriage with Jessica Renzella.
According to the National Household Survey’s most recent statistics, 4.6% of all couples in private households in Canada were interracial in 2011 compared to 2.6% couples in 1991.
Renzella and Kanji are just one such couple living in Toronto city. After dating for almost 4.5 years, they got married in July. While Kanji is an Ismaili Muslim of East-African and Indian origin, Renzella is a Roman Catholic of Italian origin. Navigating a relationship and attaining wedded bliss has been an educational journey for them both. The important part of their journey hasn’t been dealing with the reactions from society, but learning to adapt to each other.
“I think there were a lot of daily differences that we had to get used to,” Renzella says. The concept of two people trying to make a life together is difficult enough as it is, but add a variation in cultural backgrounds and the whole thing becomes significantly more complex.
For instance, with the Ismaili religion, Friday nights and Saturday nights are typically when you go to Mosque, and for the Catholic tradition you’re typically celebrating your religion on Sunday morning, Renzella says.
“It’s a very different set of rituals and practices that we were going through, so learning those practices, and just getting used to the schedule of things was definitely a challenge,” Renzella says.
Nikita Singh is a university student from an Indo-Guyanese background who has been dating Italian-Canadian college student Marco Tenaglia for two years. Singh says being in an interracial relationship doesn’t mean that they’re giving up on their roots, but rather that they are exposing themselves to something new.
There’s a certain reality that our race does inform how we see the world says Susan Valentine, a relationship and couples therapist.
“Certain cultures have different ideas on relationships and different worldviews on emotional expression and vulnerability,” she says.
Singh says educating yourself on these different ways of doing things and dealing with them is what makes interracial relationships distinct. For example, Singh likes Bollywood movies because she grew up watching them, but she’s had to introduce them to Tenaglia. While she enjoys their flare of drama and colorful music and dance, Tenaglia is still trying to get used to this foreign cinema.
“The way I think of certain situations or cultural practices is normal to me because I was brought up with it, but it’s different for him and so I have to teach him from scratch,” Singh says.
Kanji says he and his wife are able to handle such situations because they’ve had a factor of being mindful of each other’s preferences from early on in their relationship.
“We focus on the bigger picture rather than the individual differences,” Renzella says. “And there’s also a deep respect for the differences.”
Often, it’s not even the couples that are the problem. Now that they’re married, Kanji says one of the biggest hurdles that they’re faced with is questions from relatives about what their household will look like in terms of religious beliefs and cultural celebrations.
In terms of how often and how much of a problem such a cultural clash can be for families of interracial couples, Susan Valentine says that it relates to the particular dynamic the individual shares with their family.
“I think it really depends on how much that family of origin embraces their culture and how much that informs their worldview,” Valentine says. Despite belonging to traditional families in their respective cultures, Kanji and Renzella were fortunate enough to have supportive parents and were able to get their relatives on board by having sit-down conversations with them early on.
“I think families are the major reason why relationships will or won’t work and that’s an even bigger prevalence in interracial relationships,” Kanji says. “So if those conversations with your family aren’t happening early on and if they aren’t positive then that’s something that I think needs to be revisited.”
As a therapist, Valentine emphasizes the importance of such communication, explaining that a relationship is best protected when the couple set certain boundaries with family members, and maintain their own close connection. Even in the face of various obstacles it appears that people are now finding more reasons to be together than to stay away.
“It’s such a positive thing,” Singh says. “It shows that we’re transitioning towards a more accepting world.”