I'm Albanian, my boyfriend is Panamanian, and my dad is prejudiced

I've been dating him secretly, but I'm sick of hiding my love.

Published July 21, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Hi, Cary,

My name is Maria and I just turned 21 years old. I've been with my boyfriend for two years now. My parents at first knew that I was going out with him, but later they disapproved of my relationship since my brother found out that my boyfriend is not the same race as I am. I am Albanian and my boyfriend is Panamanian, which means that he has a light chocolate color. My parents always talk negative about Hispanic guys, that they don't know how to take care of a female and that they're cheaters.

In addition, my parents are concerned what people will say about it. That's why they disapprove -- and of course the color also. My parents are very old-fashioned. I had such a big argument with them that they even threw me out of the house. As I already said, since they are concerned about what others are going say, they took me back home. For the past year and a half I have told them that I am no longer dating this guy and that I am single.

For the past month or so, I have felt that I shouldn't hide anymore from my family. I want to scream loud that I am going out with him. I do not know what to do. I do not know what will happen. My boyfriend says it is OK that my family does not know, but I know that deep inside him he wants my family to approve of us. We are in a serious, happy and satisfied relationship, and we are thinking about the future. Please help -- advise on what should I do.

Why does color have to matter so much?


Dear Maria,

If you are thinking about the future, then you are probably thinking about getting married. If you marry, your boyfriend will become part of your family. So let's cut to the chase: Rather than argue with your father about racism, let's think of actions your boyfriend can take to become known and liked by your family in his own right, as an individual. People may harbor deeply racist ideas, but they will often forget to apply them when they become persuaded about the goodness of an individual.

In America today we do not have many rites or customs by which suitors can ask for the approval of families and demonstrate their worthiness, and by which families can formally evaluate potential mates for their children. So we rely on the best judgments we can make. That may be one reason your father is objecting to the fact that your boyfriend is Panamanian; he doesn't have much else to go on. He thinks he knows something about Panamanians. What we need to do is give him some way of getting some firsthand information about your boyfriend so that he can see that your boyfriend is a good and honorable young man.

Your parents want to protect you. They want the best for you. They want you to be happy. The problem is that they have mistaken ideas. They think that there is a strong link between skin color and character, but studies have shown that such a link doesn't exist. Although it is possible sometimes to generalize about people in certain ways, skin color is not an accurate indicator of behavior. Their objection based on skin color is an outdated superstition.

Superstitions are reassuring to people; they satisfy a need to believe that the world is orderly and knowable. So it is very hard to get people to give up their superstitions. What you can do, however, is give them enough evidence so that in this case at least, they will make an exception.

The way to do this is to arrange events so they can see for themselves what kind of a young man your boyfriend is.

Is there anything your father does, such as work around the house or on a vehicle, that your boyfriend could help your father with? What about activities that he and your father could do together -- fixing the front steps, pouring a sidewalk, playing duets, carving wood, anything? What does your father take pride in? Does he like sports? Perhaps your boyfriend could provide your father with tickets to a baseball or basketball game. You could just tell your dad he had a couple of extra tickets and wanted to give them to him. No big deal. You don't want to force them to attend a game together. That might happen, but don't force it. Just put the tickets on the table and your dad can make up his mind.

It's important to do these things gradually and in a casual manner, as if they just sort of came up.

As to the question of how to break it to your parents that you are going out with him, I would try to do that in a low-key way too. I don't think it's necessary to make a big, dramatic confession to them that you've been lying all this time. Think of some way, if possible, to put it gently. Maybe say that while you had been broken up for a while, you saw him recently. Maybe that's all you say. Keep it low key. See how they react.

Also, try to enlist the help of your brother. How does he feel about your boyfriend? Does he like him? Could they become friends? Is your brother racist like your dad, or did he just happen to mention the fact that your boyfriend is Panamanian? Brothers can be helpful in these matters: Your father probably values your brother's opinion. So you may want to look for ways your boyfriend can get to know your brother, too. Perhaps they like the same music or the same sports.

In a certain sense, your boyfriend is going to have to court your family, as he courted you. And how did he court you? He charmed you, right? He appeared to you as an attractive person. He made you feel good. He did kind things for you. He brought you things, little presents, things he knew you would like. He has to do the same thing with your family -- your father in particular.

And at first your father will likely have some objections -- as you probably did. I'm guessing you had some opinions about your boyfriend at first, not all of them positive. When you first met, you probably resisted in some ways. You could not be sure about his intentions -- you didn't know enough about him. So you were cautious.

Do not let your father's initial objections deter you. If you are serious about this young man, your father will sense it when you do not give up easily, and that will be a factor he will weigh.

Good luck. Racial prejudice is a deadly and tenacious superstition. Individuals cling to it with horrific stubbornness. It is hard to make anyone give it up entirely. What you can do, however, is demonstrate the worth of an individual. At least this will show how flawed a particular racist belief is, and open the door to further change.

So my fondest wish for you is that soon your dad will be saying, Well, those Panamanians, they're surely no Albanians ... but let me tell you about my son-in-law: Now there's a fine young man!

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