I grew up in a traditional Chinese household, where I was taught my future life partner must have an equal, if not better, upbringing than mine. That mentality is embedded in the ancient saying, “A bamboo door should match a bamboo door; a wood door should match a wood door.” Essentially, what it means is you have to marry someone in the same social class if you want the relationship to last.
The Chinese are not alone in this worldview. Many Indians are still bound by caste and the arranged unions that flow from it. And acute class-consciousness is a persistent feature of British identity.
But in North America, it isn’t cool to openly judge people by class; in courtship, we view prospective mates through the less discriminatory lens of “compatibility” instead. Yet, however varied are our criteria for compatibility—whether emotional, intellectual, social, physical or financial—one way or another, coupling comes down to class, whether we egalitarian-minded New Worlders like it or not.
Of course, we’re in denial about this and cling tightly to the cover of romantic love that fuels our multi-billion dollar wedding industry.
The point—we’re harder-edged than we like to admit when it comes to picking mates—was given some support recently by Spanish academic Dan Rodriguez-Garcia, a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto.
The social scientist from Barcelona’s Autonomous University looked at how race/ethnicity, class and gender intersected in marriages in Greater Toronto (using data from the 2001 census) and uncovered some unexpected patterns.
The uncomfortable gist of his work: Visible minorities marry up by marrying down.
Of the roughly 710,000 unions in Greater Toronto, about three-quarters involve couples of the same cultural background—what scholars call “ethnic endogamy.” That means about 25 per cent of marriages here are “mixed.”
In those marriages, Rodriguez-Garcia found that visible minorities were more likely to marry whites even if whites were less educated and earned a lower income.
“Minority members have to compensate, or bring more educational and economic resources to the marriage market, when they marry someone from an ethnic group of higher social standing,” concluded Rodriguez-Garcia’s 57-page report, titled “Intermarriage Patterns and Socio-Ethnic Stratification among Ethnic Groups in Toronto.”
Many—including some of my colleagues in the Star newsroom—find this proposition offensive. As one put it: “I can’t imagine asking (someone) to participate in a story since it would mean that the person of colour married ‘down’ in terms of salary but ‘up’ in terms of colour, which sounds incredibly racist about the marrying white, and insulting about the lack of education.”
But there’s a surprising split in reactions between whites and visible minorities.
Whites tended to be outraged with the “status exchange” thesis, while all members of minority groups I interviewed agreed it bears a grain of truth.
Louie Gong, a vice-president of the Mavin Foundation, a Seattle-based advocacy group for mixed-race people, said we all choose mates based on many factors, including romantic love and status, which are not mutually exclusive.
“I personally don’t find the study offensive because internalized racism and class can certainly have an impact on our choice of partners,” said the 33-year-old British Columbia native, who is of mixed Chinese, aboriginal and European heritage.
“Pop culture has taught us to mate based on the idea of love, so admitting anything other than that would reflect very negatively on our character.”
Elizabeth Abbott, a historian with the University of Toronto, said the notion of romantic love is a relatively modern aspect of marriage that emerged in the late 18th and early 19th century as individual freedom expanded.
However, our contemporary mate selection criteria are not really as different from our forebears’ as we think. Abbott says our comfort level with another person very much depends on shared experiences that come down to socioeconomics.
“I don’t think people are blinded by love,” explains Abbott, author of the upcoming book, Marriage: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Heading. “We all take calculated risks. You may love a loser, but you will try to change them or it won’t work.”
Sociologist David Popenoe, director of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, said he wasn’t surprised by Rodriguez-Garcia’s findings.
“Nowadays, people base their relationships on feelings, but everybody wants higher status,” he said. “It’s a touchy subject because it’s not necessarily something we want to talk about in romantic love.”
Rodriguez-Garcia, who is married to a Jewish-Canadian scholar, believes social class is a powerful factor when it comes to mate selection. Couples certainly don’t enter into a mixed union based on conscious or calculated decision-making to advance themselves up the social ladder or to fill up their wallets, he says, “It’s not so much about ‘What am I going to gain?’ “The reality is much more complex than that.”
“Despite the increased mixing, social differences and prejudices are very persistent. The association between minority status, which is historically inherited, and social status is difficult to make disappear. There will always be new statuses within the mixtures.”
[Editors Note: “Intermarriage Patterns and Socio-Ethnic Stratification among Ethnic Groups in Toronto,” by Dan Rodriguez-Garcia can be read as an HTML document or downloaded as a PDF document here.]