Today my question comes from a woman whose future sister-in-law is giving her the cold shoulder. I have a hunch that skin color isn’t the issue.
I identify as Black, though I do not appear that way to most people. I am Biracial—White father, Black mother, who is herself fairly light. Nevertheless, my mother raised me and I identify with her people and community. I am engaged to a Black man whom I love very much. We have no issues and are planning to start a family soon after our wedding. This is why it hurts me to the core that his sister is so cold to me. She is seven years older than my fiancé and basically raised him after their mother died, when he was small. So I get it; she is protective of her brother. I also know that with everyone else his sister is a warm, kind and loving person. I see the way she is around other friends and relatives. She laughs with them, listens to them and is affectionate, even with other female friends of my husband and me.
I also know that this is not my imagination. My fiancé’s sister will snort and mutter something under her breath any time I talk, especially if I refer to myself as Black or a woman of color. Also, my fiancé’s cousin has heard her call me “the White girl” behind my back. This is not a surprise. My fiancé’s sister is generally against interracial dating, especially if it involves White women and Black men—the opposite of my background actually. But I am not White. I do not know how else to say that.
My fiancé tells me I should ignore her, that what she thinks of me should not matter. Notice, he does not deny what I am saying. I want him to confront her, but he will not do that. He worships her and sees her as more of a parent than a peer. He tells me I am making more out of this than it is.
I am so frustrated and angry, I do not want her to participate in our wedding party, but I know that would make me a pariah to my fiancé’s whole family instead of just to his sister.
What should I do?
Signed, Too-light Fiancée.
This is one of the most painful, most common, and most frustrating aspects of being a Biracial person. No matter how we identify, we are often seen as “other” by members of our own groups. You identify as Black. Black is part of your heritage and family history. Yet you are facing rejection by your future sister-in-law on the basis of your skin color.
However, it seems to me that your fiancé’s sister’s problem may have little to do with your appearance. You say she practically raised her younger brother and feels protective of him. She lost her mother at a young age, and it sounds as if she handled her grief by pouring her pain into the care of her younger brother. This means their attachment is complicated and runs far deeper than that of a traditional sibling relationship. It certainly sounds as if she filled her need by being needed by her little brother. But now, her brother no longer needs her. He has found you! The woman with whom he intends to share his forever. Regardless of your skin tone, your very existence is threatening to your fiancé’s sister. You are literally replacing her. I believe that she would resent you even if your African ancestry were readily apparent.
You did not mention whether your future sister-in-law was married or whether she has children to care for. If she has a family of her own, the prognosis is better. Chances are, she only lunges into mama bear mode with her younger brother when she is not otherwise occupied with her brood. If, on the other hand, your future sister-in-law is childless and unattached, she has more time and energy to expend on her brother.
All this said, there is very little—if anything—you can do to change your fiancé’s sister’s treatment of you without your fiancé’s intervention. Of utmost importance at this point is communication between you and your man. Don’t let him dismiss your concerns. You are not making too big a deal out of this as it involves the future of your family relationships. You say he’s not defending his sister, which is a good sign. He has known her all his life and must be aware of other situations where she has been difficult. He also may know what it’s like to be on her bad side—which he is avoiding.
Talk with him about how much pain his sister’s behavior is causing you in a way that will not make him defensive or feel as if you are complaining about his sister. Use “I” statements here: “I feel negated when your sister calls me a White girl.” “I feel hurt when your sister scoffs at my identity.” Does your fiancé understand how you feel about your Black identity? I am sure he does, since you are engaged, and it has no doubt come up.
Next, talk about the kind of relationship you would like to have with his sister if she would allow it. Tell him you need his support in dealing with her. Your fiancé must speak with his sister alone. He must defend you and let her know that treating you the way she has is unacceptable. If she wants to be part of the wedding and part of your future together, she will need to treat you with respect.
This will not be an easy conversation for you to have with your fiancé. Nor will it be easy for him to address the issue with his sister. But it is essential that neither of you keeps silent. By handling this now, you are laying the groundwork for a lifetime together of open, compassionate communication.