By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
July 11, 2012
In January 1999, at the dawn of the online dating era, BlkBeauT met SoCalGuy on a Yahoo! Chat room — she, hoping her username would let suitors know she's African-American; he, assuming he'd found a fellow admirer of a favorite childhood film.
Now married more than 10 years and raising four children in Southern California, Christelyn and Michael Karazin, who is white, don't turn heads as much as they might have a few short decades ago. But while Americans' support for interracial marriage has become nearly universal, according to a recent national poll, and mixed marriages are twice as common as they were 30 years ago, dating across ethnic lines still carries some apprehension.
For example, when, during their courtship, Michael picked up Christelyn at the hairdresser, a lively hub of black culture, Christelyn remembers all noise screeching to a halt at the sight of her white date, and she nervously hustled him out.
Acquaintances would scold her for dating "Mr. Charlie," slang for a white oppressor; a cousin warned her a white guy would never marry her.
"There were these constant guilt trips," said Christelyn Karazin, 38, who co-authored the new book "Swirling: How to Date, Mate and Relate Mixing Race, Culture and Creed" (Atria), with Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, to offer practical advice for navigating inter-ethnic romance.
Black women often feel pressure not to date out of race because they bear the onus to carry on African-American traditions, she said.
Michael Karazin, 39, said race was a non-issue to him until their kids were born and they decided to move — for a better school system — to the mostly white town of Temecula, near San Diego. Concerned the children might not feel comfortable, they contacted the local NAACP chapter to learn if there had been hate crimes in the area and scoped out the school and playgrounds to make sure theirs wouldn't be the only biracial kids (it turned out to be a very welcoming and open-minded community, the Karazins said).
Such concerns may be reasons why, in practice, and despite talk of America entering a post-racial era, people still tend to pursue relationships in their own ethnic circles — even online, where the physical segregation that usually keeps different races from mingling doesn't exist.
A study out of the University of California at Berkeley examined more than a million profiles from a free online dating website and found that white people, in particular, kept to their own, even young people who tend to be more open-minded and said they were open to dating any race.
These young white men and women (ages 20 to 39) reached out to other whites 80 percent of the time, while white men reached out to blacks only 3 percent of the time and white women did so 8 percent of the time. Young black daters were much more open, reaching out to whites and blacks about equally (40 percent of the time for each; the rest of the messages went to other races).
The study, which has not been published, only analyzed white-black romance, where there seems to be the most resistance. Fewer than 2 percent of new marriages in the U.S. between 2008 and 2010 were between blacks and whites, according to a Pew Research study.
Though there were many more white people in the study, the fact that black people were 10 times more likely to contact a white person than vice-versa is significant, said Gerald Mendelsohn, the study's lead author and professor of graduate studies at Berkeley.
Among the potential reasons for the disparity, Mendelsohn said: People generally are attracted to those who are similar to them. They may worry about stares from strangers or family disapproval. Standards of beauty in the media tend to be white.
The macrosociological explanation is that minority populations seek to assimilate into the power structures, while the people in power want to stay there. Inter-ethnic dating and marriage are among the most important markers of assimilation, and an important step in doing away with inequalities, Mendelsohn said.
Encouragingly, the study found white people were almost as likely as blacks to respond to an overture from someone of another race, Mendelsohn said. It suggests people are receptive to interracial romance, it just helps if someone else makes the first move.
"There is progress, but we have to be reminded of the distance that has yet to be traveled," he said.
Another study that examined online dating patterns among various ethnicities found white men preferred Asian and Latina dating partners to African-Americans, while white women shied away from Asian men. The researchers, from University of California at Irvine, theorized that might stem from media-perpetuated stereotypes about masculinity and femininity.
Jen Chau, founder of Swirl, Inc., an organization that promotes cross-cultural understanding, said one positive development is that inter-ethnic couples today seem to place a bigger emphasis than previous generations on having conversations about their differences, in particular how they might affect their kids.
Growing up with a Chinese father and a mother who is an Ashkenazi Jew, Chau remembers her family rarely talking to her about race, which left her feeling isolated and confused when the kids at Hebrew school would call her "chicken chow mein." When the rabbi announced her father couldn't join her at the altar for a blessing during her bat mitzvah, because the synagogue didn't want to promote interfaith marriage, she was left without explanation.
"All I wanted was the ability to talk about it," said Chau, who lives in New York. "I wanted someone to say, 'This must make you feel sad.'"
Chau, 35, and her boyfriend, Gerry Fontan, 36, whose mother is Cuban and father is from Spain, make it a point to discuss how they plan to raise their kids with both their cultures, including teaching them Spanish and Chinese.
"That's something I'm concerned about," Fontan said, because it might be hard to get the kids to commit. The goal is to immerse them in the languages through travel and native-tongued friends.
Despite the challenges, venturing into new ethnic territory for romance expands horizons and, Christelyn Karazin says, "adds flavor." It's important to her that their kids understand the richness of their diverse heritage, including the fact that her husband comes from a Westport, Conn., family with its own crest and that her grandfather was a sharecropper and her father had an eighth-grade education.
The point isn't to focus on the differences, but to normalize them, Karazin said. Recently, her 3-year-old daughter cupped her face and said, "Mommy's chocolate," to which Karazin responded: "Yes, mommy is the color of chocolate, and daddy is the color of vanilla. And isn't that yummy?"
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