Like my parents before me

BY MARA GAY
Daily Staff Writer
Published January 30, 2008

LSA senior Jarrett Smith has not yet found the woman of his dreams. But he knows she will be beautiful, intelligent and confident. And she will be black.

For Smith and other students who identify with minority groups, Sir Mix-A-Lot's summation of love and attraction was right on. When it comes to matters of the heart, Cosmo Magazine - and the romantic ideals it sells - "ain't got nothin' to do" with dating and marriage preferences.

Listen to University students sound off about dating in or outside of their faith, race or ethnicity, and one thing becomes clear: For people with deeply rooted religious or ethnic heritage, the rules of attraction - boy meets girl and falls in love - are not always so simple.

Students who are Jewish, Muslim and Christian, who are black, white and Indian suddenly bear a remarkable resemblance to one another when they speak about the pressure to date and marry within their ethnic or religious group.

Often, students who admit to having set expectations for a spouse are sheepish about talking about their beliefs. A moment pregnant with hesitation punctuates their uncertainty about divulging their most intimate hopes for the future, as well as their fear of seeming closed-minded or racist for profiling romantic prospects.

Once students start talking about dating and marriage, though, there is no stopping them. From those in interracial relationships to others who would never consider dating someone outside their identity group, young people of every walk seem to be well aware of expectations that exist for dating and marriage.

Time and time again, students who only date within their religion or ethnicity said they do so because they are looking for someone with similar values and beliefs. Several students said it was difficult or even impossible to truly connect with someone outside their identity group.

To LSA senior Aaron Potek, Judaism is uniquely beautiful. Potek's decision to date exclusively within his faith stems from a deep love and appreciation for Judaism and its culture.

"Jews have been such a huge part of my life that I just couldn't imagine being with someone not Jewish," he said.

For Potek, being able to connect spiritually is so important that physical attraction is as much about values and beliefs as it is about looks.

"I never had an experience where (a non-Jewish girl and I) really clicked and religion was the only obstacle in the way," he said. "I think that's because I click with people not just based on looks but on spirituality as well. I'm a Hillel guy."

LSA sophomore Lizzy Lovinger, the only Jewish person living in a house of eight women, has dated non-Jewish men before. Lovinger said religion has never been a deciding factor in the friendships she makes. But when it came to her romantic relationships with non-Jewish men, something was missing.

"I dated a Christian guy, I dated a Deist, but the connection wasn't really there because Judaism is a way of life, and culture, and seeing," Lovinger said.

Now Lovinger is in a relationship with a Jewish man whose family moved from Russia to the United States in 1992 to escape the anti-Semitism of the Russian government. Though he was raised a continent away, Lovinger said their shared faith helps bring them together.

"I can get close to him because there are so many things he understands about me just because we are both Jewish," she said.

Jewish students are not the only ones who search for that spiritual connection in their mate. Being cute will help your case with LSA sophomore Zoha Mohammed, but it's faith that really gets him going.

"If you just have a strong faith about you - it's hot," he said.

Mohammed, who is Muslim, said he would have no problem dating a non-Muslim woman as long as she was in some way religious and shared similar values.

For many black students, the desire to seek companionship with someone who shares experience is crucial. Some said that the marginalization they face daily at the University makes the thought of dating someone outside their race unthinkable.

"Any classroom, any office you walk into, they expect you to be an athlete," Smith said. "I think that's something a black woman can relate to. She can support a black man better than anyone else."

As a child, Lovinger asked her mother if she could bring home a black man when she was old enough to date. The response, Lovinger said, came quickly and clear: "You can bring home a purple, polka-dot guy as long as he's Jewish."

For many Jewish students, the fear that their faith and their people could be wiped off the face of the planet is very real.

"We are .02 percent of the population of the world, so as a Jew, intermarriage is a very scary thing," LSA freshman Yael Mendelson said.

According to the United Jewish Association, the rate of Jews marrying non-Jews is currently between 40 and 50 percent.

Mendelson said she thinks it can be easy for Jewish students at the University to forget that they are still part of a minority group because there is such a strong Jewish community on campus.

"Since we've done so well in America, I think Jews think we're OK," she said. "But we're still a minority in the world."

It may only be natural, then, that many students say raising a Jewish family is an important life goal.

"The fact is that Judaism, like most religions, has family as a cultural tenet to it," Potek said. "In terms of promoting the continuity of your faith, you're encouraged by almost everyone you meet to marry another Jew."

Lovinger said the pressure to marry other Jews comes from every corner of her social life - parents, religious leaders and even friends.

"Growing up, my mom and dad tried to tell me to date Jewish guys," she said. "It was dogmatic, like, 'you're Jewish, you have to marry a Jewish guy and have Jewish babies.'"

Michael Brooks, the executive director of University of Michigan Hillel, said that it is not simply Jewish marriage that should be emphasized, but the strengthening of the culture, as well.

"If we truly care about the future of the Jewish community we won't be satisfied if most Jews find life partners who simply happen to be Jewish," Brooks said. "We will represent a culture of such a richly value-added Jewish community that our life partners will have compelling reasons to feel that it would be a privilege to be, or become, an active participant in it."

For many black students on campus, a long history of racial oppression often makes dating people who aren't black seem paramount to a betrayal of racial heritage.

LSA senior Serita Williams would be willing to date a white man, but she knows it could cause tension between her and some of her friends.

"My girlfriends would be OK," she said. "But my male friends would be like, 'What can he do for you?' I think they're threatened by it."

Some students said that black women get upset if they see a black man with a white woman.

"A lot of times, people will make comments like, 'Well, if a black guy is with a white woman it's because they're easy,'" LSA senior Chanel Harris said. "There are a lot of stereotypes perpetuated about it."

Williams said seeing white women with black men on campus doesn't bother her, as long as the guys haven't decided to exclusively date white women.

"If they only date white women, I have a huge problem," she said. "But if they're in a free-for-all then I don't have a problem."

Many students deal with distinctions within their religion or ethnicity.

Part of the tension surrounding interracial dating stems from frustration with the American standard of beauty being light skin, smooth hair and racially ambiguous button features. When words like "nappy" continue to appear in conversation about attraction, it becomes clear that the subversively racist image continues to have a huge impact on the black community's dating scene and ideals of beauty.

"I have one brother who is light-skinned and one who is dark-skinned," Williams said.

"Dark-skinned guys call themselves 'sexual chocolate,' but my other brother keeps saying, 'light-skinned back in!'"

Among black students, the preference to date a black person of a certain skin color is often spoken about openly.

Who is the "ideal" black woman?

"Light skin, long hair, or maybe mixed - so if their hair gets wet it doesn't get nappy. And skinny," Williams said of the stereotype she believes persists in society.

Of course, instant attraction doesn't necessarily follow the ideals of the mainstream beauty ideal. LSA senior Mikey Davis Jr. said he would find "any beautiful, confident woman" attractive. And Davis tends to like women with hair he describes as "bushy."

Zoha Mohammed said many of his Muslim friends would marry a non-Muslim woman but not someone from a different sect of Islam.

"My Shia friend said he could never marry a Sunni girl," Mohammed said. "That Sunni, Shia, Ismaili divide is still relevant."

But while a more stringent divide exists between the Islamic sects, Mohammed said dating across ethnic and religious borders could be discouraged by unrelated incidents of prejudice.

Mohammed said the "Michigan Community" should include anyone who screams "Go Blue!" but that he's found it hasn't been the case.

When a conservative campus group sponsored an event called "Three Ex-Terrorists" event last year, in which many students felt Islam was equated with terrorism, something changed for Mohammed when it came to socializing outside his religious group.

"That was kind of a turning point for me," he said. "It was really threatening. It was a direct insult to you. You didn't feel part of the Michigan community."

After the event, Mohammed said that he began to spend more time with his Muslim friends and less with his non-Muslim friends.

Mohammed's experience of marginalization is not necessarily unique. Students of minority groups often say that the desire to marry within their group is encouraged by moments of epiphany when realizing they are the "other."

It is startling how quickly a conversation about dating is transformed into a reflection of racism and division on this campus.

When LSA junior Sarah Jukaku said students have scrutinized her love life based on their own biases.

After Jukaku married LSA senior Abdul El-Sayed two years ago, she says some students assumed she was oppressed or asked if she was forced into marriage.

Smith said he was told by a white friend that the women in her sorority would ostracize her if she dated a black man.

Sitting next to Smith during an interview, Davis nodded knowingly in response to Smith's anecdote.

"Quite honestly, I think that black men are perceived as the scariest thing on the planet," Davis said. "People buy into the media stereotypes, people see a black man and they think, 'Oh, he's a thug that's going to rob me and, like, clobber my sorority sister.' "

Earlier this month, in South Quad's Ambanatana Lounge, a room covered in boldly colored murals depicting multiculturalism in the United States, The Mixed Initiative, a student group celebrating mixed-race backgrounds, along with Zeta Sigma Chi, a multicultural sorority, hosted a forum to discuss interracial dating.

For the students in the room that night - the vast majority of whom were either multiracial themselves or are in interracial relationships already - dating across cultural boundaries is almost a given.

Harris, a member of The Mixed Initiative, spoke of the stigma of interracial dating from her seat in front of a giant portrait of a black soldier going off to war.

"The easy way is not always the right way," Harris said at the forum. "If someone is into marrying someone of their own race, that's OK. But if they're just not willing to go through the hard times - I wouldn't be here. A lot of us wouldn't be here."

LSA junior Dillon Hendrick, who is white, said her decision to date her boyfriend Sam Sabharwal, a medical school student from India, was difficult for her parents at first. But Hendrick said she was surprised at how quickly they came around. Now Hendrick's mother defends her relationship when friends say disparaging things about it.

"I think it's fantastic that I could look at this whole side of my family and say that I changed their opinion about the world because I loved somebody," Hendrick said.

Hendrick's story ended with parental acceptance of her cross-cultural relationship. But it also has another message, one Zoha Mohammed, Jarrett Smith and Lizzy Lovinger can all relate to: Even for students who flout them, cultural boundaries matter. And when it comes to their love lives, it's up to them to decide whether that's a bad thing.

Correction Appended: A previous version of this article misidentified LSA sophomore Lizzy Lovinger.