Saturday, May 21, 2022

Dating across the divide: Navigating interracial couples at MSU

February 8, 2022

Interracial couples go through a journey of making their differences the foundation of a balanced and new relationship. With it comes many experiences for each person in the relationship — experiencing the differences in culture, religion and upbringing, to experiencing differences in food, music and clothes.

Finding common ground helps interracial relationships succeed, as was the case in the story of  zoology junior Connor Lewis and advertising management senior Gabby Sanchez. 

“My parents weren't strict at all,” Lewis, who is of Native American descent, said. “They’ve let me do anything since I was like six."

On the other hand, his girlfriend, Sanchez, who is a White/Hispanic Latino, reflected differently. She said her father grew up with strict rules imposed by his mother. 

“My dad kind of brought that to me,” Sanchez said. “I always had a curfew … and he's gotten better since I've gotten older.”

Lewis and Sanchez talked about how this was one of the major differences when starting their relationship. 

“Our upbringing being different like that was an adjustment and that is something that was kind of a challenge to understand our backgrounds a little bit more and get to know each other,” Sanchez said.

Through highlighting the challenge, Sanchez embraced how Lewis and her family have now built a relationship.

“Connor has been somebody who's built relationships within my family,” Sanchez said. “My dad looks at him as like another son or like, try and take him under his wing.” 

Lewis said the relationship with Sanchez’s parents is something he longed for and found comfort in. 

“When I was growing up, my family was very, very, very small … and my family was not very emotionally connected,” Lewis said. “Now that I'm older, I want to do those things because we never did those. I didn't feel the love until I met her family, and now that I realized what it feels like, I want to reconnect with my siblings in that way, and hang out with them more.”

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Similar to Lewis, Gino Piccinini, a first-generation Italian MSU alumnus, said his relationship with social relations and policy senior Angie Flores,of Mexican descent, opened his eyes to recognizing and embracing his own home culture. 

“I think one positive thing I guess that I never really thought about until now is Angie showing me different cultural things and, mostly food-wise, has kind of made me realize my own culture,” Piccinini said. 

Food seems to be the core bonding experience for these couples when it comes to embracing each other's culture. 

“I enjoy getting to learn about (food) and the more authentic side of what Mexican food is,”  Piccinini said.  “A lot of times, Angie will buy food from the Mexican markets and stuff like that, and I think all that stuff's cool.”Piccinini’s interest in food has also impacted Flores. 

“I wasn't the biggest cook before this relationship, and so I think that knowing that Gino does like what I make, makes me want to learn more about how to cook,” Flores said.

Similarly, Lewis said he is grateful for Sanchez’s aunts and the authentic Mexican food they make from scratch.

“He's seeing the behind the scenes of it and got to try some foods that he's never tasted before, and he's become a fan, I think,” Sanchez said.

Much of the concern and struggle in interracial relationships comes down to acceptance, whether it be within the couples or externally by family, friends and society.

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Human biology junior Koushik Murali and psychology senior Sabine Ahmed seem to have the most insights and battles when it comes to acceptance in their relationship. 

Murali is an Indian-American who grew up practicing Hinduism, though currently identifies as an atheist. He talked about how his rebellious nature had created an understanding from his parents and they were not surprised by his girlfriend's difference in race and religion. 

On the other hand, Ahmed, a Muslim Pakistani, has struggled with how to tell her parents about her relationship with a non-Muslim man.

“It was like, ‘How are you going to tell the parents, right?’” Murali said. “Like our friends know the relationship, but our parents didn't.”

Murali said his parents eventually found out on New Year’s, and their reaction was rather calm as they expected it. 

Ahmed's parents are still unaware. 

“I've been asking, I even asked my other Muslim friends that I've found … and even my cousins, I've asked them, and they (were) like, ‘We don't think you should tell your parents,’ and hearing it from my cousins, especially, was tough because they know my parents a lot better than my friends,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed said she just wants acceptance from her parents.

She said she knows her parents love her enough to be supportive, but doesn’t want to upset them. 

“It’s just kind of like a personal inner conflict that happens a lot,” Ahmed said. 

Lekie Dwanyen — a research associate in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at MSU, whose work focuses on understanding traumatic stress in the context of families — works with a lot of immigrant and refugee families. 

“I see this topic from the perspective of the acculturation gap, and just the different ways that folks adjust to a new environment and new contexts ... behaviors, all of that,” Dwanyen said. “And so when that happens at a different rate, it can cause a gap, and it can cause confusion and conflict and misunderstanding." 

The reason the adjustment can create reluctance is sometimes due to the hesitancy and fear of losing the home cultural aspect. Dwanyen advised that dealing with acceptance is best fought with finding belongingness. 

“If acceptance is what students are struggling with, then belongingness is a direct antidote of that where the direct opposite of isolation is feeling connected," Dwanyen said. "I think any space where we can support or find support is huge.”

Other than dealing with acceptance from others, Murali and Ahmed touched on an important topic between interracial relationships — accepting differences. 

“(I) guess the mentality we have about religion is a lot different, so it's a lot easier to be able to respect each other,” Murali said.

But as much as Murali and Ahmed have had their share of struggles, they shared all the positive moments as well. 

“I feel like he opened my mind a little bit more in terms of thinking about religion and my perspective on it, and it's given me (a) more open-minded (view) on the entirety of religion, so I feel like, personally, it made me feel more in control of myself,” Ahmed said. “When (Murali) would explain his perspective on things, it kind of made sense to me, and then I felt like I could think with all the knowledge that is out there.”

Flores also had a fear of acceptance, as she said, “I always have that fear because I am Mexican. I won't necessarily be everyone's first choice. I think that was like my biggest fear going into when I was meeting his family.”

However, for Flores and Piccinini, both families turned out to be very supportive. 

“I think both of our families are pretty cool and understanding,” Flores said. “I think that's just kind of how far some of society has come.”

All the couples said at the end of the day, though they had their differences and conflicts, they found peace and comfort between each other, and that was enough. 

“Just bringing awareness that the two backgrounds can work together even if there are problems in the environment, you can overcome them,” Lewis said. 

Interracial relationships are the definition for how among differences you can find unexpected outcomes when dealt with openness and acceptance, as these couples and many others at MSU symbolize.

“I feel like we understand each other so well that it doesn't make too much of a difference,” Flores said. “There are a lot of differences in our culture, and how he grew up. But I think, just kind of with who we are, there's a lot of similarities that we can gain just in like little things. And a lot of interests now as adults, I think, brings us together.” 

Editor's note: The printed version of this story listed an incorrect byline. Abeeha Zaidi wrote this story.

This story is part of our Love & Sex Edition. Read the full issue here.




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