With or Without Discrimination, Subverting Stereotypes through Dating

One couple met through a mutual friend at the end of freshman year. Another met in Annenberg. A third met in the Quincy dining hall. So began the relationships of three couples at Harvard, all of which are interracial.
By Emily B. Zauzmer

One couple met through a mutual friend at the end of freshman year. Another met in Annenberg. A third met in the Quincy dining hall. So began the relationships of three couples at Harvard, all of which are interracial.

Though these three couples are alike in that they include students of different races, they paint vastly different portraits of interracial dating at Harvard. While the two Asian and white couples interviewed for this article say that they have not confronted any discrimination due to their mixed-race relationship, the white and black couple interviewed said they have encountered a substantial amount of prejudice on campus.

Like any discussion of race, the topic of interracial relationships can be incendiary and can produce heated opinions. This article does not and cannot canvass the experiences of all interracial couples who have dated at Harvard. Rather, it presents the views of three couples who agreed to discuss their stories and to add to the conversation. Several other couples that represent many other ethnicities were also invited to participate but declined to do so.

For Sophie T. Carroll ’17, a Kirkland resident who is white, and Stephen S. Yen ’17, a Pforzheimer resident who is Asian, being part of a romance that stretches from the river to the Quad can be more problematic than being part of an interracial couple. Throughout the three months that they have been dating, Carroll and Yen say that they have never felt singled out or looked down upon because of their relationship.

If anything, they note that their genders may draw more attention than their ethnicities do. “If you think about Asian, white couples, usually the female is Asian, and the male is white,” Yen says, explaining that Asian women are stereotypically considered more feminine than Asian men are thought to be masculine. “But I still don’t think people have been that surprised.”

Eva Shang ’17, who is Asian, and Christian G. D. Haigh ’17, who is white, similarly attest that the interracial element of their relationship has not been an issue. “I didn’t think it was a particularly big deal…. No one’s making comments,” says Haigh. Shang agrees. “I think the biggest deal is people thought it was cool that he was British, but that was it.”

According to Shang, one challenge that Asian women at Harvard do face is the perception that some men have an “Asian fetish.” “It’s really hard to tell if the guy that’s hitting on you is actually hitting on you because he likes you…or because he just has a thing for Asians,” she says. “There is a particular stereotype of Asian-American women as hypersexual and submissive, or whatever, and those things can definitely manifest.”

Implications of an “Asian fetish” aside, Shang remarks that her relationship with Haigh has not raised eyebrows because Asian and white relationships are so ordinary at Harvard. “I don’t know that most people would consider white and Asian interracial because it happens so frequently,” says Shang. “I think it’s more common at Harvard. I think it’s definitely more accepted.” But, she adds, “I think the case would be very different if he was black, or I was black or Hispanic.”

Indeed, Julie L. Coates ’15, a white student, and Dami A. Aladesanmi ’15, a black student, say that they have faced significant challenges both at Harvard and outside of Cambridge since they began dating. (Coates published an op-ed in The Crimson about her experience being in an interracial relationship after this interview was conducted.) Before Coates and Aladesanmi launch into their negative experiences, however, they are quick to point out that they have many friends on campus who support them and their relationship.

The couple says they sense that most of the disapproval of their relationship has come from Harvard’s black community. “Dami has had some situations where he felt flak from both black women and black men, because it’s the whole concept of, African Americans have this obligation to rebuild the African American family, and how’s that going to happen if they’re not marrying each other?” says Coates. They have also noticed that students in the black community who do support them are uncomfortable expressing their approval of interracial dating around other black students. In public conversations about mixed relationships, “people get really tense and awkward and quiet, but then afterward in privacy, they’ll be like, ‘Hey Dami, I actually really agree with what you were saying,’” Coates explains.

A few particularly upsetting moments have stuck with them. When Aladesanmi told his friend that he “was worried that some of the other people who I was friends with might take [his relationship with Coates] the wrong way because of how there’s sort of a stereotype about successful black men ‘upgrading’ to white women,” the friend responded that while many friends would be supportive, “some people won’t like it.”

“This was my first experience with a group of black students or black people where I felt like my relationship wasn’t fully approved of, so that really caught me off guard,” Aladesanmi says.

On another occasion, Aladesanmi, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants went with Coates to what they thought would be a playful meeting run by the Harvard College Nigerian Students Association about dating a Nigerian. But when a student—one of Coates’s close friends, with whom she had previously lived—was asked whether she regarded interracial dating as a threat to Nigerian culture, the meeting reportedly took a turn for the worse. “I remember feeling so little and very embarrassed and awkward and out of place when she avoided eye contact with me, looked at her feet, and mumbled about how yeah, it was a threat,” Coates recalls.

Coates suggests that disapproval of their relationship takes on an academic tone within Harvard’s black community. “Black opposition at Harvard will have a thesis, an Af-Am philosophy attached to it,” says Coates. “When someone’s talking to Dami about why he shouldn’t date me, they’ll randomly quote black nationalism text.” They also cite the success of “I, Too, Am Harvard,” a project which they both respect, as a factor that they believe has caused students to more openly criticize their relationship. “I think it’s almost been like the campus has been under a pressure cooker lately, with all the racial initiatives that have been going on for the past year,” Coates says. “Since movements like that have taken place, racial discourse has been addressed so much more on campus than it has been in past years, and it’s almost like it’s given people more comfort and more confidence in vocally opposing our relationship.”

While Coates and Aladesanmi have perceived resentment from their black classmates, they say they have noticed, at times, a more subtle lack of acceptance from their white peers. “Whereas on the black side I feel tension and hostility, like irritation with me for ‘stealing’ someone, on the white side, I usually don’t get anger. In the Harvard context, I usually get micro-aggressions that are actually coming from a good place, that are meant to be silly and harmless, but they’re actually kind of hurtful,” says Coates.

Coates, who previously dated two South Asian students at Harvard, notes that she did not experience comparable discrimination in her other interracial relationships, and that she had felt accepted by Harvard’s South Asian community. She has noticed that her friends who are in Hispanic and white relationships or white and Asian relationships have not suffered the intolerance that she and Aladesanmi have endured while dating. Echoing Shang and Haigh’s sentiment, Coates and Aladesanmi believe that their specific gender combination as a white woman and a black man, a historically contentious pairing, makes a difference in the reception of their relationship on campus.

In sum, Coates and Aladesanmi say, they feel tolerated at Harvard—but not accepted. “Acceptance has a positive connotation, almost the image of someone welcoming you with open arms, whereas tolerance is, ‘Okay, I won’t stop you,’” Coates explains. “In my experience in the realm of Harvard’s campus, I feel like everyone is tolerant, but that does not mean everyone is accepting.”