Interracial couple experiences social acceptance at diverse U

by Pamela Steinle

Initially, Stephanie Hem asked to remain anonymous, fearing the Cambodian community might disown her if they discover her relationship with a Caucasian.
Talking in a St. Paul coffee shop, the dark-featured woman and Kevin Meyer — her tall, blond-haired, fair-skinned boyfriend — mused about their future together, perhaps counting themselves among more than 1.3 million interracial marriages nationwide.
As University freshmen, the couple has enjoyed more acceptance on the diverse Twin Cities campus than in their own homes and suburban Minneapolis high school. It has allowed them to be more open about their relationship.
“I know that I’m going to live my life the way I want to and with who I want, and if someone else has a problem, it’s their problem,” Hem said. “I can’t do anything for them, so I’m going to do what makes me happy.”
Hem and Meyer, both 19, have been dating for more than a year. They occasionally receive disapproving stares while walking hand-in-hand down the street. But it’s the only open public criticism they’ve experienced, a testament to how attitudes have changed over the years.
The Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia case legalized interracial marriages, an institutional change that forced society to accept such relationships.
“My reading in this area suggests that in the last 20 or 30 years, people’s attitudes have shifted away from a moral condemnation of these relationships toward a concern with the difficulties the couples would experience in the face of a racialized culture,” said Douglas Hartmann, a sociology professor.
For Meyer and Hem, resistance came from family members, not the public.
Hem’s parents fought her decision to date a Caucasian. It didn’t help that Hem is an only daughter and the first in her family to date. Her parents are Cambodian ÇmigrÇsÇ who raised their three children according to tradition, which meant that Hem’s marriage was — until recently — prearranged.
Meyer’s parents were relatively neutral, partly because his older brother dated an Asian woman.
Hem and Meyer waited seven months before telling Hem’s parents about their relationship. They’ve since accepted Meyer, but plan to keep the relationship a secret from the rest of the family overseas.
“I know that the family back home would all be talking about us behind our backs,” Hem said. “My grandparents are stuck in their ways, and they expect me to marry a Cambodian.”
Undaunted, Meyer tries his best to embrace his girlfriend’s customs.
“I feel the need to not overcome her Cambodian culture and instead to keep it integrated,” said Meyer. “I’m struggling to learn the Cambodian language for her family’s sake.”
Having reconciled with Hem’s mother and father, the young couple’s biggest hurdle so far, Meyer and Hem decided people can’t control who they fall in love with and that outside opinions don’t really matter.
“People can look at it the way they want to,” Meyer said. “People will look at it and open their eyes a little more, but it has nothing to do with why we’re together. We’re together because we love each other.”

Pamela Steinle welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3236.