It was the late 1980s, more than two decades after the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia U.S. Supreme Court case that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Since 1980, the percentage of bicultural marriages has more than tripled nationally to 17 percent, a Pew Research Center study shows.
Elaine and John were still one of only a few mixed-race couples on campus. Occasionally, there were jeers from white fraternity members, but that didn’t stop them from being together.
“I grew up accepting everybody,” Elaine said. “I wasn’t used to that.”
Love isn’t easy. Especially as it grows between two people from different racial and cultural backgrounds.
In an ongoing video and story project “Questions of Color,” The Dallas Morning News seeks to reflect how North Texans navigate issues of race in their everyday lives with ground-level details. The News solicited the Stittens’ story and those of 50 others in interracial relationships. These couples shared some of the difficult and beautiful moments of being in love.
Among the lessons: Their love needs to overcome others’ judgmental perceptions. Communication is crucial, as is the strength to let go of some of the smaller slights from family members and strangers.
Couples said they learned to keep an open mind and figure out together how to bridge their cultures. While every couple has some things in common, there may be key differences to discuss: religion, how to confront racism, the unspoken rules and expectations within each other’s family.
John played on the football team and although his athlete status made him popular, he was very shy. He met Elaine through a mutual friend and saw her at several parties. She was a social butterfly, sparking a conversation with one group and moving on to the next. They were opposites to a degree, but balanced each other out.
When Elaine told her father about the man she loved, his reaction surprised her. He was happy for his daughter. But he worried about the children they would bring into a racially charged society.
“If you two get married and have kids, I worry about what’s going to happen,” Elaine, now 52, recalls her father saying.
Elaine and John Stitten were married on Valentine’s Day in 1995.
John’s mother was worried, too. “I don’t want a cross burned in the front yard,” she said at the time.
John, 53, grew up in East Texas, and remembers being told to be careful in his hometown because of Ku Klux Klan activity. In 1998, Jasper made national headlines as the place where three white men were arrested in a racially motivated crime for the dragging death of a black man, James Byrd Jr.
As recently as 1975, a Dallas County judge denied a black man and white woman’s right to marry, news accounts at the time show. In the late 1970s, only 36 percent of those surveyed approved of interracial marriage, the Gallup Poll showed. By 2013, Gallup said, 87 percent supported it.
Today, there’s less outright racism, though many interracial couples still notice uncomfortable stares and hurtful words from loved ones and strangers. Every time there’s a hurdle to get over, couples said, it makes their love stronger.
The first meeting
Parents and other family members can make first meetings awkward in any relationship. But bringing home someone from a different race can give rise to stereotyping thoughts and comments. The “jokes” aren’t funny when it makes the person you care about feel bad.
It’s how Kwanzaa Bennett, 26, felt when she told her family she was with Jonathan Delarosa. Delarosa, 27, is biracial and strongly identifies with his Latino heritage, but his fair skin often leads to confusion about his ethnicity.
“I mean, there was one family member who said that he was just the white guy with a taco,” she said. “It bugs me to this day.”
At the time, Bennett felt she couldn’t mention the comment to her boyfriend. She worried that he’d hate her family, that he would end the relationship.
Kwanzaa Bennett (left) and Jonathan Delarosa met while in high school. They’ve been together for 12 years.
Growing up, Bennett’s family revered the idea of “black love” as a way to change the narrative of fragmented households. It wasn’t that her family disliked Delarosa, Bennett said, but they often asked her why she wasn’t with a black man.
Bennett, a substitute teacher, fell in love with Delarosa’s generosity. The social worker helps people find affordable housing in the city of Dallas.
The two, who live in Dallas, have been inseparable since they were teenagers at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Now after 12 years together, they find that the awkward comments come less frequently.
Couples who cross racial lines often find they must have difficult conversations with family members and then with each other. It’s a talk that Catie Wood had to have with her mother once her relationship became more serious.
She met Centurion Wood through the Disney College Program, working and living at Disney World in Florida. The two, who share easygoing personalities and a love for traveling, quickly discovered they had chemistry. Their relationship started through flirty messages on Instant Messenger.
Other friends, Catie noticed, would call their moms about upcoming dates or ask advice on dating problems. But in her family of Filipino descent, those conversations would have been awkward, she said. Centurion was much more comfortable talking to his mother about dating Catie.
When Catie told her mother she was dating Centurion, her mother’s response stunned her. Her mother worried about whether a black man would make a good husband.
Would he be loyal? Would he have children with various women? Even liberal parents can stereotype others, Catie realized.
Centurion Wood and Catie Wood have been married for more than eight years. They met as interns through the Disney College Program.
Discussions about race are key to making the relationship work. From the beginning, Catie and Centurion’s conversations centered on how pop culture stereotypes influenced her mother’s thoughts.
Instead of having a fight over those views, they took time to talk about the reactions and didn’t let “my-family-vs.-yours” resentment settle in. They built trust and strengthened their relationship. The nerves Centurion felt at the first meeting with Catie’s parents quickly went away.
“You always think the worst. But I love them, they love me,” said Centurion, a 35-year-old database administrator.
After Catie’s mother met Centurion, the topic never came up again. The two, who live in Prosper, have been married for eight years, and are expecting their first child, a boy.
Bridging language and traditions
Bart Rogers and Lisa Mesa-Rogers found they had vastly different upbringings although they both grew up in the Dallas area.
Bart, 48, was raised in an upper middle class, white, Protestant family in North Dallas. He describes his family as soft-spoken and polite. Lisa, 48, grew up in Oak Cliff with a boisterous Hispanic Catholic family.
Despite their different upbringings, both found a common cause as volunteers at a nonprofit helping people with HIV in the early 1990s.
Bart Rogers and Lisa Mesa-Rogers met as volunteers in Dallas more than 20 years ago.
Bart, a sales engineering manager, sometimes had a hard time communicating with Lisa’s family, particularly Lisa’s mother. Although she could understand and speak English, she preferred Spanish, which Bart did not speak fluently. Lisa’s mother said few words to him during their visits.
When Bart knew that Lisa was the woman he wanted to spend his life with, he privately asked Lisa’s mother how she felt about him. She responded with two words that left him speechless.
“You’re OK,” she said, with an affirming nod.
There was no long heart-to-heart, emotional conversation to help build the family connection. But as it turned out, that wasn’t needed. Lisa’s mother showed her approval with her cooking. Bart showed his appreciation with a big appetite.
Lisa said there’s plenty of miscommunication within her blended family but that makes for great stories. “When you come from different cultures, we can appreciate and laugh at those moments because those are uniquely ours,” said Lisa, executive director of Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico.
From eating menudo to knowing the wrath of la chancla in disciplining their two kids, Bart says he gained a new perspective on culture, thanks to his wife.
“I still learn things, even 20 years later,” he said.
One sticking point for Bart and Lisa was their different expectations about their responsibilities to extended family.
Lisa said that she was used to putting her siblings and other relatives first. Unannounced visits were common. She was quick to lend money or take in relatives for extended periods of time.
Marriage created a new set of priorities.
They both said they’ve compromised, with Lisa checking first with Bart before agreeing. Bart, meanwhile, says he has gotten more comfortable with sharing a household with extended family members.
“It’s a new dynamic,” Bart said.
Slights and stares
Nearly every couple we spoke with experienced the same subtle treatment from strangers: double takes and stares that make them uneasy.
According to Pew Research Center, interracial marriages still aren’t commonplace in the U.S. They’re more prevalent in larger cities compared to rural areas. In Dallas, about 19 percent of couples are in an interracial marriage — higher than the national average of 17 percent. The study did not have statistics on interracial dating.
Unfriendly stares are especially worrisome for Gary Johnson and AD Henderson as an interracial gay couple, they said. Johnson and Henderson met one night at a bar while out with friends.
AD Henderson and Gary Johnson started dating more than five years ago. (Ashley Landis/Staff Photographer)
Johnson nearly didn’t go out that night. But friends visiting from out-of-town insisted on getting drinks nearby. Now, he’s happy he did. “I met the love of my life when I went,” Johnson said.
The stares make them more careful about how they act in public. They try not to show a lot of affection. Sometimes, they stand farther away from each other than usual.
“We are more aware,” said Henderson, 32. “He says, ‘Oh no, don’t get too close to me’ if we are down in Mississippi.”
They encounter prejudice in two different realms and said they see more intolerance for being a gay couple than an interracial one.
Johnson, 52, who grew up in Mississippi, has seen racism and discrimination against gay people all his life. Friends and family members told them their relationship wouldn’t last.
They’ve been dating for more than six years. Johnson and Henderson, who work in management and health care, break down barriers with humor. Once, when they were at a store, they noticed a cashier who kept giving them “the eye.” It’s second nature for Johnson to break out jokes.
“This is my ‘sugar baby,’” he told the cashier, laughing.
The woman, embarrassed that her staring caught his attention, didn’t have much to reply.
“You know, you just got to lighten ’em up. You see the looks,” Johnson said.
The stares no longer bother John and Elaine Stitten, who married on Valentine’s Day 23 years ago. But the way strangers regard their two children still takes them by surprise. No one takes a second look at the kids when they’re with Elaine, who works as a flight attendant. But John often notices the perplexed reactions when he’s the parent in charge.
“People will see her dad pick her up and then they’re like, ‘Your dad’s black?’” said John, an operations manager. The reactions have confused their kids, who see their parents’ love as normal, not a rarity.
“That’s the thing that has to change. Society needs to change. Race: It shouldn’t matter,” John said.
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