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Crossing Racial Barriers

January 13, 1989|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

It would seem that Greg and Amy, both 17 and honors students at Irvine's University High School, are a perfect match.

They radiate niceness, exuberance and brightness, the very model of well-behaved, relatively trouble-free youth. Their friends are much like them--students whose interests range from Disneyland and beach picnics to American politics and global technology.

For 2 months now, they have been going steady. But no matter what Amy and Greg (not their real names) do, no matter how societally correct they appear, there is an inescapable--and physically obvious--fact about them as a couple.

Greg is white. Amy is Korean.

And interracial dating in this day and age is still not a matter to be taken lightly.

Interracial dating remains a societal anomaly--a subject to be approached with great caution, a practice admired by some, vilified by others.

True, there are signs that the practice is becoming more acceptable, as indicated by the accompanying High Life poll of students at 14 Orange County public and private schools.

Nevertheless, analysts in multicultural relations and assimilation argue that this kind of relationship, long taboo throughout American society, remains light-years from being widely accepted.

Despite the years of highly publicized integration efforts in housing and schools, the greater influxes of ethnic-minority immigrants, and the vanishing of anti-miscegenation laws, "I don't think the opposition to (interracial couples) has really eroded all that much," says one leading analyst, UCLA sociologist Harry Kitano.

Some parents agree.

"The kids may downplay (racism), but it's out there, as much as ever," says an Orange County parent whose son, who is white, is dating a black girl. "If they go to a restaurant, and if they hold hands or snuggle a little--believe me, they get the stares, the double takes."

And for most families, the issue of interracial couples, while a far less closeted practice these days, remains an intensely private matter.

It helps explain why there are no reliable estimates on the numbers of teen-agers in interracial relationships.

However, researchers believe that such interracial dating trends parallel the nationwide trends in interracial marriages--greater visibility, yes, but the rates of growth are relatively slow. (Nationally in 1984, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 739,000 interracial marriages in which one of the partners was white.)

"There has been some growth (in interracial marriages), especially with some Asian groups. But overall there hasn't been a real breakthrough, a real dramatic increase," says Kitano, a Japanese-American and acting director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center.

And the trend in Orange County, researchers suggest, is probably even less prominent, at least statistically, even though the High Life poll suggests that interracial couples are becoming a more visible if still small phenomenon.

"You're talking about a highly conservative county and one that is still overwhelmingly Anglo," says multicultural specialist Christine Hall, former counseling psychologist at UC Irvine's College of Medicine.

"I question whether this kind of practice can ever really take hold in Orange County," says Hall, now an ethnic minorities administrator with the Washington-based American Psychological Assn. and herself of mixed black and Japanese descent.

There is still "color" hierarchy at work in reactions to interracial couples.

To white supremacists and other opponents, analysts say, the most taboo combination is still black and white, while Asian and white or "dark-complexioned" Latino and white are less objectionable.

"We're literally talking color here, the visible gradations," explains Raymond Vagas, a Laguna Hills-based marriage therapist, who is of African and Spanish descent. "When you're talking 'race' in those terms, you're including 'dark' Hispanics."

Psychologically, the reasons for entering an interracial relationship, counselors say, are exceedingly complex.

It can involve such lofty reasons as multicultural idealism, defiance of tradition--and love. It can also involve fascination with ethnic myths, with "opposites" and with protest chic.

But that is one of the problems, says Vagas, whose clientele includes interracial couples. "There is this tendency to keep harping on what's 'wrong' with these couples."

Rather, the issue should be "what's wrong with a society that refuses to accept these relationships as normal," says Vagas, a member of Multi-racial Americans of Southern California, a newly organized support group of about 200 interracial or intercultural families.

Indeed, the parents interviewed for this story argue that this "societal labeling" is a key problem.

"The beauty of (an intercultural) relationship at their age," says one Anglo parent, whose son is dating an Asian, "is that they're so open and fresh now. They're not stuck with the labels that society--and adults--pin on such relations."

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