A Look Into Asian American Writing at Princeton and Its Focus on Interracial Dating: Racial Preferences of Campus Couples in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (Part 2)

By Christina Cho ’24

This is a continuation of a two-part series that broadly explores how discussions of “Asian American” identity and interracial dating overlap in student publications found in the University Archives. In Part 1, I examined a magazine called The Seedling and attempted to contextualize its underlying motive and somewhat ambiguous language. Here, I continue my discussion of Asian-white relationships using various examples of student writing from the 1980s through the early 2000s. I then examine an article from The Daily Princetonian that features an Asian-Black couple. The article shows that we need to consider other identities alongside race when discussing interracial dating.

Additional University Archives Sources on Interracial Dating

The student writing I found on Asian interracial dating from the 1980s generally focused more on the ambiguous acceptance of interracial dating on campus, rather than on specific racial pairings. The following are the earliest articles on interracial dating I found in The Daily Princetonian:

  • “Qualms, myths, tensions stymie interracial dating” (November 19, 1982): “Interracial couples just aren’t that common at Princeton.” In the article, a student notes that although students of different races can “‘be friendly with each other and eat together,’” they “‘don’t go to the same parties’” and “‘don’t date the same people.’” The article contextualizes this comment, asking students the reasons why interracial dating is uncommon. The article presents Princeton as a “fragmented community,” citing, for instance, how “for many whites, social life revolves around the [eating] clubs, while for blacks, the Third World Center and Princeton Inn dances are the main sites of social activity.”
  • “Interracial dating: Students meet mixed response to relationships” (December 4, 1986): This article points to a similar tension between students’ descriptions of how accepting Princeton is of interracial relationships. The article includes interviews with Asian students, such as “Kelly,” who discusses her experiences dating both Asian and non-Asian men, concluding: “I encountered the same boy-girl relationships in both situations […] all guys are the same.”

Photo from Princeton: Our Perspective, 1981. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 294, Folder 7.

Asian-White Relationships

As the prevalence of interracial couples increased, patterns began to emerge that showed that the author’s preference for white men in “White Male Qualities” was not unique. In 2006, Tara L. Mathai-Davis (then a senior in the psychology department), conducted a study and wrote a senior thesis on interracial dating behavior among Princeton students. In the study, 205 heterosexual participants answered a questionnaire about their 1) personal relationships, 2) attitudes towards men and women, 3) attitudes towards different racial groups, and 4) attitudes towards interracial dating. Based on the results of this survey, Mathai-Davis found the following about Asian students at Princeton: 

Asians are equally willing to date White students as they are to date within their own group, suggesting that Asians hold Whites in the same high regard as their own ingroup. On the other hand […] Asians’ ingroup preference is significantly lower than all the other ethnic groups, suggesting a resistance to dating between the specific Asian communities themselves […] Asian participants are the least willing to date in general, which might offer an alternative explanation for their low ingroup dating score. Data from the present study do not permit us to differentiate between these two possible explanations.

Although preference does not necessarily correlate with what happens in reality, it seems that enough Asian and white students dated for students to comment on the phenomenon, particularly in the ’90s. Here are articles I found that comment on the high ratio of Asian-White interracial couples on Princeton campus (in comparison to other interracial couples):

Judith Shapiro ’75 (right) with her husband, Liang Heng. Photo by Penelope Maunsell. Princeton Alumni Weekly, June 1, 1983.

  • One article published in the 13 May 1994 edition of The Daily Princetonian, titled “Bias still burdens couples dating across racial lines,” asks why relationships between Asian women and white men “seem to be more common on campus than other forms of interracial dating.” According to the article, many students mentioned “the ‘Asian fetish’” as a possible explanation for this phenomenon. Students used the term “Asian fetish” specifically in reference to relationships between white men and Asian American women.
  • An article in the October 1999 edition of The Vigil (“Jungle Fever: Princeton’s Dating Scene in Black and White”) also mentions how “the majority of interracial relationships at Princeton are Asian-White.” The article cites a study done by Deborah Abrams *00, which found that 57% of interracial relationships at Princeton were “Asian-White.” I tried to find this study, but was unfortunately unsuccessful.

Interracial Relationships and Religious Identity 

 A 2000 Prince article featured the relationship between Bonnie Lee ’01 and James Wiley ’01 (“Across a Boundary, Hands Clasped”). This was the only source I could find that features an Asian and Black couple. In their interviews, Lee and Wiley describe how their upbringings influenced the ways in which they viewed their relationship. I was particularly intrigued by Lee’s statement about her parents: 

My parents took every measure possible to make sure I grew up and knew how to speak Chinese… I just feel that Asian parents are very conservative. It’s hard for them to see why it might even be an evolutionary step in the right direction for interracial couples. They very much feel that their culture is being threatened, is being lost through us.

The idea that interracial dating threatens one’s cultural heritage is something we see in The Seedling, and Lee pushes back on this claim. She frames her relationship with Wiley not as a way of giving up her Chinese heritage, but as a way of looking at the world  from “a new perspective.” In the article, Lee “said she hasn’t turned her back on her culture.” 

Bonnie Lee ’01 and James Wiley ’01. Photo by David Whitelaw for the Daily Princetonian.

The article also introduces the concept of religious identity as an important factor in Lee and Wiley’s relationship. Regarding his family’s reaction to his relationship, Wiley says:

I know it isn’t something that they [my parents] worry about or that gives them any amount of stress because they know Bonnie. Bonnie’s a great girl. For them, first and foremost has always been faith. The fact that she’s a Christian. We share the same religion. I think that’s the most important thing for them.

The article seems to suggest that race is but one of the important aspects of the students’ identities:

But despite different cultural backgrounds, they [Lee and Wiley] have had similar upbringings. Both grew up in upper-middle class homes, attended both private and public schools and belonged to Southern Baptist churches.

This Princetonian article teaches us the importance of considering other aspects of identity in the discussion of interracial dating. Many publications, including The Seedling, focus primarily on the racial differences between individuals in interracial relationships, overlooking the fact that other aspects of identity facilitate close bonds between people.  

Conclusion

In this series, I gave a brief overview of some sources relevant to the topic of Asian American identity and interracial dating at Princeton. I found this topic extremely challenging to write about. I had to 1) consider my personal views of dating, 2) interpret the ambiguous and loaded language of “preservation of blood” (which has multiple historical precedents), and 3) think about other aspects of identity, such as religion, that complicate our thinking about interracial relationships in general. 

Christina Cho is a sophomore who plans to concentrate in Religion. Beyond Mudd Library, she works as a Fellow in the Writing Center and sings a cappella in VTone, Princeton’s East Asian music group.

Sources:

Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342)

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Mathai-Davis, Tara L. “The Dating Race–With Whom Do You Run?: Perceived Trait Positivity Drives Interracial Dating Behavior.” A.B. thesis, Princeton University, 2006.

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

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