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Mixed marriages on rise

Acceptance is growing for interracial couples

RIVERTON — Susan Sakurai remembers her parents' words of caution more than 30 years ago when she told them she planned to marry a Japanese immigrant.

"They had seen after World War II how people treated children that were half," she said. "They just worried about that and didn't want that to happen to me."

Susan, who is white, was a child 40 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court said states couldn't ban interracial marriages. Sitting next to her husband, Mitsuyuki, an immigrant from Japan, Sakurai smiles as she says, "It wasn't a problem."

On June 12, 1967, the Loving v. Virginia ruling said states couldn't bar whites from marrying non-whites.

Fewer than 1 percent of the nation's married couples were interracial in 1970. However, from 1970 to 2005, the number of interracial marriages nationwide has soared from 310,000 to nearly 2.3 million, or about 4 percent of the nation's married couples, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. In 2005, there were also nearly 2.2 million marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanics.

Like most other states, Utah once had a law against interracial marriages. It was passed by the territorial Legislature in 1888 and wasn't repealed until 1963, said Philip Notarianni, director of the Division of State History.

"Utah, both in enacting and repealing it, probably just was going along with the national sentiment," he said.

Race isn't an issue today for Utah's predominant LDS faith, church spokesman Scott Trotter said.

The late President Spencer W. Kimball of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had cautioned members about interracial marriages, but it was also a revelation issued by President Kimball that opened up the LDS priesthood to worthy black males in 1978.

Before then, the ban meant blacks weren't admitted to LDS temples and couldn't be married there, said Cardell Jacobson, sociology professor at Brigham Young University.

"The climate is much better," he said, as LDS Church members have become more accepting since the 1978 revelation.

While "there are still a lot of people raising eyebrows" at interracial couples, it's more likely because of the unusualness in predominantly white Utah than disapproval.

"In the '60s and '70s, people were discouraged from interracial marriage, intergroup," he said. "Now it's much more open, accepting."

That was helped during last year's 176th Annual General Conference, Jacobson said, when LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke out against racism, saying "no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ."

Acceptance of interracial marriages is on the rise in Utah and nationally, Jacobson said, pointing to a 2000 New York Times survey, which found that 69 percent of whites said they approved of interracial marriage. In the West, the approval rate was 82 percent, compared to 61 percent in the South.

Irene Ota, diversity coordinator for the University of Utah's College of Social Work and a Japanese-American, said her parents disowned her in the 1970s when she married a black man.

"I was told to leave home, don't ever come back," she said, "The day my mom came around was when I had my first child."

Ota said her first marriage lasted 21 years. Now, being married to a white man, she said "gives me a little higher status." Still, "I'm looked at as an exotic thing."

Ota said her two daughters from her first marriage look black. Ota was stung when her 3-year-old daughter came home and said a friend "told me my brown skin is yucky."

"Here I was having a conversation about racism with a 3-year-old," she said, saying she had to tell the toddler that sometimes when people are mean it isn't because of who she is, but because of her skin color. She said: "It's not you."

Her daughters' skin color also impacted their social lives when they attended East High School.

"Society wouldn't allow them to date white boys," she said. "For females of color, when they get to dating, marriage age, suddenly their ethnicity is very important."

When Elaine Lamb took her son to kindergarten, she says the teacher saw her white skin and her son's black skin and asked, "Do you read to him?" and if he'd ever been to a library. She replied, "I'm an English teacher, yeah."

Lamb, 46, is white and her husband is black. She said while overall people are accepting of her relationship, she's sometimes stereotyped for it.

She also received a lot of warnings about "those black guys" before she married Brent, now her husband of 12 1/2 years. The couple has two sons, ages 6 and 9.

Lamb said those warnings included stereotypes such as "they'll get you pregnant then leave" or "they'll spend all your money."

The biggest cultural differences between them haven't involved race, Lamb said. She's from a farm, he's from the city. She was raised LDS, he wasn't.

"Those cultural differences are a lot bigger than the racial difference," she said. "My mom's biggest concern was religion. My dad's biggest concern was the color thing. ... We dated for a year and three months before we got married. He could see Brent was a hard worker and a good provider."

The Sakurais say they've generally been accepted. The secret to success is the same as with any marriage, she says. "You have to find someone with similar goals ... and similar ideals," she said, adding, "You'll have differences."