I Got You, Manti
by Kevin Huang
Okay, so the Manti Te’o story is played out. It’s slowly becoming a distant memory, one that most of us probably want to forget. But let me get one more reflection in.
For a lot of us, the story was just plain weird: a fake girlfriend, a web of lies, and mass confusion, all in the light of Manti Te’o’s incredible year. But while there are many people calling Te’o a liar and a fraud, I knew he could not have been behind the twisted scheme when I heard him respond to a question from Katie Couric during their interview.
Katie: I’m sure you’re a BMOC, a big man on campus… you go to Notre Dame. I’m imagining there are a lot of nice young women who go to school there. Why wouldn’t you want a real girlfriend, who you could actually spend real time with in person?
Manti: Well, this Lennay person…there are so many similarities… she was Polynesian supposedly, she’s Samoan, I’m Samoan. She loved her faith, and she knew a lot about… you know I’m Mormon and she knew a lot about that. I found a lot of peace and a lot of comfort in being able to talk to somebody and she knew my standards… she knew my culture… she knew what is expected of me, and I knew what is expected of her.
Katie asked a question that I’m sure a lot of people were wondering–why was a guy like Manti Te’o having such an extensive online relationship with a girl he never met?
To me, it made perfect sense. Lennay Kekua gave Manti something he would rarely find at Notre Dame: someone who understood him and the life he came from, someone who shared similar beliefs, someone who liberated him and allowed him to be his true self. Fundamentally, Kekua provided a support system for Manti. Manti has (in previous interviews) expressed how he loved Kekua’s commitment to faith. This faith connected the two in a way that is unique to them and their culture. While teammates, coaches, mentors, and millions of fans supported and loved Manti, Kekua supported and loved him in a way that was unfaltering, unlike the way so many people turned their backs on Te’o after the hoax was revealed.
As nice as this was for Te’o, the reality is unsettling. While there are many young women on campus that may be interested in Te’o, at the particular moment in time when he was beginning to talk to Lennay, he could not find someone he could connect with on a level better than with Kekua.
The fact is that there is not that many people like Te’o at Notre Dame. Finding Samoan and Mormon students at a Catholic University like Notre Dame is rare. Thus his chances of finding someone like Kekua here is nearly improbable. Dating a Notre Dame girl would likely force him to date both outside of his ethnicity and outside of his religion.
I am making one underlying assumption that I must address: that Te’o prefers to be with someone who is similar to him and understands him. I base this off two things. First, by simply looking at Te’o’s language when he talks about the similarities he had with Kekua, it seemed obvious that her ethnicity, beliefs, and understandings contributed significantly to the relationship. Secondly, it is not uncommon to find people who have not dated outside of their race, or even interacted very much outside of their race. Despite a supposedly “post-racial” society, race still matters systematically and on a smaller scale during personal interactions. I have listened to several white students describe how I was their first real friendship with an Asian peer. On the other side, many black, Hispanic, and Asian communities continue to be separated from white communities, and Notre Dame minority students could have very limited exposure to students unlike themselves. If Te’o grew up in a community with many people like himself, then it makes sense that Kekua fulfills something that a typical Notre Dame girl could not.
I can sympathize because I have had many similar situations while at Notre Dame. I have always felt blessed that I was placed in integrated schooling growing up, because it allowed me to interact with different people in liberating ways. This allowed me to, when arriving to Notre Dame, find myself with friends and connections within predominately white groups (like in my dorm) and with minority groups.
However–even with friends in these groups–race, beliefs, and ideas matter. While I had a decent number of white friends, I found it was difficult to become very close to, or the best friend to, a white person. Sometimes, I could kick it with a friend Sunday through Thursday, but maybe we had different ideas of “fun” during the weekends. Sometimes, we could bond on classes and sports talk, but could not on music tastes. The same is true of the friends I have in different minority circles on campus. Even in these groups, I can find myself in restricting positions.
However, I do not have it bad at all. I could only imagine how it must feel to be a minority student who never got the opportunity to interact with many suburban white students growing up and now feels out of place at Notre Dame, even in their own minority communities. Or the gay student who may not find people who have shared similar experiences and can support one another. This is ultimately the issue of diversity and inclusion. At a place at Notre Dame, where there is not a huge amount of diversity, how does the marginalized student deal with the pressures of assimilation and simply not having many people who are similar to them?
In my opinion, the racism on this campus is not that bad. Of course there are the occasional forms of harassment (fried chicken incident) and acts of “othering.” But these are the tipping points for the true problems of inclusion on campus. The resentment and frustrations of the marginalized student are only magnified when individual acts of racism occur.
So how can I blame Te’o for falling for an Internet girl? He couldn’t find what he wanted at Notre Dame, so he looked elsewhere. Unfortunately for him, elsewhere was not even real.