“Do you only date people from your own background?” my friend asked. I’d like to think the answer to that question is no. My partners have all been radically different from each other — in personality and appearance — and I’ve never been accused of having a “type,” but one thing I had never really thought about was that most of my partners so far have been white.
I’m not alone in my apparent habits. OKCupid data from 2009 to 2014 shows that the vast majority of members had either a preference or indifference towards dating someone from their own race. However, the data also shows us something a little bit nastier: 82 percent of heterosexual non-Black men said that they weren’t interested in being matched with Black women, and Asian and Black men were significantly less popular among heterosexual female users. This may be information from only one website, and for a set number of years, but it is indicative of wider trends in the way we approach our relationships.
It’s not terribly surprising that racism seeps into all aspects of our society, including our romance, but you might be wondering why your preferences are a big deal. Discriminating against someone in a job interview most likely has a larger impact on them than deciding not to ask them to dinner (also, if you aren’t interested in dating someone because of their race, I’m willing to bet that person isn’t all that interested in getting a meal with you anyway). However, we can’t say that racial preferences in romance have no effect whatsoever. In her article for Vice magazine about the experience of being a Black woman on Tinder, Eternity Martis talks about the impact that racism has on a user’s self esteem. Being hypersexualized, tokenized and fetishized from all angles when looking for a relationship understandably takes a toll on one’s feelings of self worth.
Martis is not alone in her experiences, which are unfortunately not uncommon. This begs the question: if our preferences are not random, and are instead part of larger societal trends, where do they come from? Some explanations might include evolutionary psychology, but if humans are programmed to be attracted to physical prowess and symmetry, why should this exclude People of Colour? Another explanation might be that we are interested in people from our own racial background, but if this was the case then we wouldn’t see specific discriminatory trends in dating patterns.
Instead the answer is exactly what you would expect: ubiquitous White supremacist beauty standards. We can see the ways this manifests in media representation. How often do we see Asian men as romantic leads in Hollywood blockbusters? On television shows, how often are Black women described as “the one”? When you can count the number of interracial couples in contemporary media on one hand, it starts to make sense why racism might make its way into our dating lives.
At this point you may be feeling insecure about your preference for brunettes, or wondering if you have been fetishizing that tall guy you see in the student center based on his height. Don’t fret. Having preferences is not the same thing as discriminatory dating. I’m not proposing that we should all date people we aren’t attracted to in order to prove a point, nor am I demanding that you change something you may have no control over such as what features you are attracted to. People in interracial relationships are not necessarily more enlightened than the rest of us, and people who date those from their own backgrounds are not necessarily more racist. What I’m asking instead is for us to take a step back, and look at our race-based preferences critically. Let’s demand better representation in our media, expect respectful interactions on dating websites, and think twice before we dismiss someone as “not our type.”
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal