Race and Sexuality: Are Racial Dating Preferences Racist?

Sexuality is without doubt a very individual experience. It’s hard to put people’s sexual attitudes, habits and preferences into convenient boxes. This being said, there are definitely sexual patterns that can be drawn around different environments, trends that occur and cultural attitudes and beliefs that are followed depending on the context and climate. Our cultural, social and religious backgrounds all affect our sexual behavior, and define what is ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ for us and for our community.

In an ideal world, the broad kaleidoscope of sexual attitudes and references that exist would be not just tolerated but encouraged, and people would be free to experiment with their sexuality regardless of racial, religious or cultural ties banning them from sleeping with certain people outside of what’s considered ‘normal’. I hate to break it to the more idealistic among you, but we ain’t quite there yet.

Despite the amazing advances in sexual evolution made in the last generation in terms of gay rights, women’s liberation, with sexual revolutions aplenty, and a world of experimentation available to us all through the effect new technology is having on our sex lives, certain things aren’t moving so fast. And here’s a powerful piece of evidence to suggest why.

A study recently carried out by the Guardian based on OK Cupid’s online database of 25 million people revealed that most people prefer to date someone of their own race. Getting specific, white men faired a lot better than black or Asian men, in terms of what women considered attractive. White and Asian women fared well, whilst black women were a lot less popular.

But what does this data mean? If we refuse to date someone outside of our own race, are we racist?

Maybe that’s a little too simplistic. It seems like the data is more of a direct reflection of our cultural values, and a clear sign of social inequality. For example, having money and power is considered attractive to women, and these social factors affect a woman’s perception of a man beyond just his superficial appearance. It’s an uncomfortable truth that white men continue to be more successful and wealthy compared to minorities in our society, and the media portrays them as such. It follows then that they get more female attention online, and in the real world.

When looking for a partner, it’s not uncommon for us to talk about having a ‘type’. Many people’s sexual preferences can be seen as narcissistic, we want someone who is ‘a match’ for us, in some ways, a reflection of our self. But how much of this preference is just social conditioning? The media, our schools, institutions parents or whatever, encouraging us to stay diligently within our tribe, be that tribe Christian, Jamaican, or just plain middle class.

What’s more, these patterns aren’t specific to OK Cupid’s members, there are many academic studies to back up this evidence, and info from the Facebook dating app also suggests similar results. The same patterns are also present in same sex couples, albeit to a slightly lesser extent.

It seems to me that people’s sexual preferences actually have a lot to do with racial stereotyping, or more specifically, negative racial stereotyping. The way people from different races are presented within our culture affects us all on a subconscious level, and many of these negative stereotypes are consciously fed to us (by a media dominated overwhelmingly by old white men) to play on our basic emotions, like fear and mistrust.

Whether it’s the mainstream news media implying that all Muslim men are terrorists and misogynists, a Hollywood sitcom featuring the geeky Asian sidekick, or American chat shows showcasing ‘the angry black woman’, the theatre of negative racial stereotyping is very much at play in our everyday lives.

Of course sexual rebelliousness has existed since the beginning of time, and there have always been transgressive relationships where the lovers in question step outside of their respective boxes and into each other’s arms, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for the future of amorous liaisons.  Romeo and Juliet fell in love despite the fact that their families were at war, students fall in love with teachers, managers elope with their secretaries. Becoming involved with someone outside of your own community, age bracket or social class has always been a taboo in society, but it’s interesting to see how these goal posts have moved over time.

Whilst only a generation ago, gay sexual relations would have been seen as one of the biggest transgressions, in the present day gay communities exist and flourish all over the world. Not to say that prejudice towards them doesn’t exist, but clear progress has been made, most specifically in the last 40 years. So if people have got used to the idea of gay relationships, once thought unthinkable and even unnatural, why do will still find it hard to live in a society where interracial relationships are accepted, and allowed to flourish?

It seems that the sad truth is that many people of all cultures feel compelled to stay within their own communities. It can be considered very taboo within many cultures to date people from another race or religion. The pressure of the old systems and cultural values of first generation immigrants don’t always sit comfortably alongside a brave new world in which kids from a myriad of different ethnic backgrounds are thrown together in the playgrounds of rapidly expanding multicultural cities from London to New York and Toronto. Sexuality evolves along with the cities people live in, taboos are broken and advances into the unknown are made by many, whilst others stick stubbornly to what they know.

So why are lots of people so reluctant to jump the race barrier? Well for one thing it could be the safety of what’s familiar, and fear of the unknown. But is this just nervousness, or does racism come into it? Earlier we talked about rebels, there will always be people interested in the goods that are marked ‘out of bounds’, and I guess it’s these characters that end up shifting society’s boundaries in the long run.

But do you have to be a rebel to want to date someone of another race, or are you just acting on your basic urges when picking a partner, having somehow zoned out the social conditioning that tells you to pick a suitable mirror mate?

Perhaps racism is one of the most stubborn taboos remaining in our society, and it looks like our sexual habits are proof that there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done in this area. Though in some cultures it’s completely normal to see mixed raced relationships, many mixed race couples still encounter prejudice, and anything from catcalling in the streets to violent attacks are not uncommon, depending on where in the world you decide to fall in love.

Culture affects everything, from what we eat to the music we listen to, the political parties we vote or don’t vote for, and indeed who we do and don’t let into our bedrooms and our lives. When you really think about it, everyone is actually mixed race anyway, it’s just that we are given these cultural glasses when we’re kids to say that some people are brown/black, good/bad, acceptable and unacceptable. Cultural manipulation is heavily at work in our everyday lives, and unless we make the most supreme effort to remain totally open-minded, or our bullshit filters are completely infallible, some of these prejudices might just sink in without us having even realized it.

Perhaps the scary thing about analyzing this data is how far society’s values and cultural propaganda, including those that depict negative racial stereotypes, affect us at a very primal level, to such an extent that we may be shaping our basic sexual desires around parameters drawn up by someone else; someone, let’s face it, who may be more concerned with keeping us apart as a society rather than bringing us together.

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