Race, Racism and Online Dating: What the Research Tells Us

According to some estimates, more than 20 million people per month use online dating services.  Sociologist Andrea Baker has looked at the phenomenon of online dating in a number of publications, including two books, Double Click, and Online Matchmaking (edited with Monica T. Whitty and James A. Inman).  Baker points to four factors that indicate what makes for a successful relationship online: (1) meeting place, where they first encountered each other online; (2) obstacles, barriers to getting together overcome by the couples, such as distance and previous relationships; (3) timing, period spent writing or talking before meeting offline, and how intimate they became before meeting offline; and (4) conflict resolution, ability of the people to resolve problems in communication (Baker, CyberPsychology & Behavior. August 2002, 5(4): 363-375). None of the factors Baker identified point to race, nor is this the focus of her research.   More recently, however, studies are beginning to emerge that examine the phenomenon of interracial dating in the context of online dating sites.

facebook ad
(Creative Commons License photo credit: irina slutsky)

Psychologist Gerald Mendelsohn (Emeritus, UC-Berkeley) is leading some of this research, which is as yet unpublished in peer-review.  In an interview with TIME Magazine, he said:

“The Internet has changed things. There is no segregation on the Internet. So the question then becomes, When you have a free situation where people can contact whom they please, what will happen?”

Mendelsohn is right in framing this question, I think.  If we’re really as post-racial as many claim, then race shouldn’t be a factor in dating or mate selection.  It’s a question that needs to be put to the test, and online dating sites are an excellent way to do that, in part because of the user profiles, where race is an issue.
Mendelsohn’s study involved evaluating the user profiles on an (unnamed) online dating site, and looking at the ones that indicated some sort of racial preference. Some profiles to reflect a desire to date people only of the same race, others indicate the subscriber is open to dating someone of another race or of any race. Using these user-generated profiles, researchers compared their stated racial preferences with the races of the people they ended up contacting.  The results indicate a strong preference on the part of whites for dating other whites.   Here’s the summary from TIME:

Taken as a group, whites, women and older people were choosiest about sticking with others of their color. More than four of five whites contacted other whites, while just 3% reached out to blacks. The ratios stayed the same for young and older people, too — 80% chose not to contact others from outside their race. And only 5% of white subscribers responded to inquiries from someone from another race.

What about people who said they were indifferent? For whites who claimed to be, about 80% still contacted whites. Blacks who said they were color-blind when it comes to Cupid were more likely to contact a white than to contact a black.

So, what’s the deal? Are online daters racist? Are they hypocrites? Another news report on the study quotes Mendelsohn again to address this question.   He theorizes that the pattern of black people online being more willing to date whites “simply reflects how upward mobility”  and an effort to assimilate.  On the other hand, dating outside of whiteness may present “more of a hassle for a white person in America” and that dating choice may be viewed  “as a social downgrade.” According to Mendelsohn, for whites the calculation is simple:

“You will have trouble with family, with friends, and every time you go to a restaurant people will be looking at you. So you think, Why bother?”

This study suggests a deep-seated white racial frame, that both privileges whiteness and marks black people as “less desirable” dating partners.   This online pattern also reflects offline trends.   The U.S. Census data from 2000 shows that only one percent of American marriages take place between a black and white person.

Future Research. Clearly, there’s lots of room for future research in this area since the one study I was able to find about this isn’t even published yet.   I’d expect that there will be rich research opportunities to explore online dating sites that are specifically targeting people seeking interracial relationships (like the ad pictured above).     This is something that enraged the avowed white supremacists I studied in Cyber Racism, but there’s obviously more to be said about these sites.

I’d also be curious about how these patterns of race overlap and intersect with sexuality.  The research I’ve seen so far has looked almost exclusively at patterns among heterosexuals at online dating sites.  While straight people are clearly the heaviest users of such sites, given recent lawsuits against eHarmony, there is a desire on the part of some gays to participate in the sites.   And, contrary to the dating patterns of heterosexuals, LGBT folks are much more likely to be in interracial relationships (updated: e.g., see this discussion – noted by Brandon in comments – and this one), so online dating for this group may reflect these offline patterns as well.

Once more, the research indicates that the Internet is changing our social world, in this instance how people meet potential dating partners.  Woven into these new technologies, however, are old patterns of race and racism.

Comments

  1. Brandon Pilcher

    I just read a thread on an interracial-themed message board (http://www.dawnali.com/lovinmysistas/index.php?topic=2363.0) where one white guy was arguing that the reason there aren’t many white male/black female couples was because black women were too close-minded to date white men, but this study finding blacks more willing to contact whites than the reverse makes me think otherwise. It seems that black women are subjected to victim-blaming in these kinds of discussions; they’re constantly being chided for not opening up to different kinds of men, but on the other hand, very few white or other non-black men are encouraged to appreciate African beauty. This seems to be part of a larger trend for whites to deny any personal responsibility for their racism, instead blaming black people for it (ironic since whites like to bellyache about blacks not taking personal responsibility for themselves). The sad thing is that lots of blacks buy into this bullshit and unfairly disparage their own people for problems that aren’t entirely their fault.

  2. Tessa and Kimberley

    Thank you Jessie for your excellent post. I am using the current post on “Race, Racism and Online Dating” in my research methods courses and introductory sociology course at the University of Winnipeg (Canada). I used your earlier posts on “Race, Racism & Social Networking Sites” in these courses too. Students appreciate the important questions you raise in your posts. Thanks again.

  3. Jessie Author

    Thanks for your comments @Brandon and @Tessa and Kimberley. I added a couple of links to the original post, including the one you shared @Brandon.
    .
    I completely agree with this: “part of a larger trend for whites to deny any personal responsibility for their racism.” Indeed, this seems to be a huge problem. I’m really grateful that this research is at least analyzing and (somewhat) critiquing white peoples’ behavior, rather than just taking it as a given.

    • Tessa and Kimberley

      Jessie, I had forgotten to mention that your earlier post entitled, “Guatemala: New Research on Ethical Violations by White Researchers” is now required reading in my methods courses & is listed in the course outline. I plan to add more of your posts to the required reading lists in the future for the very reason that you mention, “this research is at least analyzing and (somewhat) critiquing white peoples’ behavior, rather than just taking it as a given.” Thanks again from Canada. In the meantime, my students and I look forward to your next post.

  4. Brittany

    I recently conducted research on white men’s perceptions of black women. For my study 134 white males (varying regions, ages, etc) responded to in-depth questionnaires on their perceptions of black women and their interest in dating and marriage with black women. Well over 3/4 of the participants held strongly negative views of black women, despite the fact that very few of the white males actually had in-depth interpersonal contact with black women. The majority of the respondents perceive of black women as unattractive unless capable of a white normative standard, believe black women possess a negative “black” culture, and believe black women possess “unfeminine” attributes that make them complicit in their own rejection.

    • aaliyah80

      I don’t get why white men are not interested in dating and marrying black women, there is nothing wrong with us! It’s bizarre to think that I am perceived as being “unattractive” because of my “black culture.” I believe men just have a perception of us from what they see is portrayed in the media. Men should not assume that every black women is the same, we are all unique and different. If they gave us a chance to get to know us then they would see that. Thank God, I haven’t had this problem with online dating. The only problem that I had was I didn’t know how to get started but I had some help from this one site: http://www.datingservices.net/
      I personally haven’t had to deal with racism. I get messages from a variety of men with different race and background. For me race is not an issue instead it is just something you have to look past.

  5. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    Yeah, black women are accused of being too closed-minded, too unfeminine, too “angry” and independent, etc and so on. When we are deemed attractive, either we’ve reached some “white normative standard” or we’re “good enough to play with not good enough to stay with.”

    As for white introspection, I’m continually baffled by the seemingly ever-enduring unexamined white-self.

  6. Johnson

    Interesting article. I can only go by personal experience, but I had intimate relationships with seven black women during the 1990’s. Related to the article, the biggest barrier I found was trouble with their family. All but one flat out refused to introduce me to their family. The one I was introduced to (and had the longest relationship with) would not allow me inside their home. They would speak to me through locked burglar bars. I came to the conclusion, like Blaque Swan above, “good enough to play with not good enough to stay with” from the other side of the spectrum. Now I look back and laugh. More than likely I was just their experiment or taboo relationship. All but one returned to black men after me and would not talk about our relationships. The other one dated another white guy after me but he had a motorcycle, my old Camero lost out. LOL

Pingbacks

  1. It’s easy to find love online as long as you are white according to research
  2. For Valentine’s Day: Race, Racism and Online Dating | 123 Idaho
  3. For Valentine’s Day: Race, Racism and Online Dating

Leave a Reply