For Valentine’s Day: Race, Racism and Online Dating

It’s Valentine’s Day.  Here in the U.S., the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold in the mid-19th century (about 1847). Now, the Greeting Card Association estimates that some 190 million cards will be exchanged this Valentine’s Day.

(CC image from Flickr user @atbondi)

Of course, we’re living in a digital age now, so Valentine’s Day is marked by a Google Doodle and, for many people, by (re-)subscribing to an online dating service. According to some estimates, more than 20 million people per month use online dating services.

Increasingly, the research indicates that online dating is shaped not only by the desire to find love (for the moment or something more lasting) by race and racism. For example, this research on heterosexual dating and this research on same-sex dating indicates some interesting patterns along racial lines.

The online dating service OKCupid analyzed their internal data by race (in 2010) and found that: “although race shouldn’t matter … it does. A lot.” The way OKCupid works, in case you’ve never dipped your toe in the waters of online dating, is that you set up an ad, or “Profile” describing yourself, your interests, what you’re looking for in a date.  Then, when people read your profile, they can send you a “Message” within the site, indicating their interest in you.

What the data show pretty clearly is that in figuring out who gets “messages”  and “replies” – or traffic from potential dates – race matters. The patterns for the straight crowd looks like this (from here):

  • White men get more responses. Whatever it is, white males just get more replies from almost every group. We were careful to preselect our data pool so that physical attractiveness (as measured by our site picture-rating utility) was roughly even across all the race/gender slices. For guys, we did likewise with height.
  • White women prefer white men to the exclusion of everyone else—and Asian and Hispanic women prefer them even more exclusively. These three types of women only respond well to white men. More significantly, these groups’ reply rates to non-whites is terrible.
  • Black women write back the most. Black women are by far the most likely to respond to a first contact attempt. In many cases, their response rate is one and a half times the average, and, overall, black women reply about a quarter more often that other women.

The interesting contradiction is that OKCupid also asks people “Is interracial marriage a bad idea?” and, as with most liberals, the responses are overwhelmingly positive in the direction of “no, not a bad idea” (98% answering in the negative to the question). They also ask “Would you prefer to date someone of your own skin color/racial background?” Again, a huge majority (87%) say no.  OKCupid chalks this up to a collective “schizophrenia” about race.

In same-sex dating “the prejudices are a bit less pronounced,” but the predominance of white men persists.  Here’s what the gay-lesbian dating looks like (from here):

  • White gays and lesbians respond by far the least to anyone.
  • Black gays and lesbians get fewer responses. This is consistent with the straight data, too.
  • Asian lesbians are replied to the most, and, among the well-represented groups, they have the most defined racial preferences: they respond very well to other Asians, Whites, Native Americans, and Middle Easterners, but very poorly to the other groups.

The folks analyzing this data at OKCupid rightfully note that they’re the only ones (among dating sites) releasing this data, and take pains to note that there’s likely nothing uniquely ‘biased’ about their users:

It’s surely not just OkCupid users that are like this. In fact, it’s any dating site (and indeed any collection of people) would likely exhibit messaging biases similar to what [is] written up [here]. According to our internal metrics, at least, OkCupid’s users are better-educated, younger, and far more progressive than the norm, so I can imagine that many sites would actually have worse race stats.

It’s an interesting point that highlights in many ways, how facile our thinking is when it comes to race and racism.  We’re stuck, it seems, in the collective myth that “racism” looks like Bull Connor, when in fact, racism can – and often does – appear to be “well educated, younger, and progressive.”  As Sharon P. Holland notes in her excellent book, The Erotic Life of Racism (Duke U Press, 2012), these quotidian, daily choices about who we choose to love shape not only individual, personal lives, but also the contours of collective society.



  1. Sharon Chang

    Very interesting perspective on race relations! Ha. Never thought to examine online dating but wow, in some ways an easy way to collect data. It’s all just right there. Makes me wonder about our younger, upcoming generations and a sort of racial apathy I’m sensing amongst them. The passionate, fiery awareness of the 60s/70s seems to be slowly wearing off. In it’s place, are youngsters being wooed by “Post-Racial Era” rhetoric into believing race doesn’t matter or exist anymore? Does this lead them to sleepwalk through the critical dating years of their youth; never examining the deeply rooted racial framework of our society that clearly still affects their choice of partners???

  2. aggiej91

    I have used the online dating site, Plenty of Fish, in the past. It’s astounding how many user profiles (often white) outright state in their “about me” sections that the person is not interested in being contacted by people of other races, especially if they are Black. Sometimes the users justify it saying “I’m not racist,” and sometimes they don’t. They are often very strong in these opinions. I just don’t understand why they completely close off their options of who they will date to people that they have never even met. Very sad.

  3. lynn07

    In response to the OKCupid charts, found here:

    I don’t know, guys…this just seems like the latest in the whole “the black woman is the least valuable human being in the world” bull (among other unfortunate implications)…Let’s break it down a bit…

    Look at the relative percentages between the men and the women. Overall, men reply *at much higher percentages* than women. The female percentages are in the teens through low thirties, while the male percentages are in the low thirties to low sixties. Keep in mind that these are percentages of replies, so we’re looking at the ratio between the number of messages received and the number of replies sent in response. We do not have specific data on the number of replies (not to mention the quality—a “hay babie ur hawt” is much different from a thoughtful and original personal response) that each group receives on average, but we might make a few projections…

    What I think is happening is that black women generally *get fewer messages* on these sites and, therefore, their reply percentages are higher than average (though still lower than the average male reply percentages). Likewise, since men tend to send out more messages than women on average, their reply percentages tend to be higher. If you compare the black women’s red row of doom and gloom on the “female sender” chart to the black women’s universally non-prejudiced row of Oprah green on the “male sender” chart, the numbers are essentially the same (with the male percentages still running slightly higher). It’s not that black women would let any Mike, Tyrone, Min-ho, or Sanjay “get it” while none of these fellas would give her the time of day (which is what the article not-so-subtly suggests)—they are still slightly choosier than the men, strictly going by percentages (which are below 40 percent across the board). And if, once again, we consider quality, it is likely that all these numbers essentially tell us is the percentage of *quality first responses* (however each receiver interprets quality) worthy of a response that each group receives. Yes, race is likely a factor, but not in the same way that these scare-tactic articles have interpreted it.

    If you’re a black woman and you’re reading this, the message that you shouldn’t walk away with is “Great, more confirmation that I’m the least desirable female on the planet.” It should be, “Well, maybe I won’t get as many replies on these sites, but race might actually be a great screening mechanism. I might even be lucky, since I don’t have to sort through as many unsuitable responses.”

    Bottom line? These incomplete figures really should not be used to propagate age-old stereotypes about black women, white men, or any other racial group.

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