For Valentine’s Day: Race, Racism and Online DatingBy
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.
- 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.
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