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.
( 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Psychologist Gerald Mendelsohn (Emeritus, UC-Berkeley) is leading some of this research, which is as yet unpublished in peer-review.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?”
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.