Race is at the center of how we construct and act on our notions of desire, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Modern Romance, a unique collaboration between a sociologist and a comedian.
In collaboration with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Aziz Ansari wrote Modern Romance, a book that explores “dating in the digital age.” Addressing the contemporary dynamics of romantic relationships – which are often mediated through various forms of technology (cell phones, online dating websites, etc.) – a major draw of Ansari’s New York Times best-selling book is that it seems to explain why young people are so “awful” about dating more traditionally and therefore, are not good at getting married.
Ansari, a comedian by trade, has established himself as someone who makes (albeit marginally) insightful observations about inequality, particularly when it comes to race, as with his new Netflix series Master of None.
In fact, Ansari notes that racism in Hollywood – specifically the problematic representation of Indian and other South Asian characters – was a central motivator for his creation of Master of None, as no one else would have offered him this role:
When they cast these shows, they’re like, ‘We already have our minority guy or our minority girl.’ There would never be two Indian people in one show. With Asian people, there can be one, but there can’t be two. Black people, there can be two, but there can’t be three because then it becomes a black show. Gay people, there can be two; women, there can be two; but Asian people, Indian people, there can be one but there can’t be two. Look, if you’re a minority actor, no one would have wrote this show for you… Every other show is still white people.
This astuteness around issues of race, racism, and representation are what drew me to Ansari’s book on dating this summer.
The book, however, is deeply flawed when it comes to any form of analysis of race. Considering Ansari’s awareness around issues of race in his comedy, I found the glaring absence of race in this book extremely disappointing. How one can write about “modern” romance and not note the role that race plays in terms of who is or is not deemed attractive is actually quite mind-boggling.
Modern Romance assumes a consistency of dating experience across race that is problematic. Assuming that people of color have had the same experiences as, or with, white people with online dating is critically irresponsible and is contradicted by the research. White millenials in particular have proven time and time again they are not as progressive as they are assumed to be, including in who they choose to date (or exclude from dating).
Even best-selling author and OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder notes the continued role of racism in the chances of finding a partner online in his book Dataclysm and on the blog OKTrends. He reiterated this fact again during a Q&A at the 2015 meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago that I attended. When Helen Fisher of Match.com suggested that online dating had wiped out prejudice, he was quick to correct that misperception. Given the widely known and easily available data on race and online dating, the disappearing of race from Modern Romance’s analysis is all the more curious. This colorblind approach does little to help us understand contemporary intimacies that begin online and does even less to advance sociological understanding of modern romance.
Ansari does not mention the racial or class identities of the daters except for two Indian American men in a focus group. Thus, the text allows heterosexual middle class whiteness to masquerade as “universal.” This is particularly evident when Ansari and Klinenberg discuss the dynamics of traditional means of meeting potential dating partners with some residents of a New York City retirement home.
As the older informants in their book relate how they met their partners in their apartment buildings or in their neighborhoods, the book conveniently avoids noting how segregation and the white habitus were at play in terms of determining who people had access to decades ago and at present. When Ansari attempts to explicitly address race, it is treated as a cute joke. Ansari notes that he would have had a “hard time” trying to date in the 1950s due to being “brown” but he doesn’t go beyond that. Xenophobia, racism, and a variety of structural and legal inequalities also go without mention (Loving v. Virginia, for example) in Ansari’s brief commentary on his prospects in the time “before technology took over.” It’s unclear what motivates this gaping lack of critical analysis other than a desire to maintain the levity of the book and, possibly, to avoid the “messiness” of race for Ansari’s predominantly white “progressive” audience.
More disturbingly, however, the book does an excellent job of perpetuating racist stereotypes. The author(s) herald the fact that they did not just rely on focus group and interview data from the States; they also talked with people in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Paris, France, Tokyo, Japan, and Doha, Qatar. Yet, the “international perspectives” chapter focuses mainly on contrasting Japan, Argentina, and the U.S.
In a problematic set of metaphors, the Japanese – particularly the men – are referred to as “herbivores” in contrast to the “rib eye-eating maniacs” of Argentina. This distinction perpetuates Western understandings of the sexuality of Asian and Latino men. There is a lengthy history of fetishizing the virility and “hot bloodedness” of Latino men while denigrating the lack of these qualities in Asian men in the United States, a dynamic that is well-documented in studies of interracial marriages (see Nemuto, Steinbugler or Frankenberg). These stereotypes inform not only dating and marriage dynamics in the U.S., but serve as motivation for phenomena such as sex tourism. Further, recent sociological studies have led to a focus in the media around the racist preferences of online daters, specifically the lesser prospects of black women and Asian men.
There may be nothing “new” about the relationships between race, sex, and romance, but if we truly want to understand “modern” romance, researchers (and comedians) must work to avoid strengthening colorblind logics.
~ Shantel Buggs is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research looks at dating and mixed race identity when mediated through online dating sites.