Is It OK to Have a Racial Preference in Dating?

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Why you should care

Because all is fair in love and war.

OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail with OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! We’ll smartly debate the hot topics usually shied away from. In the lead-up, we’re posting a weekly provocative question on Wednesdays — focusing on topics that might make it onto the show. Our Third Rail question of the week delves into relationships: Is it OK to have a racial preference in dating? We want to hear what you have to say. Email thirdrail@ozy.com with your thoughts or a personal story, and we might feature your answer next week.

Trish, a 34-year-old marketing consultant, has never dated non-white men. “In middle and high school, I had HUGE crushes on every race of guy under the sun,” she says. But she also had a parent who was disapproving, who didn’t “believe” in interracial relationships and made disparaging jokes to discourage Trish from dating men who weren’t Caucasian.

It’s an attempt that apparently worked. Was it OK for Trish’s mother to impose her own racial preferences on her daughter’s dating choices? Or is it racist to have a racial preference in dating? That’s the question we’re asking this week, and we want your candid, no-holds-barred answers.

In 2010, 39 percent of Americans polled said interracial marriage is good for society, 9 percent said it was bad and 52 percent said it made no difference at all. And yet, five years later, in 2015, just one-fifth of all couples in the U.S. had married someone of a different race or ethnicity, according to Pew Research — suggesting that the 52 percent of Americans who said mixed-race marriages make “no difference at all” aren’t practicing what they preach, haven’t found that certain someone or, let’s be honest, aren’t being completely honest.

Romance: We can all agree it’s more art than science. When two people connect at work, through friends or via the Internet, the explanation for why sparks fly is sometimes, frankly, unexplainable. Love is blind, according to conventional wisdom (and Shakespeare). But is it? When it comes to the dating game, we’d all like to believe we don’t care what the other players look like, but care we do.

Max Moore, 39, grew up in the South with a white mom and a Black dad. And despite the clear role race played in his childhood — and in the family’s truck tires getting slashed (“a lot”) — he’s less clear about what’s driving his dating choices. “If I’m being honest, I probably chased more women who were white/Latin/brunettes,” Moore emailed. “Is that Oedipal? Or is it just because I like what I like?” But liking what you like is the very definition of having a preference — and clearly he’s got one. “Look, I’m not even sure having a racial sexual preference is bad or damaging,” he continues. “We’re just a bunch of multi-pigmented hairless apes; what’s the difference anyhow?”

It’s the difference between OK and really not OK, according to a self-proclaimed “Black-identifying,” mixed-race woman who asked to remain anonymous. She and her family are very close with her mother, who is Black, but her relationship with her white father is “awful.” “Seeing him excuse his casual racism because he’s with a Black woman kills me,” she says.

Thorny family dynamics aside, when it comes to her own dating preference, it’s simple: She’s only ever dated African-Americans. “As someone who loves Black people and hates the way our society exploits us in every which way, I have a hard time even being attracted to other races.”

But what about the opposite approach? Is it wrong, exoticizing, racist or just “chemistry” if you’re drawn to a “type” that’s different from you?

David Monaghan readily admits to having a dating bias: “I have never really been attracted to white women.” Monaghan, who grew up in an economically depressed part of New Hampshire, says he was a “chubby, nerdy, sensitive and artistic kid.” By the time he moved to Manhattan in 1988 to attend NYU, he was no longer quite so chubby, but he was still a nerdy white guy — and still ignored by white girls. Now married to a Black woman, he says, “I was angry at the middle-class white culture that abused me and rejected me. I looked to other cultures I considered fellow ‘outsiders’ for wisdom and life lessons. Not acceptance, but as examples of surviving in enemy territory.”

If racial preferences exist — and they do — does it make them more palatable if they’re adaptive?

Consciously or not, Monaghan dated Black women because he felt shunned by his own white culture and therefore drawn to other cultures he believed possessed a wisdom gained from years of struggle and abuse. “I romanticized other cultures as having an esoteric understanding that white people lacked,” he explains. “This made non-white women intensely attractive to me.”

So should we call foul on people who never choose mates who look like them? What about those who only date within their racial group? If you’re Asian-American, for instance, and exclusively date other Asian-American people, does that smack of racism? “How is it if I say I like white women as a white man I become suspect?” ponders another anonymous responder. “If a Black guy has a preference for Black women, that’s business as usual, but I’m a racist?”

Discrimination can be subtler in the online dating scene, which seems to mirror the dating world at large, and dating sites like wherewhitepeoplemeet.com have caught fire for excluding other races. According to the co-founder of OKCupid, the majority of non-Black men have a bias against Black women, and Asian men tend to receive the fewest messages and ratings among all male customers. Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice who was fired for views that started to tack alt-right-y, just calls it as he sees it: “We are all racist to a certain extent … So, dating apps are merely quantifying a preference we all have and making it real.”

Does using the word “preference” take away the sting? Not necessarily. One study out of Australia, published in 2015, goes so far as to suggest a person’s sexual preferences tend to line up with their racial attitudes more broadly. In other words, researchers found “sexual racism” was linked to “generic racist attitudes.” A simple matter of “personal preference” may not be so simple.

“I guess having a preference is fine with me,” says Quincy Gunderson, a 54-year-old film editor who’s been married three times — all to Black women. “Unless that preference is really just coded, disguised objectification and trophy hunting.” In his case, Gunderson likes assertive, “feisty” women, and so far, that’s led him to date, and marry, Black women who fit the bill.

Which gets us right back to liking what you like, and whether or not that’s fine, or proof we’re all guilty of being racist in romance. Trish no longer has to worry what her mother thinks of her dating prospects, but she’s still not dating outside her race. “I’d like to think that now, at age 34, I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks, but I’m not sure that’s true,” she says.

To find what’s “true” — that purest of human relationships that hasn’t been subjected to and possibly perverted by bias — perhaps you’d need to consult the smallest humans. “Most race preferences don’t occur in children,” says Giuseppe Marongiu, a Belgian who previously lived in Africa. “They are acquired. So it all boils down to the fact that people prefer to have ‘preferences’ than a mind open to surprises.”

Let us know what you think. Is it OK to have a racial preference in dating? Comment below or email thirdrail@ozy.com.

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