By Joanna Chin | Guest Writer
Joanna Chin is an Afro-Latina writer, lifelong New Yorker, and self-proclaimed nerd. She graduated with a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Wheaton College and an MSW from New York University, where she currently serves as an academic advisor. You can see more of her musings on racial identity, faith, and social justice on her blog graceriot.
“Be open.” This was the mandate my Black girlfriends laid into my untested hands when I signed up for my first online dating account five years ago. Be open to ALL kinds of dating prospects.
In theory, it sounded good and progressive. Thus, I added my profile picture, typed out what I thought was an intriguingly vague yet witty bio…and then I reached the filters.
There were filters for everything! Height, body shape, profession, location, education level — and race. I paused, the mantra “Be open” hovering over the brown hands clutching my phone. Did this filter matter to me? Should it?
The Blurry Line of Bias and Preference
Having dating preferences is not new. As humans, we seek commonality with the people we choose to invest time in and build intimacy with. The familiarity of shared interests, hobbies, faith convictions, social causes, and cultural experiences provides an easier access point to cultivating a sense of belonging and safety. But what happens at the intersection of race and the search for romantic connection?
It’s tempting to view our romantic desires as all natural and tailored to the individual, but we cannot disconnect our romantic pursuits from the structural forces that shape not only the conditions of our dating pool but also our very desirability and who we find desirable.
Statistically, Black women fall at the bottom of the desirability ladder and are less likely to be married. Being exoticised or seen as a fetish are common experiences. Trans folx are commonly excluded as well.
Our romantic desires do not emerge from a vacuum, and the technological sphere of dating challenges us to examine what the processes of “swipe right” and “matching” may uncover about the nature of our dating preferences in regards to race.
Recent studies have explored how dating platforms potentially reinforce racial biases both through matching people based on the race of their previous match selections and the presence of racial filters. These features can result in entire racial groups never showing up on your feed, normalizing their omission under the guise of preference.
This “disinhibition effect,” as it allows people to hide behind their screens and forget the humanity of the people on the other side, permits users to have racial “types” otherwise socially unacceptable to express. Some dating platforms have even removed their ethnicity filters in a move to curtail “sexual Jim Crows” from enacting subconscious discrimination against certain groups.
But does having a specific racial preference in dating imply a racial bias? Here it gets blurry.
Race is always an algorithm coded into our romantic pursuits because it involves our internalized schemas about different racial and ethnic groups. There are underlying narratives about desirability reinforced by media, and they position whiteness at the top of the ladder while others, particularly Black women and Asian men, get fewer hits on dating platforms.
It’s difficult to be “open” in dating when the potential risks involve racial fetishization on one end of the spectrum and rejection on the other side, as some Black women have shared. This is further complicated for queer BIPOC who encounter racism on online dating platforms.
The emergence of affinity-based dating apps that embrace intersectionality (such as the trans-friendly app Butterfly) offer a retreat from the emotional labor involved in either educating white partners about race or experiencing racism on other platforms. Not only that, but ethnicity and race-based platforms provide an opportunity for cultural connection across a different dimension of shared experiences.
So are we allowed to have racial preferences in dating — and is the answer different for white people versus BIPOC? It’s reductive to think the same dynamics are at work for every person, and so I think it’s safe to say that it’s complicated.
While it’s uncomfortable to consider our dating choices from a racial lens out of fear of what it may expose within us, we should interrogate our romantic preferences and come into an awareness of how race interacts with our dating experiences.
For myself, dating a white man now challenges me to examine my years of crushes on white boys who didn’t seem to want me and how this craving for white validation still exists. Even though I’ve dated guys from many different ethnic backgrounds, I too have racial baggage when it comes to dating, and my experiences as a Black woman in predominantly white spaces are in dialogue with the love I have for my white partner.
Owning the tensions race provokes in the dating space is vital if we are to gain clarity on who we are attracted to and why. Honestly examining our internal dating filters frees us to pursue people with intentionality and integrity because in the end, beyond algorithms and matching preferences, love is not chosen for us by an app.