Attraction is a mystery, right? We tend to believe that for the most part, you just like who you like and you have no control beyond that.
Indeed, there are physiological factors behind attraction, such as chemicals called pheromones our bodies emit to “sway potential partners.” According to Scientific American, “Smell, it seems, plays an under-appreciated role in romance and other human affairs.” We also know that our attractions and sexual desire can create strong hormonal responses.
Does this mean that attraction is beyond our control — that we are “let off the hook” for all our preferences?
Attraction gets messier when we start saying things like “I only date [insert race and gender]” or when we exclude certain races like, “I’m just not into Black women.” Something, by the way, I have been on the receiving end of hearing.
Because here’s the thing: attraction is not just biological. It’s social, societal, and institutional.
Our sexual preferences are shaped by external forces as well
Most of us grew up with white people dominating our media. Hollywood is very white, and most of our sex icons as a culture tend to be white, with fair-skinned, European features … even though people of color make up the global majority.
Representations of other races have often been cast as hyper-sexual, feisty, or subservient. Often, other cultures and races are cast as stereotypes in the media which has shaped our desires and preferences for our sexual partners perhaps without us even realizing it.
Intermarriage is steadily on the rise
Despite this, Pew Research shows that intermarriage has been on a steady increase over the last 50 years, with an acceleration recently that correlates with the growth of online dating.
This tells us that many of us are becoming more open to dating outside our race, but we still have a long way to go. White people are significantly less likely to willingly date someone who isn’t also white.
So this begs the question: what about people who proclaim they have a racial preference for their ideal mates? How about when white women say “I just don’t find Black men attractive like that” or when white men unabashedly prefer Asian women?
The problem with racial preference in dating
Maybe you’re realizing that you do have some racial preferences as you navigate the dating world. Here are some things to consider.
Generalizations dehumanize the other person and reduce them to a representation of their race.
“It was really strange [to be described as someone’s type] because it was meant in a racialised way,” a young woman, Ruchira, tells the BBC, “It’s a bizarre thing to feel like someone isn’t really looking at you as an individual but just something that they are into because of your skin tone or some concept that you’re different and exciting.”
Are you taking into account that the person you’re communicating with or on a date with comes with an entire lived experience that extends beyond their race?
2. Racial preference is often rooted in assumption.
We assume that people who look like us have the same values, which isn’t often the case. We often assume that people of other races won’t understand us or won’t be able to fit in with our families or friend groups.
These assumptions make it far too easy to exoticize or fetishize other races.
Are you hyper-focused on perceived differences, rather than taking time to examine similarities and how you can build connection?
4. It can support racist tropes that stem back to colonialism.
Li Zhou reports to Vox, “Asian American women have been exoticized and fetishized as sexual partners as far back as the 1800s.” After American involvement in Asian wars, an explosion of western media depicted Asian women as subservient, hyper-sexual, and docile, existing solely for the pleasure of white men.
Clearly, this attitude prevails among many men today. Asian women report being harassed on dating apps, citing that white men send them messages about how they have to “try their first Asian woman” or need their “yellow fever cured.”
Furthermore, Black people have been long criticized for having “emotionally immature” sexual relationships, and having “unlimited and undiscriminating sexual capacity” that paved the way for rape culture that stems all the way back to American slavery.
Our cultural assumptions about race don’t exist in a vacuum. This is a good opportunity for all of us to consider: how could my own cultural, historical context be informing my beliefs and attitudes about race and sexuality?
Choosing someone based on race is not a solid foundation for a romantic partnership.
Love isn’t skin-deep. When we speak with the couples with the longest-lasting relationships, do we ever hear them say “I love Jerry because he’s Korean” or “My favorite thing about my wife of 40 years is that she’s white”?
Of course not.
Instead, choose someone with your same values. It makes complete sense to date people who share your cultural preferences and morals, but this doesn’t limit you to only one race.
How can you lead more with your values and stay open to the possible connections you can make with folks of all races?
How online dating has made it easier to be prejudiced
When we “swipe left or right” based on how someone looks, race becomes a factor in our decisions — and ultimately in the algorithms that show us potential matches — without us even realizing it.
Online dating and dating apps center around how people look above all other qualities, making it easier to accept or dismiss people on snap judgments.
And if you continue to choose white faces on your dating app, for example, that app’s algorithms will continue to show you white faces, deepening the racial bias you may not have known you even had.
Can you be more intentional and inclusive in your swiping so that the algorithms don’t exclude potentially great matches for you?
What it means to be anti-racist when you date
Working through hundreds of years of racial bias and colonialism isn’t easy. The first step is awareness: being aware of your own internal racial bias is essential to changing the pattern. And look — there is no shame in exploring this in yourself. We all have a racial bias to some degree. Remember how much the media affects us all? What’s important here is that you recognize it, and do what you can to work against it.
For example, you might catch yourself ignoring messages on dating apps from matches of a certain race (like ignoring all messages from black men, for example). Ask yourself: “Why am I doing this? Is this a preference based on the assumption that white dates are always better?”
Literally pause and consider the person messaging you — and the qualities they have. You might be surprised how far simple awareness can go in breaking the cycle.
Join the conversation about interracial dating