Is It Racist to Date Only People of Your Own Race?


Couple on date
The best way to fight racism may be to … intermarry?

Photo by iStock/Thinkstock

A few weeks ago, OkCupid, the popular “freemium” dating service, started offering its paid subscribers a very cool new tool. Rather than just sort through potential dates by using familiar filters like age and height, you could use the answers OkCupid members gave to various questions, such as “Do you like to watch sports on television?” or, my personal favorite, “Do you find British comedies entertaining?”

Questions are an important part of what makes OkCupid work. The site nudges you to answer as many questions as you can stand, and it also nudges you to make your answers public, as you can only see the answers of potential dates if you disclose your own answers. Answering questions allows OkCupid’s fancy algorithms to identify people who might be a good fit for you. Though these algorithms can be cleverly gamed, the basic idea that answering questions honestly will allow you to find people who share your sensibilities, goals, and quirks makes intuitive sense.

For example, OKCupid asked, “Would you date someone shorter than you?” If, like me, you are a compact American, you could save an enormous amount of time by ruling out women who are uninterested in dating smaller men. All of the time you’d otherwise waste on messaging statuesque beauties could instead be spent indulging in more fruitful leisure time pursuits, like hang-gliding or backgammon.

In a somewhat similar vein, one of OkCupid’s questions reads as follows: “Would you strongly prefer to go out with someone of your own skin color/racial background?” I was struck by the not inconsiderable number of people who answered “yes”—including some people I know “in real life,” many of whom are hilariously self-righteous about their enlightened political views.

Keep in mind that OkCupid users can skip a question with ease. The people who answered this question had every opportunity to pass it by. What I found surprising about the fact that a fair number of people answered that they would indeed strongly prefer to go out with someone of their own skin color/racial background was not that this phenomenon exists in the world. Racial preferences in dating are quite common, and women appear to exhibit stronger same-race preferences than men. Rather, I was surprised that people would be willing to openly state that they had strong same-race preferences. One assumes that many people who do have such preferences would either choose not to disclose them publicly, or choose to skip the question entirely.

Is a strong same-race preference something one ought to be ashamed of? Or is it enough to say that the heart wants what it wants and to leave it at that? This is a more important question than you might think.

Before I start throwing stones, I should note that my upbringing has given me a skewed perspective on American life. When my parents settled in Brooklyn in the mid-1970s, there were only a small handful of Bengali-speaking South Asian Muslims in the city, and so self-segregation wasn’t really an option. Like it or not, they had to interact with and rely on people outside of their ethnocultural group. My sisters and I were in the same boat when we went to school.

One of my pet theories is that we didn’t assimilate into mainstream American culture, a largely imaginary construct that I associate with Brady Bunch reruns. We assimilated into an outer-borough American culture in which it was assumed that everyone was “ethnic,” that everyone belonged to some religious minority or another, and that of course you’d constantly be mingling with people who looked different from you, because that was an inescapable fact of life. Brooklyn in this era was hardly a paradise of interethnic harmony. Crude racism occasionally reared its head. Even so, I definitely felt more typical than strange in being an American-born child of immigrants, and diversity in my world was so pervasive that I found its absence really jarring.

Had I been born a few years later or a few years earlier, however, it’s entirely possible that I would have either found a crew of co-ethnics with whom to bond or I would have felt like much more of an outsider. But instead I grew up in an in-between moment in which people didn’t have a strong sense of what people like me were supposed to be like, and so I at least felt that I had the breathing room to define myself. I thought of my “group” as including all “ethnics,” whether they were Chinese or Haitian or Puerto Rican or Russian Jewish, and I suppose I still think the same way. The fact that I don’t have a strong same-race preference is not the product of some moral superiority on my part, but rather the idiosyncratic circumstances of my early years. And so I’m disinclined to judge those who do have strong same-race preferences too harshly.

Nevertheless, I do feel comfortable judging them guilty of being clueless. There are good reasons to question the moral appropriateness of strong same-race preferences and their close cousin, in-group favoritism. In The American Non-Dilemma, Nancy DiTomaso argues that persistent racial inequality in the United States is not solely or even primarily a reflection of racism and discrimination. Rather, it reflects the fact that whites tend to help other whites without ever discriminating against or behaving cruelly toward blacks and other nonwhites. As long as whites tend to dominate prestigious occupations, and as long as they control access to valuable social resources like access to good schools, the fact that whites, like all people, will do more to help family, friends, and acquaintances than strangers will tend to entrench racial inequality, provided that white people choose to associate primarily with other whites. DiTomaso observes that while Americans place very high value on the idea of equal opportunity, virtually all of us seek “unequal opportunity” in our own lives by leveraging our intimate relationships to achieve our goals, including our professional goals. Yet most of us don’t see the help of family and friends as an unfair leg up. This kind of “opportunity hoarding” is accepted as par for the course.

We could make an effort to eliminate in-group favoritism, but such an effort would inevitably fail, as in-group favoritism is a powerful human impulse. A more sensible course of action would be to do our part to expand the boundaries of the in-group. And by doing our part, I mean doing more than piling on when some minor celebrity or politician is accused of racism, or holding “rednecks” in casual contempt for their (supposedly) backward views.

In “The Duty to Miscegenate,” one of the more provocative Ph.D. dissertations I’ve ever read, the philosopher Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman argues that the fundamental problem with the prohibitions against “race-mixing” that were on the books in much of the United States until the late 1960s is that they strengthened the social stigmatization of people of African descent—not just that they were discriminatory. These legal penalties were not the source of this social stigmatization, and repealing them did not bring it to an end. Whereas discrimination is about denying an individual access to some benefit, stigmatization is about the damage stereotypes can do to our public reputations, and how the fear of living up to, or down to, our race-based reputations can warp our lives. According to Coleman, the surest way to break down stigma is to reduce anxiety about intergroup contact and to fight “emotional and perceptual segregation.”

Despite the title of his dissertation, Coleman does not see intermarriage as a solution, as “the production of cross-caste children has proved unreliable in giving rise to cross-caste commonality.” Rather, he emphasizes the importance of routinely putting members of different castes on an equal deliberative footing by encouraging the sharing of cross-caste meals, or “inter-dining.” Eating together can serve as a solid basis for companionship, a word that is itself rooted in the sharing of bread. The rural white Southerner who dines with nonwhites as a matter of course is doing more to tackle stigma than the urbane white hipster who hardly ever does the same.

As trivial as the sharing of meals might sound, it is not clear to me that it is any less important than supporting racial equality as a purely abstract matter. This is particularly true for those of us—most of us—who claim to support racial equality while engaging in the kind of in-group favoritism that entrenches racial inequality.

To be sure, dating is about more than the sharing of bread, and OkCupid users who express strong racial preferences may well be doing the world a favor by being open and honest about their wants. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask those who do express such preferences, and those who live them in practice, to reflect on them, and on how there might be more to fighting racism than voting “the right way.”