A few years ago, my former roommate, her friend, and I were bemoaning the state of online dating. At some point, my then-roomie and I — both women of color — segued into how white guys who exclusively dated BIPOC women of a certain race made us wary. Did they really like these women as unique humans, or were they just fetishizing them? Her friend, a white dude, stayed quiet throughout most of our exchange. When he finally spoke up, he sounded exasperated. “Sometimes you just like what you like!” he said.
Was he right? Were my ex-roomie and I reading too much into these guys’ romantic choices? But the more I pondered our conversation, the more I disagreed with her (clearly triggered) friend. Our preferences have to come from somewhere. It’s not like we emerge from the womb with our "type" hardwired into our brains.
Experts tell me that attraction is in fact socially constructed. But given that racism is woven into the very fabric of American society, how do you know whether your dating preferences are racist? Where do you draw the line between simply “liking what you like” and liking what our racialized society tells you to like?
First, let’s take a closer look at the societal forces that influence who we desire. “We’re not developing what we think is our type… in a vacuum,” says Shantel Buggs, assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Florida State University, whose research interests include race, ethnicity, and intimate relationships. “All of our preferences are informed by the world around us.” We’re constantly bombarded with messages from a constellation of sources — from the media to our own families — about who is attractive, good, deserving of a relationship, and so on, she adds.
“Ultimately, a lot of our social behaviors are deeply rooted in ideologies about race, even if it’s very implicitly, even if you’re not thinking about it,” says Apryl Williams, assistant professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan, who’s writing a book entitled Call Me Master: Race, Gender & Algorithmic Inequality in Online Dating. “The things that you do on a daily basis, where you buy your house, where you send your kids to school, who you date, who you marry — race plays a part in all of that,” whether you want to acknowledge it or not, she tells Mic.
Williams notes that racist ideologies influence notions of attractiveness in the LGBTQ community, too. Gay men's profiles on queer dating apps frequently state “no Black people,” or “no Asians,” The Guardian reported.
But “nobody wants to be labeled a racist,” Buggs says, and in fact, research has shown that people often attribute their dating patterns to “personal preference” as a defense mechanism. “I think people are trying to hide that they know that their preferences are discriminatory, but they don’t want to be called discriminatory,” she says.
The notion that our choices are largely products of society can be threatening, too. “People like to think of themselves as individuals, that they are coming to individual decisions," Buggs says. They might also feel uncomfortable interrogating something typically considered private and intimate, says Sylvia Chan-Malik, associate professor of American studies, and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Rutgers University.
So is all of this to say that what we find attractive is racist? Not necessarily, according to Chan-Malik. That said, “this nation has been steeped in a type of racialized thinking since its inception, and so these things absolutely shape how we see others and how we see ourselves,” she says.
As uncomfortable as it might feel, Chan-Malik explains that it’s important to ask yourself why you like who you like, since this awareness can allow you to move past the flattened, stereotypical meanings racial categories hold, even if you haven't crossed the line into sexual racism. Based on interviews with her and other experts, here are questions you can ask yourself to help reflect on your dating preferences — whatever your racial identity — and whether they might be problematic.
Why am I only attracted to members of a certain race? What messages have I internalized about them?
If you notice that you have a pattern of only dating people of a certain race outside your own, “the first question to ask is, ‘What is creating this attraction?’” Chan-Malik says. She suggests asking yourself what assumptions you have about this group of people, and what images, stories, and other messages might’ve informed them.
Maybe you believe they possess a set of traits you find attractive. “If it’s anything that is stereotyped, that can be easily, neatly packaged in a box, then that is probably a fetish,” Williams says. As an example, she brings up men who only date Asian women because they’re small, quiet, and subservient. “If your fetish is based on these stereotypes that deny someone else’s humanity and makes them an object of consumption, that’s where it becomes a problem,” she says. This sort of objectification can pave the way to violence, as I previously reported for Mic.
If you’re a person of color who exclusively dates white people, that’s worth interrogating, too. What is it about white people you find so attractive? Keep in mind that your line of questioning will depend on your identity. “If we’re talking Black men only dating white women, I would say that is approaching a fetish,” especially if that attraction is based on Eurocentric beauty ideals or the “American Dream” trope of a wife who stays at home and raises the kids, says Williams, who is Black.
It’s different for Black women. “The prevailing discourse in the Black community right now is that when Black women date outside of their race, it’s because they have traditionally not been able to find relationships with people within their race,” she says. At the same time, Latinx and Asian men are often discouraged from dating Black women, “so it could be the case that she finds herself in relationships with white men repeatedly because that is what is being presented.” That’s less problematic than someone seeking out only white guys when they have other options, Williams explains.
What messages have I internalized about members of a race that I’m not willing to date?
While researching for her book, Williams learned about some Asian parents telling their kids they can date whoever they want — just not a Black person. She explains that even if you’re Asian and don’t share that view, “it’s probably still in your subconscious somewhere that it would be better or easier for you not to date a Black person.” Or maybe you grew up hearing that Black people are dirty or lazy. Both can materialize as a voice in the corner of your mind, holding you back from approaching Black people at all. Meanwhile, participants in Buggs’s studies often tell her that they don’t find Asian men attractive or don’t feel as feminine with them, evoking stereotypes of Asian men as emasculated.
Identify the stereotypes that might underlie why you don’t date members of a certain race, Buggs says. She also suggests asking yourself a more obvious question: “Have you actually ever gone on a date with someone from this group that you’re saying you’re not attracted to?” If not, you have little basis for writing them off.
Am I scared to explore something different?
In her book, Williams discusses how people fall into the trap of sticking with what they know because they they think it’s safer. I can relate. Growing up, I often heard that it'd be easier for me to date another Asian because of our shared culture and values, which seemed like a no-brainer. Most of the guys I’ve dated have been Asian.
The problem is, by limiting yourself to dating within your race, “you might be hearing the same ideologies you’ve always been hearing instead of challenging yourself to reach outside of your comfort zone and find out that actually, someone who doesn’t look like you might have more in common with you than someone who does look like you," Williams says.
Then again, she notes, dating within your race might be self-protective if you've experienced racial harassment. If you’re Black and constantly targeted or fetishized on dating websites, you might understandably choose to date only other Black people.
How is the aesthetic I’m attracted to racialized?
Buggs suggests doing an inventory of who you’ve dated and why you were attracted to them. “If a lot of what initially attracted you has to do with some aspect of aesthetics, then you also have to think through, is that aesthetic racialized in some way?” she says.
As an example, she cites people who tend to date men of color describing themselves as being attracted to athletes. “How does that reinforce stereotypes about particularly Black men as only athletic… and not having other characteristics?”
Are my surroundings really the only factor?
Maybe you owe your preference for people of a certain race to the fact that they made up the majority of the population where you grew up. Even then, Buggs says, there’s room to question how you developed this preference. Unless you still live in your childhood neighborhood, your settings, and therefore your potential partners, have changed over time. If you feel more comfortable dating members of this racial group, investigate why.
Do racial stereotypes influence which BIPOC I’m willing to date?
An openness to dating BIPOC doesn’t automatically disqualify you from holding racist ideas about them, Buggs notes. Maybe you’re a non-Black person willing to date Black people, but which have you dated? Consider their socioeconomic status, Buggs says, as well as their skin tone and physical features — are they stereotypically Black or more Eurocentric? Are there Black people you wouldn’t be willing to date? Likewise, are the Asian women you've dated overwhelmingly petite and fair-skinned? "You don’t see that type of fetishizing in Asian women who do not fit that look," Buggs says.
What to do next
If you've noticed that the pattern in your dating preferences is indeed rooted in racist ideologies, don’t beat yourself up, Chan-Malik says. As with any habit, the point isn’t to cast judgment, but raise awareness. She encourages learning about the history of the racial images that may be informing your preferences. “Actually learn the history of why you see the way you see,” she says. Open your eyes to how racial images in media, politics, literature, and other areas of our day-to-day lives inundate and indoctrinate us.
Chan-Malik also suggests looking inward and examining how you inhabit your own body. For example, seeing law enforcement will create a very different experience in the body of a Black American man than it will in an Asian American woman like herself, she says. Noticing these differences comes from having honest conversations with others about how race shapes our lives, beyond who we date.
Williams recommends challenging yourself to date outside of your traditional pattern. And if you want to date a person of color, “you should do your own unlearning,” especially if you’re white, she says. Once you realize you’ve subscribed to racist ideologies, educate yourself so your partner doesn’t have to take on that burden, which is exhausting.
But according to Chan-Malik, you may not need to go as far as dating those who don't fit your "type." “It’s not even a call for you to change what you’re attracted to,” she tells Mic. It’s about shifting your awareness, which could expand your dating pool and your social circle in general, or open the doors to a candid conversation with your partner of color about fetishization (if they’re receptive to it), which can deepen your relationship. “If your awareness changes, maybe other things will change, too, for the better,” Chan-Malik says.