Of OKCupid and Denials of Racism

by Guest Contributor (and frequent commenter) J Chang

My friend Tasha linked up a blog post on the dating site OKCupid analyzing how race interacts with whether people choose to reply to messages and while it wasn’t surprising that there is a huge disparity in how certain races are regarded in terms of the dating pool, what was (unsurprisingly at this point) interesting was how vocally all the commenters are responding to the very obvious data. Essentially, there is a huge fear on the part of most of the commenters about being labeled a racist, despite that the blog didn’t single out anyone as a racist. I left one comment on the blog, which will no doubt also be reacted to, but I won’t care enough to read the reaction:

“The whole matter of preferences is not necessarily racism, but can be, if you are judging what a person is like by their race and not by their actual character/appearance. However, no matter how innocent any individual preference is, if you look at the way that preference twists and turns over a large group, as we see in this study, racism clearly exists at the systemic level. Regardless of whether or not any person’s preference is racist, on an individual level, the fact of the matter remains that men (as a group) find black women less attractive than other women and that women (as a group) find white men more attractive than other men. While each individual preference might just be aesthetic, it points to a system wide conditioning of the sample group to have racial bias. Your preference might not be racist in itself, but the standards of beauty/attractiveness in the society that influences and shapes your own personal aesthetic preferences are most certainly racist. If they weren’t, we’d end up with the all yellow grid that we get with zodiac signs.”

On a greater note, I think the huge denial response, which has a lot in common with how some people try to minimize or explain away racism, strongly reflects the tremendous fear that people have of being called racist. But also, that racism itself presents a picture of an unjust society, where the people who stand to benefit from racism, and their apologists, fear that they are unjustly in that place. Largely, the primary factor that I can see influencing this behavior, at its core, is pride, but secondly is the fear of losing power.

The first point is that people are afraid of being called racist. I think in today’s society, racism has become hyper-reviled, in a way that lying and cheating could only wish for. Why is this? I think part of it has to do with the fact that people have an unswerving need to see themselves as both good and just. Racist actions, stemming from the judging of a person before knowing anything about who they are, solely by their appearance, is an ignorant and unjust action. To most people, and reasonably, that is abhorrent. However, it’s also a rather natural reaction to judge things visually due to the way heuristics make life easier for us and having to consider every single person we encounter a unique individual requires a lot of time, effort and energy. Which may be one reason why in studies of college students living with people of different races or working with different races, we find stress rates much higher–because it takes time and effort to get to know someone who might seem different and adjust our attitudes accordingly. As human beings are typically inclined to follow the path of least resistance, racism is an unavoidable product. However, in order to maintain our egos, we have to see ourselves as just and good. Add that most people have a tendency towards racism and it takes active effort to overcome it, we run into the contradiction in ourselves. Since it takes more time and effort, as well as the admittance that we are buying into racism (and thus not “good” or “just”), it’s easier for people to rationalize their racism or minimize it, which some of the commenters on that post are doing. That way nothing has to change, we maintain our pride and only have to expend minimal effort.

That’s on an individual level. When we see denials of racism, even when it doesn’t involve us, we’re looking at an extension of the individual problem. Essentially, if our society is racist, it implicates us as racist, but what’s more, it also implies that some people are benefiting from racism at the cost of other people. Or, some people have an advantage just because they are a certain race. Acknowledging this to be true would mean that society is unjust. If you acknowledge that society is unjust, you also acknowledge that you benefited or were oppressed by this system. The oppressed often have no problem pointing to the injustices of the system. However, if you benefited, then you have to admit that, in part, some of where you are today was because it was easier for you to get there by no actual effort of your own. You were just born lucky. And we live in a society where the mythos of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is embedded deep within us and so we want to believe that we all entirely and exclusive earn what we have or are given what we have at no expense to another.

We, if we stand to be the beneficiaries of injustice, fear the accusation of unjust society because it says that we didn’t entirely earn it ourselves, but built it upon the backs of others.

All the evidence in the world points to the fact that we live in an unjust society. I’m not in my cushy office job just because I worked hard for it. I was born lucky, into the right neighborhood, the right family, the right race, the right sex, and the right social class. That doesn’t diminish that I actually did work hard, but it means that my family had the money, through no effort of my own, to live in the neighborhood zoned to a decent school, to pay for my exams and exam tutorials, to get me to college and so forth. Were I born differently, I might be unable to be where I am today.

What does this have to do with dating? It means that because of my race, and with the exception of wonderfully open black women, I have less of a chance at first impression with women than white men through no fault of my own. And those very wonderfully open black women, they get the shaft from everyone. Is this just? No. Is this good? No. Is this factual? Yes.

So I guess the old saying is true, “All is fair in love and war.” Fortunately, racism and dating is self-selecting. I probably wouldn’t want to date the women that wouldn’t want to date me to begin with.