‘Least Desirable’? How Racial Discrimination Plays Out In Online Dating

I don’t date Asians — sorry, not sorry.

You’re cute … for an Asian.

I usually like “bears,” but no “panda bears.”

These were the types of messages Jason, a 29-year-old Los Angeles resident, remembers receiving on different dating apps and websites when he logged on in his search for love seven years ago. He’s since deleted the messages and apps.

“It was really disheartening,” he says. “It really hurt my self-esteem.”

Jason is earning his Ph.D. with a goal of helping people with mental health needs. NPR is not using his last name to protect his privacy and that of the clients he works with in his internship.

He’s gay and Filipino, and he says he felt like he had no choice but to deal with the rejections based on his ethnicity as he pursued a relationship.

“It was it was hurtful at first. But I started to think, I have a choice: Would I rather be alone, or should I, like, face racism?”

Jason says he faced it, and thought about it quite a bit. So he wasn’t surprised when he read a blog post from OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder in 2014 about race and attraction.

Rudder wrote that user data showed most men on the site rated black women as less attractive than women of other races and ethnicities. Similarly, Asian men fell at the bottom of the preference list for most women. While the data focused on straight users, Jason says he could relate.

“When I read that, it was a sort of like, ‘Duh!’ ” he says. “It was like an unfulfilled validation, if that makes sense. Like, yeah, I was right, but it feels s**** that I was right.”

‘Least desirable’

The 2014 OkCupid data resonated so much with 28-year-old Ari Curtis that she used it as the basis of her blog, Least Desirable, about dating as a black woman.

“My goal,” she wrote, “is to share stories of what it means to be a minority not in the abstract, but in the awkward, exhilarating, exhausting, devastating, and occasionally amusing reality that is the pursuit of love.”

Curtis works in marketing in New York City and says while she loves how open-minded most people in the city are, she didn’t always find that quality in dates she started meeting online.

After drinks at a Brooklyn bar, one of her more recent OkCupid matches, a white Jewish man, offered this: “He was like, ‘Oh yeah, my family would never approve of you.’ ” Curtis explains, “Yeah, because I’m black.”

Curtis also describes meeting another white man on Tinder, who brought the weight of damaging racial stereotypes to their date. “He was like, ‘Oh, so we have to bring the hood out of you, bring the ghetto out of you!’ ” Ari recounts. “It made me feel like I wasn’t enough, who I am wasn’t what he expected and that he wanted me to be somebody else based on my race.”

Why might our dating preferences feel racist to others?

Other dating experts have pointed to such stereotypes and lack of multiracial representation in the media as part of the likely reason that plenty of online daters have had discouraging experiences based on their race.

Melissa Hobley, OkCupid’s chief marketing officer, says the site has learned from social scientists about other reasons that people’s dating preferences come off as racist, including the fact that they often reflect IRL — in-real-life — norms.

“[When it comes to attraction,] familiarity is a really big piece,” Hobley says. “So people tend to be often attracted to the people that they are familiar with. And in a segregated society, that can be harder in certain areas than in others.”

Curtis says she relates to that idea because she’s had to come to terms with her own biases. After growing up in the mostly white town of Fort Collins, Colo., she says she exclusively dated white men until she moved to New York.

“I feel like there is room, honestly, to say, ‘I have a preference for somebody who looks like this.’ And if that person happens to be of a certain race, it’s hard to blame somebody for that,” Curtis says. “But on the other hand you have to wonder, if racism weren’t so ingrained in our culture, would they have those preferences?”

Hobley says the site made changes over the years to encourage users to focus less on potential mates’ demographics and appearance and more on what she calls “psychographics.”

“Psychographics are things like what you’re interested in, what moves you, what your passions are,” Hobley says. She also points to a recent study by international researchers that found a rise in interracial marriages in the U.S. over the last 20 years has also coincided with the rise of online dating.

“If dating apps can actually play a role in in groups and people getting together [who] otherwise might not, that’s really, really exciting,” Hobley says.

‘Everyone deserves love’

Curtis says she’s still conflicted about her own preferences and whether she’ll continue to use dating apps. For now, her strategy is to keep a casual attitude about her romantic life.

“If I don’t take it seriously then, I don’t have to be disappointed when it doesn’t when it doesn’t go well,” she says.

Jason is out of the dating game entirely because he ended up finding his current partner, who is white, on an app two years ago. He credits part of his success with making bold statements about his values in his profile.

“I had said something, like, really obnoxious looking back on it now,” he says with a laugh. “I think one of the first lines I said was like, ‘social justice warriors to the front of the line please.’ ”

He says weeding through the racist messages he received as a result was hard, but worth it.

“Everyone deserves love and kindness and support,” he says. “And pushing through and holding that close to yourself is, I think, actually also what kept me in this online dating realm — just knowing that I deserve this, and if I am lucky enough, it will happen. And it did.”

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