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Why It's Hard To Talk About Attraction In Race And Culture

Matt Thompson

A few years ago, a woman named Elaine Dove tried an experiment on Craigslist. She created three ads, each with a different treatment of her racial and cultural background:

"The first described me accurately: gothic, Asian-American, alternative, artistic, inquisitive, intelligent, adventurous. The second made no mention of my race at all. The third stated that I was 'non-white and non-Christian.' "

The result?

"The ad that said I was Asian generated approximately 80 responses in about 6 hours, after which Craiglist struck the ad as being a fake. Many if not most of the responses started with something like, 'I love Asian' (I'm not kidding) or 'Asian women are so sexy.' ...

"The ad that did not specify my race drew a small number of responses, all from educated white men. Many of them didn't write again after I sent them a photo. ...

"The third ad, the one full of 'nons' — non-white, non-Christian, alternative — generated the best responses: creative, thoughtful guys of a variety of racial and economic backgrounds, all intelligent and interesting."

(You can read the rest of Dove's findings at Jezebel.)

We know that people form preferences and attractions based on others' racial and cultural backgrounds. But the process by which those tendencies are formed and the way they play out in human interactions remains deeply mysterious in many ways.

Over this past month, we've been exploring interracial and cross-cultural romance, diving into a series of themes, hosting weekly Twitter chats, and posting about what we find. This past week, we discussed the way racial and cultural preferences play out in our dating lives.

We found there were only two things people agree on when they talk about racial/cultural preferences in dating:

1. Many — though not all — of us say we have them.

You know, this was one of the more creative photos we found when we searched "interracial couple" in the stock image databases.
/ iStockphoto.com
You know, this was one of the more creative photos we found when we searched "interracial couple" in the stock image databases.

2. They make many — though not all — of us uncomfortable.

Beyond that, everything's contentious. While it's easy to say "to each her own," dating and romance — pretty much by definition — involve interacting with others, and there's where it gets messy.

In the last few years, we've seen a lot of interesting data — both anecdotal and actual data — about how preferences affect people's romantic experiences. In 2009, OkCupid published research on how the dating site's users' race affected the messages they received, and we've seen many similar online dating data dumps in the intervening years. Just last week, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan asked several researchers to weigh in on how biological factors affect people's attractions.

One theme in our conversations about preferences was that they often seem to be driven not primarily by how we react to others, but by how others react to us. Here's a sampling of comments from our Twitter conversation:

  • "As an adoptee I've found many Asian men attractive, but they (and sometimes I) thought I wasn't 'Asian enough.' "
  • "Being black, I initially only wanted to date black ppl. As non-black ppl pursued me, I opened up to interracial dating. ... I viewed non-black ppl as romantic non-factors, even if they were attractive or found me attractive."
  • "Because of my very white upbringing I always kind of thought fellow POC wouldn't see me as dateable."
  • This dynamic squared with another, broader, unsurprising theme: Many people indicated their preferences were shaped by their opportunities — that is, by the types of people they felt were or weren't available to them:

  • "My circle was mostly white, so my peers and crushes were white. ... It took me a LONG time to realize that they never saw me as a viable partner, right through college."
  • "Seattle is the 5th whitest city and my neighborhood isn't diverse. I've had to adjust my preferences to date." (It's true, according to the Census; Seattle is pretty white.)
  • "Mom said, 'If you marry a Jew, you can have anything at your wedding. If you don't, invitations will be crayola on paper bag.' "
  • As you might expect, the most difficult conversations came about when people talked about what they felt distinguished a "preference" from a "fetish." We've tried to set an ethic in our conversations of asking people to talk about their own experiences and not speculate about the experiences or motivations of others. But it was interesting to see how quickly that ethic broke down the moment we started talking about fetishes.

    Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll continue the conversation about the interracial and cross-cultural relationships. Next week's theme is "Meet My People," about the process of introducing partners from another racial or cultural background to family and friends.

    But we're curious to hear about your own insights and experiences. Do you have preferences in the types of people you've dated? Have they changed over time? How, generally, have they affected your romantic life? And how have others' preferences affected you?

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    As Director of Vertical Initiatives (and Mischief) at NPR, Matt Thompson works with teams across the company to guide the development of topic-focused verticals covering race, ethnicity and culture; education; and global health and development.