This Valentine's Day, more of us than ever will be looking for love online. And if recent studies are any guide, relatively few women on mainstream dating sites will bother to respond to overtures from men of Asian descent. Likewise, black women will be disproportionately snubbed by men of all races. Yes, even though America has been flirting intensely with a postracial label for some time, color blindness is not upheld as an ideal in the realm of online romance. On some sites, it's not even an option.
Chemistry.com requires users to identify their ethnicity; like eHarmony, it considers members' racial preferences when suggesting matches. Match.com lets users filter their searches by race. The site's profiles include space to indicate interest (or lack thereof) in various racial and ethnic groups. But after Jennifer House, a black woman in Los Angeles, perused one too many profiles only to find the guys had checked off every box except African American, she changed her strategy. "Now I look at that section first so as not to get my hopes up," she says.
Racial preferences or, as some call them, biases are easier to observe on these sites than in offline settings. Behind computer screens and cutely coded user names, people clearly communicate things about race that few would ever say aloud in a bar.
For example, a study published last year in Social Science Research examined 1,558 profiles that white daters living in or near big U.S. cities placed on Yahoo! Personals, which, much like Match, lists 10 racial and ethnic groups users can select as preferred dates. Among the women, 73% stated a preference. Of these, 64% selected whites only, while fewer than 10% included East Indians, Middle Easterners, Asians or blacks.
The story is a little different for the men, 59% of whom stated a racial preference. Of these, nearly half selected Asians, but fewer than 7% did for black women. Why? One theory offered by the study's lead author, Cynthia Feliciano, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine, is that men's choices are influenced by the media's portrayal of Asian women as being hypersexual and black women as being bossy.
The people running OkCupid.com have a less nuanced explanation. In October, the free dating site, 80% of whose members choose to input their race, studied the messaging patterns of more than a million users and concluded on its official blog that "racism is alive and well."
After attempting to control for attractiveness (using something OkCupid calls a picture-rating utility) and compatibility (on the basis of answers to questions covering everything from spirituality to dental hygiene), the study found that black women garnered the fewest responses of any female group. White women responded at much higher rates to white men than to men of color. Asian women's and Latinas' response rates showed even stronger preferences for white men. (The site's latest eye-opening study determined which types of profile pictures elicit the most responses. To all the single ladies: the older you are, the more cleavage you should show.)
But do racial preferences amount to racism? Or is overlooking an entire ethnicity as innocuous as filtering out redheads or people under a certain height? "Just because you take race into consideration in your dating preferences and are aware of race doesn't make you racist," says Dr. Nicole Coleman, a psychology professor at the University of Houston. Minorities who prefer to date within their own race or ethnicity and who look for potential mates on niche sites like BlackPeopleMeet.com and Amor.com would probably agree with her.
Even for those who hate the idea of racial preferences, such stipulations can be a useful barometer for finding a person with shared values. Says Bostonian Karen Schoneman: "I tend to have a negative reaction toward a man who indicates race preferences, whether it excludes me as a white woman or not." When she sees evidence online of what she regards as narrow-mindedness, she skips right to the next profile. One click closer, maybe, to postracial eHarmony.