WAfyWF: Love and Race in the Age of Digital Dating

Question: When is a preference actually just racism, and how do I deal with it?

Where is the line between personal preference/borderline racism when it comes to dating people of specific ethnic backgrounds or not wanting to date them? Example: I am fairly light complexioned in photographs but am not Caucasian. Met someone off a dating app, we chatted for a bit. I revealed I was specific ethnic background. They seemed off put and stated that they usually only date Caucasians. I was taken aback and stated that this seemed borderline racist. They said it was just a personal preference, they did not find non Caucasians attractive. I dropped the conversation after that.

My question would be: where do you draw the line? I know everyone has personal preferences but considering the color of my skin is non-negotiable, how should I traverse this landscape and treat people who have these preferences which I consider fairly offensive?

Answer: People who aren’t willing to grow do not deserve your time.

Before I answer this question, I have to acknowledge that as a white person, I have no experience receiving the kind of racism you just described, so you might want an opinion from someone other than me. However, because you asked, and because this is a really interesting question, I will make an effort to answer. Also, if I over-explain things, it’s not because I think you don’t understand but because some of my white readers might not have thought about it before.

To start off, I want to affirm your perception here: If a person liked how you looked in your photo but recoiled when they learned of your ethnic background, that sounds pretty racist to me. It sounds like this person was unwilling to look past whatever stereotypes they subscribe to, and that’s the essence of racism as I understand it. I’m going to name this person Ty for convenience sake. 

There was no apparent reason for Ty to change their mind otherwise, and they even stated that they’re not attracted to people of color, but … how can they say that if they saw your photo and liked you? It seems dishonest to me, and I think you’re completely valid in feeling offended. 

We all know you can’t force attraction, but many of our preferences are learned socially and can be modified. In this case, I think the un-racist thing Ty could have done is question their own assumptions about ethnicity and made an effort to get to know you as a person.

You mention that your skin color is non-negotiable, and that’s true. For the sake of my white readers, I want to also mention that race isn’t just a skin color — it’s a lived experience. Our race and ethnicity influence our daily experiences and the way we perceive the world as a result, and most of us tend to date people whose perception of the world is compatible with our own. Ty liked the way you looked initially. Your skin color wasn’t the problem. What put Ty off was more likely the realization that you two might have very different perceptions of the world, although they probably wouldn’t phrase it that way. 

To become friends with someone, we have to be open to understanding their experience. When our experiences are very different, we have to be willing to do some mental work in order to understand while also accepting that we’ll probably never 100% understand. We have to figure out how to behave around that gap in our perceptions. This is a skill. White people raised in a racist society do not learn this skill in many cases, and it takes active, intentional self work to change that. Some people aren’t willing to do the work, and that’s why they stay racist instead of getting better. Ty and people like them don’t want to think about race or the ways in which they benefit from our racist society. The part of this situation that’s racist is the fact that Ty didn’t care to get to know you further after learning about your ethnicity. If you two had continued to talk only to find that you really had no chemistry, that’s understandable. But to reject someone based on their ethnic identity alone doesn’t speak well for Ty’s character. 

So you ask where to draw the line … Unfortunately, we don’t get the luxury of drawing boundaries around other people’s attractions, even if they are driven by racist attitudes. However, we can draw boundaries for ourselves around who we are willing to interact with. There are some people of color who state plainly on their dating profiles that they are not interested in dating white people. I’m sure some white folks find this racist, but at least these individuals are honest and don’t pretend to be open to someone they will eventually reject anyway. Plus, the long history of oppression and inequality between white folks and every culture we have interfered with makes it seem perfectly reasonable to me that some people of color just pas on white folks. To be totally honest, even I don’t wanna deal with white people sometimes. The layers of self delusion we wear are thick and cumbersome. Some of us are honestly the worst, and even those of us who are trying fuck up on the regular. 

I’m not sure if or how you can totally avoid interacting with ignorant people and getting treated poorly by them, but I do think you have a right to have strong personal boundaries. It’s important to value your own well being and recognize that you’re not obligated to win over or educate every person you encounter. When you get the first hint that someone is a racist, you’re allowed to walk away. I consider it a great act of kindness when a person of color takes steps to educate a white friend who may need correcting once in a while, but YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO DO THAT EMOTIONAL LABOR, especially not for someone who isn’t willing to see past an ethnic label. 

Socially, I hope you have the ability to surround yourself with people who are more open minded than Ty. If it’s possible for you to take your dating search offline, try to find some places to hang out that are known to attract diverse humans. Perhaps join a local museum or community volunteer organization as a way to meet people who are more thoughtful and compassionate. Literary readings and academic talks are good places to find people who think deeply about diversity and human experience. I have faith that there are plenty of people out there who would love to get to know you, and I wish you luck in connecting with them.