Last year my roommate Nola, who is in a happy and healthy relationship, asked me to help her create a fake online dating profile. “I just want to know what it’s like!!!” she said.
While she'd heard plenty of my horror stories involving OKCupid, she was curious to experience the hell that is online dating for herself. And so, with the blessing of her boyfriend, Nola (a black woman) and myself (a brown woman) set out to create a fake profile for America’s most average white woman–just to see what kind of responses she’d get.
We began by pulling photos of three or four average-looking women who looked kinda similar (we may have even googled “white lady”) from the internet and created a fake profile. For the main picture, we chose—our proudest moment—a stock photo of a white woman eating salad.
Despite our attempts to make her as unremarkable as possible, our girl turned out to be immensely popular, receiving a steady slew of messages from men of all races. WTF, I wondered? As an actual human who was legitimately looking for romance on OKC, her popularity bummed me out. I had not enjoyed nearly the response that our fake white girl enjoyed. Sure, I’m not stock-photo pretty, but surely I could be pulling in more than a “heyy ;)” every few days. I couldn't help but pin some of the disparity on the color of my skin–not as something positive or negative, just as a reality of dating in America.
Whether or not we want to admit it, everyone who online dates is forced to confront how we feel about dating people of other races—and how other races feel about dating us. It's baked into the swiping culture. But while some people own their swiping patterns, others might not be as aware of how their views on race affect their choices, according to a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
The study, conducted by researchers at Tennessee State University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that college-aged white men who endorse a "color-blind" ideology tend to be less attracted to black women compared to white men who don’t endorse this ideology. Men who endorse "multiculturalism," however, tend to be more attracted to women of another race compared to men who don’t endorse multiculturalism.
Before we get into the study, let’s talk "color-blindness." People who endorse a "color-blind" ideology claim to not "see" race. They also believe that society should not take skin color into account—at all. This is a beautiful idea that evokes images of multi-colored stick figures connected under a rainbow. But here's the thing: That's not how race works. "Color-blindness" in practice assumes that everyone really does have access to the same opportunities, which is simply not the case.
People who endorse "multiculturalism," on the other hand, believe that society is a melting pot—and that different races indeed experience the world differently based on the color of their skin.
Back to the study. In their work, the researchers wanted to see if the degree to which a man espoused "color-blindness" beliefs influenced the women he dug. To test this, they created eight different online dating profiles, randomly matching profile bios to images of three black women, three white women, a Latina woman, and an Asian woman. (In the end, the researchers only looked at the results involving black and white women.)
They then enlisted 124 college-aged men (62 black and 62 white) to view the profiles and assess their romantic attraction to each woman—gauging physical attraction, whether they had things in common, and whether they’d like to get to know each woman more.
The participants were also asked to complete three other tasks. First, they were asked to break down their friend group by race. Next, they were asked to indicate their endorsement of "color-blind" racial ideologies. And finally, they were asked to rate their endorsement of "multiculturalism" and acceptance of cross-culture interaction and cooperation.
The researchers found that, for white men, the more they endorsed "multiculturalism," the more likely they were to be attracted to black women. In the same vein, black men who scored higher for "multiculturalism" were more likely to be attracted to white women. Yay, multiculturalism!
However, white men who endorsed "color-blindness" were less likely to be attracted to black women. That’s right. Even though they claimed that race did not matter to them, when it came to attraction, it did.
The difference comes down to privilege, explains James Brooks, an assistant professor of psychology at Tennessee State and lead author of the study. It's easy to disregard racial realities when you live in a society that casts whiteness as the default, and you're white. There's no fallout when you sideline or "other" races romantically because, well, they're the Other!
Interestingly, the black men who scored high for "color-blindness" (which wasn’t a lot, for the record) were also less likely to be attracted to black women. This seems confusing, but it can be easily explained by, well, the white privilege that imbues the "color-blind" ideology. Whiteness is still the default, whether or not you are actually white.
“If you think of the 'color-blind' racial ideology as the dominant idea that positions people of color as less than white people, then it makes a lot of sense that, regardless of the race, those who highly endorse it would actually devalue women of color,” Brooks told me.
The results of this study are upsetting. And sadly, Brooks' study complements OKCupid data from 2014 that found while users have reported less racial prejudice over time (whee!), more than 80% of non-black men show racial bias against black women.
Notably, the researchers did find one factor that cut down on the tendency to endorse "color-blindness"—actual interaction with people of different races. “Not just contact in terms of a coworker in the cubicle next to me, but meaningful friendships,” Brooks explained. “I would definitely say that having a physical conversation with others who are different, or even others who are the same is definitely important for reducing ['color-blind' racial ideologies].”
Brooks added, “Constantly addressing, challenging, and re-examining the way that we feel about folks who are different than us is an ongoing process." But it's an ongoing process that no doubt pays off when it comes to interpersonal compassion and relationships.
As the authors write in the study, “These results are important because they suggest that it is more than a mere absence of prejudice that can foster interracial attraction but that a conscious commitment to the recognition and valuing of difference across race may be what is influential in interracial attraction."