Lifestyle and Society Contributor
A stocky white man named Jim describes himself as, “Just a normal guy…Not into Asians.”
A young man with Aryan-like features named Danny is more equal-opportunist in his bias: “No Oriental, No Indian, No Latino, No Black, No Fat, under 30 years old.”
The terms used to symbolize a particular race of people begin making appearances: “NO NATIVE CHOP-STICK USERS,” writes a guy named Sean. Another uses emoticons to send the message: two men, one in a turban and another in a Mandarin hat, followed by a red, negating X.
The comments bubbled up recently from the harsh world of gay online dating, utilizing a variety of sites and smartphone applications. In an endless parade of shirtless, gym-happy men, many state racial biases as openly as other turnoffs, like flab.
“The culture of sexual liberation has been replaced by sexual segregation,” commented Tim Naganishi, lambasting the widespread racism on gay hookup sites. Naganishi, a graduate student of Sociology at U C. Berkeley, notes that racism within the gay community is not atypical. "The things people are more hesitant to say in person are readily available online, it's a bit sad really."
Racial filtering is alive and well on mainstream dating and hookup websites, which give users the option of checking ethnic preferences alongside ideal body types and social habits like smoking and drinking.
As U.S. census numbers consistently show that interracial unions are on the rise, online dating is now the second most popular form of matchmaking, behind meeting through friends. In the digital world, race remains murky territory.
While most critics agree that the ethnicity check-box is vastly preferable to specifying ‘No Asians,’ they disagree about whether the option is a step backward. Some argue it isn't any different than hunting through niche sites like Shaadi, an Indian matrimonial website, or JDate, an online matchmaking service for Jews.
More crucially, can an individual's sexual preferences be deemed racist, or is attraction a matter of personal taste? Is there a need to “prefer” everybody?
In several gay and lesbian magazines, readers and writers have documented the anti-Asian sentiments prevalent within gay online dating websites. “Guys who put 'no Asians, no chocolate' on their profile are not stating a preference,” a reader commented on an online discussion forum for a popular gay magazine. “You’re using the disguise of a semi-socially acceptable way to say you’re a racist and looking to hook up with other racists.”
On generalist dating sites, users are discouraged from narrowing criteria, even though the option is built right into the services.
“Biased people come in all races and great people come in all races. If you stick within one ethnicity, it does seem like you’re potentially cutting yourself off from meeting someone who could be amazing,” said Tiffany Epstein, a dating and relationships expert based in Miami.
“The vagaries of the human heart is what it comes down to,” Epstein acknowledges. “It’s really not for me as an individual or as a representative of a company to judge what’s going on to make someone's juices flow.”
A poll of nearly 2,000 online dating users conducted in the summer of 2011 found that 79 per cent of women surveyed said race affected their dating decisions, compared with 56 per cent of men.
“Women may be more specific about their wants and needs,” Epstein offered.
Macias mentions that he's made other observations in the world of dating. "I've organized events primarily geared towards Asian-Americans that have had a mixed success rate for the attendees," he stated. "Asian-American women are usually attracted to white guys, despite their looks. They hardly notice the Asian guys in the room."
Even as he urges clients to focus on shared interests, such as bar-hopping or exercise, Mr. Macias shies away from criticizing ethnic inclinations: “It’s very hard to point the finger and say that what they’re doing is wrong or racist, but it’s uncomfortable. It’s a grey area.”
Some critics argue that racial filters actually help keep people from getting hurt in person.
“I’m not sure that an online-dating scenario is the best place for people to expand their cultural horizons if they are already predisposed to judge,” said Sara Miller, Chicago-native and student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "In the past, I've used online-dating websites and have definitely filtered race because it's my personal preference."
Miller, whose current boyfriend is Mexican American, believes race filters on dating websites and apps should not be perceived as racism. "I'm Italian, Greek, and German. My mother lived in Venezuela for 8 years and I'm fluent in Spanish and Italian. I don't consider myself a racist because I have a racial preference."
In light of the rise of interracial marriages, it appears “online dating is taking a step in the opposite direction,” argued Harry Reis, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester who co-authored a review of 400 studies on online dating.
“People should be free to have sex or not have sex with anyone they want. But if you categorically rule out an ethnic group, it is by definition racist. One may not be racist in other ways but when it comes to sexual preferences, the person is. And in my estimation, it is fine (although self-limiting) to be racist with regard to sexual preferences.”
The review suggests that online dating reduces “three-dimensional people to two-dimensional displays of information,” fostering a shopping mentality among users who becoming exceedingly picky and judgmental.
“When you exclude people just because you think you don’t like a this or a that, you’re excluding the possibility of finding out that your stereotype is wrong,” Prof. Reis said.
“Throw out the checklist and your preconceived notions,” Ms. Epstein advises. “What you think you want and where you end up finding chemistry are often two very different things.”
Still, the reality is more daunting for some. John, an entry-level accountant in Chicago, states his experience with both online and traditional dating have not been the most positive. "As an Asian-American guy, I find that very few girls, even Asians, are interested in giving me a chance," he commented. "I'm 5'11, go to the gym 4-5 times a week, and have a steady flow of income, yet few girls are willing to go past the initial coffee date. There's something very wrong with that."