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The Race Dynamics of Online Dating: Why Are Asian Men Less 'Eligible'?

The anonymity of online dating allows us to discriminate freely without the guilt associated with point-blank rejection. And if the studies are to be trusted, Asian men face the steepest climb.
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Race affects online dating far more than we realize. (Photo: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

I hadn’t been on Tinder for long before I realized something was wrong: Hardly anyone was reciprocating my interest. Matches were few and far between. None of my close friends, many of whom relied exclusively on the dating app to meet singles, seemed to be encountering this problem. Were my images grainy and off-center? Was there a grammatical error in my personal statement? Should I have adopted a terrier? A beagle? Or was the problem something else altogether? My dalliance with Tinder lasted for four weeks before I boarded up the account and returned to the world of low-tech, meat-and-potatoes courtship.

In 2009, OkTrends, the research arm of the dating website OkCupid, parsed user data to determine racial preferences in online dating. What they found was that users placed a premium on members of their own race. This was especially true of white users and women users. The only groups not to be categorically discriminated against were white men and Asian women. Last year, OkTrends updated their research with five additional years’ worth of data, culled from some 25 million users. Had users become more open-minded in their dating practices in the past half-decade? The data suggested a different narrative: Their biases had become even more pronounced. Paradoxically, when surveyed, fewer users answered “yes” to the question of whether they preferred to date someone of their own race. So, while users exercised greater discretion in their stated preference, in practice their actions remained the same.

The same dissonance between stated and revealed preference is observed in a recent paper in Sociological Science. Researchers studied whether same-race preferences in online dating could be drawn neatly along ideological lines. Those who identified as politically conservative were more candid in their same-race preference than liberals or moderates. Yet all ideological factions, in actual practice, demonstrated a similar proclivity for partners of the same race.

People of color open to dating outside their own race must resign themselves to the fact that large portions of the dating pool, white or otherwise, exist outside the sphere of possibility.

People of color open to dating outside their own race must resign themselves to the fact that large portions of the dating pool, white or otherwise, exist outside the sphere of possibility. In a crowded bar or coffee shop, one might—with an opportune bon mot—manage to scale the barrier of race, or at least be politely entertained, but this feat proves more difficult on dating apps and websites. The anonymity of online dating allows us to discriminate freely without the guilt associated with point-blank rejection. And if the studies are to be trusted, Asian men face the steepest climb.

A speed-dating event was organized at Columbia University to examine the behavioral patterns of participants. The event, which corralled graduate students of all backgrounds, provided each pairing with four minutes to strike up a conversation. Asian men, who accounted for over 20 percent of the dating body, were at a considerable disadvantage in the experiment. When asked if they would like to see the person again, women were 33 percent less likely to respond affirmatively to Asian men than to members of other races. They were 60 percent less likely to respond positively to Asian men than members of their own race. Even Asian women, by a small margin, preferred the company of white men to that of Asian men.

A related study at Columbia tried to estimate how much men of different ethnic groups would need to earn to become as desirable to a woman as a man of her own race. With all other factors normalized, an Asian man would have to earn an additional $247,000 to stand on equal footing with his white counterpart and $220,000 to match up with an African-American suitor. This statistic is less intimidating to a pediatric surgeon or venture capitalist than it is to, say, a freelance writer and part-time house-sitter.

Gay men likewise encounter race-based discrimination on dating platforms. Grindr has come under scrutiny for the partisan practices of its users: Expedient shorthands like “no rice” and “no curry” are used to discourage Asians from communicating their interest. On OkCupid, black and Indian males had the lowest response rates of any ethnic group. Among women, black and Native American women yielded the lowest response rates, but only by a slight margin. This multilateral web of discrimination is one reason for the balkanization of dating into factional—or “niche”—services.

The role of media in shaping desire shouldn’t be overlooked. As cultural authorities, magazines and television help define the boundaries of human beauty. The appeal of certain features may stem from some biological imperative, but for the most part physical attractiveness is as manufactured as trends in fashion. The scarcity of Asian men in Western media creates an imaginative lacuna in the minds of men and women in dating situations. An analysis of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2014 found that Asians constituted only 5.3 percent of speaking characters. More than 40 of these films had no Asian characters, while Asian men were by far the least sexualized of all race types. In magazines, Asian men were almost non-existent.

Of the Asian men that do appear on screen, most adhere to outdated stereotypes. Either they serve as scientist or sidekick, bereft of romantic feeling, or they act panic-stricken and skittish around members of the opposite gender. Instances of Asian males featured as a romantic lead can be counted on one hand.

European beauty standards remain the dominant aesthetic in our culture. Features like blue eyes, straight hair, and fair skin are the insignia of physical beauty. In Asia, the skin-lightening market has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar industry. Facial creams that inhibit the production of melanin have become commonplace in Asian households, even among the male populace. It is no coincidence that the most revered actress in Bollywood cinema has fair skin and green eyes.

When Kiri Davis, in her student film a Girl Like Me (2005), recreated Kenneth and Mamie Clark's landmark doll test, she found that African-American children still overwhelmingly preferred the lighter-skinned doll to the darker-skinned doll:

In the wake of the 2008 election, Good Morning America once again performed the experiment, this time with an additional question: “Which of the two dolls is the prettiest?” While the boys regarded both dolls as pretty, nearly half of the girls said the white doll was the pretty one:

Names can have a bearing on your dating success as well. Happn, a proximity-based dating app popular in the United Kingdom, analyzed which names are the most attractive to users. For men, James, Richard, Tom, and Will were deemed the most desirable titles. Sarah, Sophie, Laura, and Charlotte topped the list of women. Very few of the names on the list are generally associated with people of color.

There was a brief period when I considered going by Rob. I would practice reciting the name when ordering coffee or calling for takeout. As a teenager, I was intent on changing my name. I believed a Western name would help me to pass for someone other than what I was. Years of butchered pronunciations and misspellings taught me to be quietly ashamed of my name. But the reality was that I was ashamed of my race—to which I am inextricably linked by the peculiarity of my name.

We accept the notion that attraction is organic, immutable, and therefore immune to criticism. But when a former friend confides in me that he isn’t attracted to black women, should I simply chalk it up to biology? That isn’t a biological response; it’s a manual override. A person of color doesn’t conform to his ideal of a romantic partner. To couch that prejudice in the vestment of preference is self-deceiving.

Some daters believe that the chasm between cultures is too wide to bridge, yet this concern is seldom raised between, say, metropolitans and small-towners—two cultures that stand in stark contrast of one another. If race alone is enough to dismiss someone, to invalidate all other qualities they may have, then what we see in these numbers runs much deeper than general preference.

The Rooney Rule, instituted by the National Football League over a decade ago, mandates that teams interview at least one minority candidate for all head coaching and senior management positions. The rule is far from foolproof, but it has created improved conditions for people of color in professional sports. Tech companies have implemented the rule to encourage diversity in the workplace. It would be both draconian and impractical to impose this policy on dating app users; the rule, however, can serve as a helpful measure in our personal dating practices. For every three or four dates with someone of the same race, aim to go out with one person of a different background. Even if the relationship doesn’t survive past the pilot encounter, it may be enough to ease our xenophobic fears and puncture certain assumptions we have about race.