Dating and Race: Thoughts on Race Relations 50 Years After Civil Rights (part 1)

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When K and I began dating, we developed a list of our numerous similarities. We are both introverts. We both grew up in conservative Evangelical traditions, with shared youth group experiences. We both love to sing; I went on to major in vocal performance, while K received a minor in music. Our list had quirks. Both of our best friends in high school were opposed-gendered Catholics with whom we spent numerous hours convincing peers we weren’t dating.

Yah, we were those kinds of people.

Jurafsky and McFarland insinuated in their 2013 research on clicking through speed dating that homogeneity of interests and experiences most successfully signified connection. Couples seeking shared meaning succeed when their experiences and hobbies are already fairly similar.

Dr. Ken-Hou Lin of UT-Austin and Dr. Jennifer Lundquist of UMass-Amherst evaluated dating homogeneity through the lens of race. In their publication “Mate Selection in Cyberspace: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Education”, which appeared in July’s American Journal of Sociology, Lin and Lundquist evaluated dating patterns, specifically, the numbers of people emailed, profile views, and demographic trends, from the database of an online dating service.

Image by Tiffany Jones on our blog

Image by Tiffany Jones on her blog

The study explores the following question: Do racial homogeneity or racial hierarchy have more significance when defining dating connections?

They identified several psychological theories that support racial homogeneity. For example, Leon Festinger and other MIT psychologists established the propinquity theory, suggesting that geographic and psychological closeness lead to greater likelihood of relationship formation. The more you see somebody, the more likely they are to enter your circle of friends. Propinquity theory also correlates with Murray Bowen’s idea that people date those with similar levels of anxiety. (“Differentiation” is Bowen’s word, which will take another blog series to explain. For now, we’ll say anxiety.) Most adolescents form subgroups based around similar race and culture.

The quantity of interracial dating relationships is changing; one study reports that 50% of minorities have dated someone from outside of their race. More American high schools and universities have students of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, leading to an increase of interracial dating experiences. Demographic research has discovered that although around 85% of Americans support interracial marriages. However, only 4% of marriages are interracial.

A program such as Match.com provides a unique arena for research on race. Daters introduce themselves through the physical features of their profile picture. A dater clicks on someone’s profile because they find them physically attractive, at which point the dater learns more about interests, hobbies, and dreams through reading profile information. Jurafsky and McFarland are not the first sociologists to determine that clicking exists primarily when there are shared interests or traits.

Lin and Lundquist find a similar result: daters are most likely to approach those from a similar race.

Race refers to the genetic characteristics and geographic ancestry of a person. Historically, in the U.S. anyway, race has been classified primarily by skin color, although verbiage has shifted more toward geographic ancestry in the last fifty years. Culture, the shared behaviors and beliefs, such as religion, language, and values, between a group of individuals, often gets inappropriately enmeshed with race. If I get uncomfortable around an African American person, it’s not because of his/her skin color; it’s because of the assumptions that I make about that person’s culture–his/her values and abilities–when I see said skin color, which of course, I convince myself, are different from mine.

51 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by their color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Racism becomes challenging to eradicate because we are naturally drawn to people that look like us, “act” like us, and have similar values and interests. We create in-groups and builds families with these people, either through cliques of friends or dating relationships. We also have a bad tendency of creating an “out-group” for every established in-group. I believe that fifty years later, our society has made progress through the reduction its inflammatory language toward people of different races; when someone says something racially inappropriate, such as Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, a diverse group of people express their disapproval and their desire for more hospitable language.

However, as Lin and Lundquist suggest, we tend to avoid those who are not like us. For example, they discovered that white women took some initiative to explore the profiles of men from other races, but they generally only responded to requests from white men. Black men showed the highest level of “homophily”–dating and communicating within one’s racial classification. All racial groups showed high levels of homophily.

We’ll explore other aspects of this study in the next two blog posts, but for now, I want to leave this question: Can we help eradicate racism by creating relationships (dating or otherwise) only with those in our racial classification?

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