Race, Love and Sex

Culture — By Stephen Menendian on March 3, 2010 at 7:57 am

In the film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” the progressive attitudes of an affluent white couple are put to the test when their daughter announces her engagement to Sidney Poitier’s dashing Dr. John Prentice.    In the thematic sequel, “Guess Who,” Bernie Mac grapples with the notion that his daughter (Zoe Saldana) hopes to marry Ashton Kutcher.   Sex, love and marriage are among the most intimate areas of our lives, and our attitudes about them can be the most revealing.

Many conservatives leap at the opportunity to hammer affirmative action programs as ‘reverse discrimination’ and a violation of the colorblind principle, which, they are quick to remind you, is the ‘true meaning’ of MLK’s dream.   One of the most revealing questions you can ask someone who professes a belief in the principle of colorblindness is how they would feel if confronted with the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” scenario, particularly if the significant other is African-American or Latino/a.

Most Americans today subscribe to the principle of racial equality and oppose discrimination on the basis of race.   A 2007 Gallup Poll showed that 75% of whites approve marriage between blacks and whites.[i] As recently as 1994, only 48% of whites approved of black-white marriage.[ii] That’s a tremendous shift in little more than a decade.

At the same time, even in this era of racial egalitarianism, explicit racial attitudes persist, but are far more covert.    According to a recent Time Magazine report, racial preferences registered behind computer screens using (often) incognito usernames are rampant on internet dating websites.   According to a study of 1,558 profiles of white daters placing personal ads, 73% of women and 59% of men stated a racial preference.  Of the white women stating a racial preference, 64% selected ‘whites only,’ while fewer than 10% included East Indians, Middle Easterners, Asians or Blacks.  Of the white men who stated a racial preference, nearly half selected Asians, but less than 7% selected Black women.    In an internal study by the free dating website OKCupid, after controlling for attractiveness and compatibility, they found that Black women get the fewest responses of any female group.

Against this backdrop consider recent remarks by John Mayer in a Playboy interview.  As one Newsweek commentator observed, Mayer is merely saying what others are thinking.   Explaining his refusal to date Black women, Mayer described a certain part of his anatomy as ‘white supremacist.’    Mayer disassociates his sense of self, his conscious values or his ‘Benetton heart,’ with his sexual preferences, which he admits are racist.

Mayer’s attempt to disassociate his sexual appetite from himself is absurd and likely self-deceptive, even if it fools other people by drawing upon a cultural notion that certain male anatomy has a mind of ‘its own.’  If John Mayer has a white supremacist phallus and refuses in principle to date Black women, let alone entertain the notion of dating Black women, Mayer is the racist, and his dissociative strategy should be rejected as nonsense. [iii]

This is why the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”question I posed is so revealing: it forces the colorblind advocate to reconcile either covert racial preferences, conscious, but dissociative racial preferences, or subconscious[iv] racial preferences against their explicit conscious values.   What’s particularly intractable about conscious, but dissociative racial preferences and subconscious racial preferences is that they are held at the same time as explicit, egalitarian values.[v]

It’s fascinating to me how so many conservatives are so quick to label any race-conscious decision-making as ‘racist,’[vi] but hesitate to acknowledge that racial dating preferences, particularly exclusionary racial preferences, which are anything but colorblind, are racist.  Others, such as the author of the Time Magazine report, seem reluctant or unwilling to label such preferences racist, even when OKCupid readily admitted as much.  Still others appear willing to describe such preference as innocent, and seem almost apologetic on that account, even when they are very critical of Mayer’s other remarks.

One writer wonders how we can be upset with John Mayer’s comments, and consider it racist, when “statistically speaking Black women generally do not date outside of the race?”  Given the statistics we just considered, it’s not hard to comprehend why.    Black women are not only the most excluded female group by white men according to the Social Science Research study, they get the fewest responses of all women’s groups, according to OkCupid’s study.   In short, Black women face the greatest prejudice when it comes to dating and marriage.    Black women are snubbed disproportionately by men of all races, including black men.   It’s little wonder that there are a disproportionate number of single brilliant and beautiful Black women.

Another way to present the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” scenario (particularly if your colorblind advocate is younger) is to ask your acquaintance to imagine how their parents or extended family might react if they were to bring home an African-American boyfriend or girlfriend?  Some whites may contend that although they aren’t personally racist, they would nonetheless not date someone from certain racial backgrounds because of their family’s attitudes or because of how the ‘world’ might treat their potential children.    Yet, isn’t this the same dissociative strategy that Mayer uses?   I’m not racist, but my family is.  Or, I’m not racist, but the world is.   By abiding by that rationalization, aren’t you simply reifying it?  It’s the same meaning: persons of a particular race aren’t worthy of me and my family, and are less than.

A refusal, in principle, to even entertain the idea of dating outside of one’s race or a particular race is nothing less than a statement about someone else’s humanity and worthiness to associate.   In Oliver Stone’s bio-epic ‘Alexander,’ the title character weds a young woman, Roxana, despite vociferous protestations regarding her tribe and background, and the fact that she was neither Greek nor Macedonian.    She was unworthy, it was argued, of the most powerful man in the world.

If we, as Americans, cannot bring ourselves to even consider dating persons of a particular race because of presumed unworthiness or inferiority, why draw the line there?   If a person of a particular race is unfit to share your bloodline or your genes, why be neighbors with someone of that race, whose children might socialize and play with your own?  Why send your children to school to learn next to someone of that race?   Racial preferences in dating and marriage are only a small step removed from racial preferences in neighborhoods and schools.   Indeed, this is what so many Jim Crow segregationists understood.   To educate children of different races together would open the door to cross-race dating, which they so greatly feared.

Racial justice advocates are only slowly beginning to understand what Gunnar Myrdal understood seventy years ago, that racial justice requires a systems thinking approach. Racial preferences in dating belie and support the segregated chasms in housing and education that deny opportunity to so many on account of race.    If someone of a particular race isn’t good enough for you or your family, they are probably not your ideal neighbor.   To view racial preferences in dating, particularly those that exclude, as merely innocent individual preferences is to completely miss their structural influence, and the full meaning of such a preference, which denies full humanity to another person because of their race.

What’s particularly troubling is not simply that people have racial preferences , but that so many of these preferences are exclusionary.  Someone might claim that, other things equal, they are most attracted to a particular skin tone, or someone who shares a particular background, and thus prefer a dating match from a particular race.  Whether such preferences are racist or not can be debated.[vii] But that is very different from exclusionary racial preferences that filter out all persons of a particular race for no other reason than their race.   I have little doubt that this is racist: it’s prejudicial (literally pre-judging) decision-making that is purely race-based.  No consideration to that person’s talents, attractiveness, personality or potential compatibility is even permitted.

Internet dating preferences, which are registered in private, are a revealing expression of covert racism.   While we might urge online dating service providers to eliminate exclusionary racial preferences, we might instead learn from this phenomenon.   We might further study whether these racial preferences are the product of conscious, but covert, racial attitudes or something deeper, such as conscious, but dissociated values or subconscious biases.   If they are a product of conscious, but covert racial attitudes, then they may be a measure for understanding America’s true racial attitudes, regardless of how many people say they believe in the principle of racial equality.    If they are a product of something deeper, then perhaps we can learn how to bring our conscious, egalitarian values to bear more often, and become more tolerant and accepting of those who appear different.     In either case, online racial preferences symbolize the larger problem of how systems (whether they be housing, education or online registration forms) prompt us to discriminate, and the many consequences for doing so.

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Author: Stephen Menendian (11 Articles)

Stephen Menendian

Stephen Menendian is the senior legal research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. Stephen directs and supervises the Institute’s legal advocacy, analysis and research, and manages many of the Institute’s most important projects. His principal areas of advocacy and scholarship include education, civil rights and human rights, Constitutional law, the racialization of opportunity structures, talking about race, systems thinking and implicit bias. Stephen co-manages the Institute’s Integration Initiative to promote diversity, reduce racial isolation, improve funding equity, and close the achievement gap in our nation’s public schools. Stephen works closely with school districts and other educational entities to develop successful integrative measures and implement practices that produce educational excellence for all students. Stephen also co-manages the Institute’s Fair Recovery Project (www.fairecovery.org) to ensure that federal initiatives and investments promote equity and equal opportunity for all, and that jobs and foreclosure relief target those who have been hit hardest by the economic downturn. Stephen also directs the Institute’s Affirmative Action Project and was the lead author of the Institute’s Structural Racism Report to the CERD Committee to improve US treaty compliance with the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Recent scholarly publications include Parents Involved: The Mantle of Brown, the Shadow of Plessy for the University of Louisville Law Review and the forthcoming Remaking Law: Moving Beyond Enlightenment Jurisprudence for the St. Louis University Law Review. Stephen occasionally guest-lectures at the Moritz College of Law, and co-taught The History and Culture of Race and Law, a seminar at Wayne State University Law School, in the fall of 2009. Stephen is a licensed attorney and a member of the Ohio State Bar Association, the Columbus Bar Association, and the American Bar Association. He also serves on the board of directors for Americans for American Values. He earned his J.D. from the Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University and a B. A. in Economics from Ohio University, where he graduated summa cum laude.


  • GMC262 says:

    What’s really confusing is when those on “Christian” dating sites state a preference for certain races only. Other races may be good enough for God’s Kingdom, but not good enough to date I guess…

  • Stephen Menendian Stephen Menendian says:

    Great point… which dating website are you referring to?

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