A burly white man named Jim describes himself as, “Just a normal guy … Not into Asians.”
A Dolph Lundgren-lookalike named Danny is more equal-opportunist in his bias: “No Asian, No Indian, No Latino, No Black, No Fat, under 30 years old.”
And it goes downhill from there: “NO CHOCOLATE/RICE,” writes a guy named Dev. 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 Grindr, a location-based app that lets gay men hook up through GPS pinpointing. In an endless parade of shirtless beefcakes, many state racial biases as openly as other turnoffs, like flab.
“The culture of sexual liberation has been replaced by sexual segregation,” wrote Alex Rowlson last fall in Fab magazine, lambasting the widespread racism on gay hookup sites.
Explicit prejudice is not exclusive to Grindr – 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 Canadian and American 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. Here, race remains murky territory.
While most critics agree that the ethnicity checkbox is vastly preferable to specifying ‘No Asians,’ they disagree about whether the option is a step backward. Is it any different than hunting through niche sites like Shaadi, an Indian matrimonial website, or JDate, an online matchmaking service for Jews?
More crucially, can our sexual preferences be deemed racist, or is attraction a matter of personal taste? Do we need to “prefer” everybody?
In Out Magazine last month, Alexander Chee documented the anti-Asian sentiments prevalent on Grindr: “Men who put NO ASIANS on their profile are not stating a preference,” Mr. Chee wrote. “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.”
A statement e-mailed from Grindr acknowledged that users can list race in their preferences, but can be banned for posting material “perceived to incite racism, bigotry, hatred or physical harm of any kind.”
“We also encourage our users to state what they are looking for as opposed to what they are not looking for,” the e-mail read.
On generalist dating sites, users are discouraged from narrowing criteria, even though the option is built right into the services.
“Jerks come in all races and good 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 Kim Hughes, a dating and relationships expert with Toronto-based Lavalife.
The website lets people sort by ethnicity using an advanced search that also lets them parse body type (“queen or king-sized” anyone?) and religion, from Lutheran to new age. Ms. Hughes’s advice is to nail down the deal breakers – desire to have children, for example – and be open otherwise.
“The vagaries of the human heart is what it comes down to,” Ms. Hughes acknowledges. “It’s really not for me as an individual or as a representative of a corporation to judge what’s going to turn somebody’s crank.”
A poll of nearly 2,000 Lavalife users conducted last summer found that 74 per cent of women surveyed said ethnicity affected their dating decisions, compared with 49 per cent of men.
“Women may be pickier in general,” Ms. Hughes offered.
“Men are more open to meeting people from different communities. They tend to concentrate on physical aspects whereas women are much more interested in lifestyle and background,” said Justin Parfitt, chief executive of speed-dating company FastLife International.
That gender divide may help explain why most of FastLife’s race-based events have flopped, including Caucasian speed dating: “I suspect many people would assume that others would think them racist for attending,” Mr. Parfitt said.
After organizing some interracial events, he was discomforted by client response, particularly when he learned that many men were categorically overlooking black women: “Of all the groups, black women have the worst luck. It’s really quite gut-wrenchingly sad, some of the feedback.”
Only the Chinese events have steadily attracted clients, but even these have their own caveats: Canadian-born Chinese, Mr. Parfitt has found, often aren’t into first-generation Chinese “who may be too much like their parents or not progressive.”
Even as he urges clients to focus on shared interests such as wine and fitness, Mr. Parfitt shies away from criticizing ethnic inclinations: “It’s very difficult 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 Diane Farr, author of the memoir Kissing Outside the Lines, which chronicles her interracial relationship with a Korean man.
“Online dating is a manufactured attraction,” said Ms. Farr. “You’re looking at people’s stats as opposed to their humanity, and then you’re hoping that you’ll see a burst of humanity when you see them for 10 minutes over coffee.”
Much depends on motive, said Faizal Sahukhan, a sex therapist who counsels couples in cross-cultural relationships in Vancouver.
If someone has specified race but “is looking for a short-term or a sexual partner, then this could be a fetish. Fetishes tend to be fantasies,” said Dr. Sahukhan.
He distinguishes this type of search from people in it for the long haul, looking for an ethnic type based on their “personal, positive experience.” Nonetheless, Dr. Sahukhan suggested daters “ask themselves why they would prefer one race over the other.”
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, published this month in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
“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,” Mr. Parfitt advises. “What you think you want and where you end up finding chemistry are often two very different things.”