Any non-white person who has online dated will know that race always comes into it. Even if you don’t explicitly mention it, your inbox will inevitably contain messages from people fetishising your colour. You’ll also get the odd comment from racists who just want to tell you how much they don’t like your skin.
But more than that: you’ll be subtly judged for your colour at every turn. I know because it’s happened to all my ethnic friends.
One of the most telling incidents occured more than a year ago when a friend was using online dating site OKCupid. A man messaged her, telling her how attractive he thought her “Latino tan” was. When she pointed out that she was actually Indian, and naturally brown, he stopped replying immediately.
It might have been down to a variety of reasons, but experience told her that it’s because he didn’t want to date an Indian girl - or, indeed, any girl who was radically different from himself. A glance at his profile suggested he was Latino.
A new study by OKCupid suggests that such behaviour is more prevelant than ever. The website looked at research from five years ago - which showed most people prefer to date within their own race - and compared it to current data. It found that racial bias has increased.
According to OKCupid, Asian and black men receive fewer messages than white men, while black women receive the fewest messages of all users. Christian Rudder, the site’s co-founder, says: “OKCupid users are certainly no more open-minded than they used to be. If anything, racial bias has intensified a bit.”
A close friend, Sarah, is living proof of this. She's an attractive, half-Chinese and half-Caucasian 24-year-old woman, who uses OKCupid. Last week, she received what, to me, is an explicitly racist message.
It was from Username8493, who told her: “Sorry I’m not interested. I only do hot white girls.” She responded by telling him that she thought he was racist, and if he didn’t want to date her, he could have just not replied.
“I’m polite and when I prefer to tell the truth to a person instead of ignoring them. [sic] Obviously you don’t have the same level of education. And not wanting to date you doesn’t make me racist. I’m just not attracted to most Indians/Asians.
“In other words, you’re not good looking enough for me. Hope you understand. Please try to find a guy in your league.”
Apart from being astoundingly rude, this man (who deleted his profile after I tweeted a screenshot of his messages) brings up the question of whether racial bias can be classified as racism.
Jo Barnett, a dating coach, tells me: “I don’t think it’s racism. Everyone’s entitled to their personal preference. You’ll get people who say, I don’t like red-heads, or I don’t like short girls, skinny girls… everyone will have their own criteria. But when I’m coaching someone, within reason I’ll get them to look beyond that.”
More than anything, she just thinks it’s a “shame” that people could be missing out on relationships because of their narrow viewpoints, or insecurities. She tells me that she’s noticed many men choosing to date white, skinny women who are either blonde or brunette: “Some guys want candy on their arm. That’s partly down to a guy’s insecurity because they want approval. They think, if I have got what everyone 'wants' then that’ll make me look good.”
But she also explains that it could just be cultural.
“People have to go with what they feel comfortable with. If you’re from an Indian background you might prefer to date someone Indian. For some people, dating outside their race isn’t acceptable to their family and it’s not what's been done. They’re just following suit.”
That’s more understandable – after all it’s been going on for centuries. But there does seem to be a difference between making cultural assumptions, and people claiming they’re just not attracted to certain races, or fetishising them.
A Chinese friend tells me that she often gets messages from men telling her how much they love that she “looks like a cute Pokemon.” She finds that as offensive as people telling her they don’t want to date her because of her race.
It’s similar to how Sarah feels: “I can understand people making cultural assumptions, but in a dating context it seems to be purely objective. They’re just making judgements based on your looks.”
Is that OK? Barnett isn’t sure – “it’s a tricky one.” Neither is Sarah, or any of my other friends. They can’t categorically denounce it because it’s often unintentional. When people say they’re just not attracted to a certain race, it's hard to question that.
The one thing we do all agree on is that it comes down to society. In Western culture, there is still a 'white' beauty standard. No matter how much fashion designers put ethnic models on catwalks, the majority of magazine covers, movies and adverts show white women.
It's why Barnett says that men desire white women, and the OKCupid data reflects that.
Simply, it's what is going on in society, and what's been happening for decades. The worst part is that for so long, we’ve just accepted. this white standard of beauty, and all of the subtle influences and consequences it causes.
People like Sarah tell me they’re “so used to guys not messaging" them back because of their skin colour, and other people admit to me they would never fancy someone of a certain race because they’re "only attracted to white people."
It has become so normalised that we're no longer questioning it. That's the issue with racial bias: because it isn't overt racism, we just let it slide. It's an awkward topic and one that makes us face our own prejudices.
But it's a discussion we need to have.