Perching atop a rocky outcrop in Central Park, I noticed a group of rubbernecking tourists. I traced back their stares and laughed silently to find a gay couple, male, white, around my age, embracing each other — much to the evident discomfort of their voyeurs.
Looking more closely at the men, I decided that they were somewhat attractive — solid 6s, if I had to rate them; however, I believed that I was more attractive than either of them in comparison. Then, I realized that they would probably feel the same about me.
Previous experiences justified this intuition. Once, when I teased my bisexual white friend that he would have sex with anyone, he sheepishly replied, “Well, not anyone — I wouldn’t have sex with you. I don’t know, I’ve just never been attracted to Asian guys,” — completely out of nowhere. And just weeks ago when I told my female friend I thought one of her white friends was cute, she bluntly told me that her friend “wasn’t into Asian guys.”
Though in neither case did I feel personally insulted, the brusqueness with which they expressed their insensitive and dismissive opinions about my entire race was shocking and disorienting. I couldn’t help but feel that such broad preferences reflected not only isolated personal tastes, but also the legacy of a historical belief in white supremacy.
I do not believe that such preferences are unconditionally immoral, nor that they are avoidable. However, in an increasingly globalized world, which has for so long witnessed European preeminence, Western beauty standards have become nearly universal. Whether one is considered attractive largely depends on cultural standards set by white people, and I refuse to allow Western attitudes to convince me that to be male and Asian is to be inherently and non-negotiably unattractive.
However, overcoming such racialized standards is more complex than simply deciding to ignore them. A 2009 conducted by OkTrends, the research branch of the OkCupid dating website, found that white men received more responses from heterosexual females from almost every racial group and were preferred almost exclusively by Asian, Hispanic and white women, who themselves tended to elicit more frequent responses from men of most racial backgrounds but responded primarily to their own race. More importantly, these groups’ response rates to non-white men were notably much lower, at 21.9, 22.9 and 23.0 percent for Asian, Hispanic and white women respectively, compared to 29, 30 and 29 percent response rates to white men. Further, a sitewide survey revealed that 35 percent of white users, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, would “strongly prefer to date someone of [their] own skin color/racial background” compared to only 15% of non-white users. The implications here are clear — while people of color place a premium on whiteness, so do whites themselves — and follow-up from 2014 released by the same research group suggest that these racial preferences have grown only more pronounced and disparate over time.
However, up until a few months ago, I did not take issue with racial dating preferences. After all, I thought, how could I dictate who or what one finds attractive, or deny one’s right to his or her subjective taste?
The implications and consequences of such preferences, however, make it vital that we not simply write off such preferences as “taste.” Consider the hypothetical scenario: an attractive, non-white dating app user might subconsciously rationalize a low number of matches to mean that s/he is not attractive and subsequently internalize those negative implications, whereas more frequent and more attractive matches awarded to an average-looking white user might develop into delusions of the opposite effect. Extended to society at large, this paradigm would suggest distortion of self-perception among whites and non-whites, and perhaps subconsciously fuel collective sentiment of racial superiority/inferiority and provide sustenance to existing hierarchies.
And although I may be tempted to play the part of the victim, I recognize from my own Tinder-swiping experiences that I am also complicit in the devaluation of non-white attributes. I also see whiteness as something to be desired, a trophy of assimilation, and thereby, success. The fact is, I find myself swiping left on people of color without as much as a second glance, while lowering my standards for white people, the majority of whom qualify for a right swipe almost as if by default. I cannot justify pointing a finger at the white, cisgender, heterosexual patriarchal elite (which is often the temptation) for the world’s obsession with whiteness in light of the fraudulence and hypocrisy of my own actions.
I am aware that undoing cultural conditioning is a challenging, if not impossible, task. I do believe, however, that if we are aware of how we have been socialized to prefer whiteness and the connotations we associate with it subconsciously, we might find ourselves more capable of observing our attractions objectively and critically assessing their true motives. Though overt racism is arguably becoming less salient in today’s society, it is within greyer areas that racism continues to dwell, to everyone’s detriment. And while these in-between areas are much more difficult to diagnose when assessing the true ubiquity of racism, it is nonetheless there, lurking — bitter, poisonous fodder for our every thought, action and swipe.
BENJAMIN ZOU is a rising College junior from New York, New York studying economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Zou It All” appears every other Thursday.
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