Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Sunday, March 27, ten members of the Anti-Racism Coalition of Swarthmore (ARCS) held an hour-long meeting at the Intercultural Center to discuss racial relations in sexual and romantic interactions. The question put on the floor: “Is it okay to have racial preferences?”
All individuals who took part in the discussion wished to remain anonymous.
The conversation began with a reference to an OkCupid study conducted over the years 2009-2014 in which dating researchers from the website found data that showed how strong a factor race really is amongst users when choosing a romantic partner.
The discussion then turned to personal high school and online experiences. Similar to the results of the OkCupid study, many have seen Tinder biographies that included stipulations such as “no black girls,” or have heard a high school friend mention that they “would never date a black guy,” in addition to other racially-fueled comments. Some people feel that their “type” is simply “what they prefer,” while others seem to think that having a racial preference is an effect of institutionalized racism.
“Part of it could be biological,” one member said. “We like what is familiar to us.” A person’s social circle will often determine whom they interact with and who they might end up dating, and these circles can be determined by outside factors that include segregation, lack of exposure, and the amount of active socialization with a variety of races during childhood. “True, there are certain features of people that someone wouldn’t find attractive,” said another member, “because there’s something perhaps genetically wrong with someone [sic] and that would be a biological preference. But as far as preferring race or ethnicity…that’s all socialized.”
However, as the ARCS members explained, branching out from the norm can be more difficult than it seems in theory.
“It’s hard when all your friends are going ‘oh my god you’re dating a white guy,’ or ‘oh my god you’re dating a black girl’…and then there’s the issue of family gatherings and family in general. Depending on the family, they can become really awkward when you bring in a significant other of a different race,” said one participant.
Many members agreed that families can present a significant barrier to interracial relationships. Some related to the entreaties of “why can’t you find a nice [insert respective race] girl/boy” and all of the ramifications that come with not complying with this request. “One time I brought my white boyfriend over to my house, and my grandmother started talking about him in Farsi. Right in front of him. He couldn’t speak Farsi, but, I mean, you can tell when someone’s talking badly about you no matter the language,” recounted one of the members.
Sometimes dating someone with a wholly different set of experiences can create an individually-felt sense of imbalance within a relationship. “It’s hard for P.O.C. [People of Color] to date a white person,” one contributor said. “It’s more familiar to date people of one’s own cultural or racial background. Especially because P.O.C. have to think about race all the time, and dating a white person can be a lot to handle and a lot to add on. You have to always be confronting the uneven power dynamics.”
Most of the room agreed that, overall, interracial relationships are good ways to individually break down racial stereotypes, but some countered with the belief that it is problematic to think of being in an interracial relationship as inherently beneficial for one’s own development. “The way that these relationships are perceived shouldn’t be all about the ‘learning experience,’” said one participant. “Being in interracial relationships shouldn’t be an experiment to further your personal goals. They shouldn’t be the thing that suddenly causes you to think about race.”
The discussion then turned to whether or not it is “fair” to talk about changing people’s preferences. There was a general agreement amongst the members that it is not a matter of changing preferences but rather of breaking down the reasons behind why a person has these racialized preferences. “People can be socialized racists and can change,” said one participant. “The individual can be cognizant of why it’s difficult for them to be attracted to a certain race. And while it is possible that people feel sexual attraction towards people of different races and that it is something they think is an inherent quality of theirs, it is important for the person to question why they think it is their innate sexual attraction.”
In a counter argument, another member added, “But you shouldn’t have a vendetta against someone with racial preferences, because they’ve grown up in a society that tells them one look is more attractive. I’m not saying it can’t be helped in general, but that the people themselves can’t help it.”
At the end of the meeting, one member closed with, “Sometimes, when people have preferences they won’t even look or engage with someone of a specific race in a romantic way. And sometimes people avoid opportunities of interracial relationships out of fear of a society that doesn’t accept those things.”
The question of what to do about racial preferences was left unresolved as the members dispersed for the evening. ARCS meets every Sunday at 6:30 p.m. in the Intercultural Center.