The mistake we make when talking about racial preferences is that we get stuck on the question ‘is it racist’.

I know. Another article about racial preferences in dating. I’ve seen the loop we’re in. One side shouts that racial preferences are racist. Another says that they’re not, and that personal preferences are just that. Everyone slinks off to their respective corners to lick their wounds and mutter about the wackos on the other side.

Folks, lets not. 

I know how uncomfortable this subject can be. Race and sex are two of the gnarliest, most uncomfortable subjects in our society. It makes sense that we struggle to talk about them both at the same time. But I think that if we approach this subject with bravery and compassion we learn important things about how love can work. We all want to be seen as attractive sometimes. We all want to feel desirable, to have the option of romance and partnership.

The mistake we make when talking about racial preferences is that we get stuck on the question ‘is it racist’. Is it racist for a white person to only, or predominantly be attracted to people of African heritage? Is it internalised racism for a Black person to date predominantly white women? 

I think this is the wrong question.

Instead, I think it’s useful to get curious about where racial preferences in dating come from and how they work. We know, for example that racial preferences are not inborn. A 2015 study published by the European Sociological Review found that people raised in Switzerland are the most open to interracial dating in Europe, while Italian, Spanish and Polish people are least likely to consider dating outside of their race. There might be lots of reasons why these populations are so different, but what it does prove is that racial preferences are about culture, not biology. And that also means that the culture we’re creating right now- who we uplift as beautiful, as desirable, as powerful- will have an effect on the racial preferences of subsequent generations. 

We also can’t ignore that if culture has an effect on racial preferences, racism does too. That doesn’t mean that someone with a racial preference is racist, or a bad person, or even that they need to start dating outside that preference (who wants to be the partner of someone who is with you just to prove they’re not racist? No thanks!).

 But it might mean that someone can have a racial preference because of racism. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Rather than shutting down racial preferences as illegitimate, it means we can think more carefully about how we communicate them. There’s no need, for example, to stick a blanket ban on a particular race in your dating profile when you can deal with people individually and politely. They don’t need to know why you don’t fancy them after all.

Likewise, it’s important to make space for people who are routinely seen as less attractive as a result of the way racial preferences,  as well as those who are fetishized or dehumanised as ‘exotic’. Racial dating preferences have real, measureable implications for how we find our way to happiness, and it’s fair to talk about that. 

Like it or not, racial preferences exist out in the world. And if we’re honest, many of us have one. We can’t control that. But we can control how we speak about them, and what they might look like in the future. 

If you enjoyed this I think you’ll like Navigating Fetishisation: Then And Now and ‘Novella’: A Short Celebration Of Black Love