Dirty secrets about dating and race

John Mayer's remarks about interracial sex brought scorn. We asked experts: How strange are his sentiments?

Topics: Race, Broadsheet,

Whatever you think about John Mayer’s controversial pronouncement that his penis is a “white supremacist,” it got people discussing a taboo subject — romance and racial prejudice. The Web overflowed with outrage over his coarse and ignorant comments. At Racialicious, Andrea Plaid skewered ”his racially essentialized hot-mess-with-flies ideas about Black women” and Jezebel’s Latoya Peterson argued that “it’s impossible to have a ‘Benetton heart’ and a ‘white supremacist dick.’” But no matter how “post-racial” we fancy our society to be, the truth is many of us do largely date, and sleep around, within our own racial group. As Peterson says, “It is not unique to Mayer — he just vocalized it in a colorful way.”

I called Helen Fisher, the anthropologist behind Chemistry.com’s matching test, in hopes of better illuminating why. If you look at it from a “Darwinian evolutionary perspective,” she said, “we traveled in these little hunter and gatherer bands and it was probably adaptive to fall for someone who shared your basic cultural beliefs and lifestyle, and was in your community network” — and skin color might be processed as just such a cue. 

A whole lot has happened since we were roaming the plains, though. That’s why George Yancey, a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, views the resistance to interracial dating through a social, rather than evolutionary, lens: “We live in a racialized society. Race is still important. We’re socialized to prefer people of our race.” Yancey, who has studied and written about interracial relationships, told me over the phone: “It’s always been that way. I guess I’m sort of floored that [the concept is] controversial.” That said, people are more open to the idea than ever before. In a survey conducted at the turn of the century, Yancey found that 35.7 percent of white Americans had ever dated outside of their race, compared to 55.4 percent of Hispanic Americans, 56.5 percent of African-Americans and 57.1 percent of Asian Americans.

Part of the issue is that we are often segregated in our day-to-day lives — in both professional and personal spheres. But researchers have staged experiments that take people out of their limited social worlds and, interestingly enough, have found that women are the ones most resistant to dating outside of their race. As researcher Ray Fisman wrote in Slate, he found in a speed dating experiment that ”white women were more likely to choose white men; black women preferred black men; East Asian women preferred East Asian men; Hispanic women preferred Hispanic men” — and so on and so forth. Men, however, did not discriminate based on race. It’s possible this has something to do with women being the choosier sex (or being socialized to be) when it comes to choosing a mate. 

In real-life scenarios that aren’t designed by researchers, though, things play out a little differently. Last year, the dating site OKCupid released statistics showing that black women get far fewer romantic responses than women of any other race — even after controlling for an array of factors. An earlier survey of Yahoo personal ads found that white men expressed a preference for Asians and Latinos over African-American women. It isn’t just an issue of whether someone is open to interracial romance, but which races they’re willing to commingle with. Pornography is always a great, if shocking, way to probe our collective unconscious, and a quick Google search for “interracial porn” quickly illustrates that black-on-white sex remains an edgy and electrifying taboo for many, many people. (And, unlike Asian fetishism, it seems to base its erotic charge on repulsion, violence and terror.)

Typically, we don’t bat an eye when a white guy says he has a thing for Asian women or a white woman professes a love for Latin men. We thought nothing of Tiger Woods’ preference for white women (until we discovered he was collecting his own personal harem). It’s generally accepted that people have, and are entitled to, their romantic (stereo)types. After all, like so many things, sexual attraction is one hot mess of nature and nurture. How can you separate pure animal lust from social conditioning? Is your racial preference a factor of innate biology or are cultural expectations messing with your romantic wiring?

The outrage over Mayer’s comments suggests many of us do have a desire to push beyond the forces working against interracial dating — be they historical, social, cultural or evolutionary. There’s no doubt things are continuing to change on that front: A recent poll found that more singles are open to interracial dating specifically because of Barack Obama’s presidency. 

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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