Is it racist to have a preference in whom you date?

We’d be better off quitting dating apps and getting back into the real world.

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“Is it racist to have a preference when it comes to the race of the people you date?” a friend asked me last week. He looked at me with a wry smile on his face. Both of us are products of mixed relationships and move in ethnically diverse circles, but I knew where the conversation was going.

“It depends,” I said. “On what that preference is, and why.”

He’s mixed white and Caribbean, and said to me that he was interested in “light-skinned” girls, Latinas and white girls. Just not black girls. When I asked him what made him feel that way he shrugged and said “I just do.”

His response sounded pretty problematic to me. He didn’t have any real reasons for his preferences and I had more than a strong suspicion that they were informed by stereotypes about all of the groups he mentioned rather than by any real personal experience with them.

I should stress that this conversation isn’t new. Being a young person of colour in one of the most diverse cities in the world where dating culture feels increasingly more Americanised, I hear heated debates about racial preferences all the time. Regardless of if you’re actually on dating apps or not, social media presents you with a world of choice where you can cherry pick your networks and get more of what you want. Now more than ever we feel like we know what we like, and can get it at the click of a button. But what if this is this a bad thing - and is ultimately revealing racist tendencies?

Emma Dabiri’s Is Love Racist, which aired on Channel 4 this week, suggests that it is. Using statistics collated from a survey about dating habits, as well as conducting social experiments on a group of young singletons, the show confirmed that the odds were stacked in favor of white people in the dating game. More than a third of white people said they would never date a black person, compared to just 10 per cent of black people who wouldn’t date a white person.

The questions raised by the preference across the board for whiteness are clearly far too complicated to be fully unpacked in under an hour. Debate on social media came from all directions. On Twitter, for example, I watched several people dismissing the results by making the case that living in the UK, where the vast majority of the population are white, it’s not unusual that white dominates on dating apps. After all, to cut out potential white partners would be to cut out almost 80 per cent of the people out there.

Read more: Is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

However, it would be naive to think that it’s really as simple as that. Clearly, we do recognise that there are issues with racism and equality away from dating apps, and that they do cross over from one to the other. Ruby McGregor Smith, at one time the only female Asian chief executive of a FTSE250 company, underlined this in the programme when she said “If you’ve got preferences, I don’t think they would be different in your personal life than your work life.”

The aversion to dating some minority groups that seems to be the issue here though. Why is it that the name “Mohammed” got the most negative response from a list of potential date names? Again, time didn’t allow for this to be properly explored.

When participants did express attraction for other ethnicities, they tended to be informed by crude stereotypes. One guy said he liked “Asian girls because they’re more submissive”. Another said that he had slept with mixed race girls, but wasn’t “into mixed race girls”.

Whilst fully recognising all of these issues raised about interracial dating in the programme, I didn’t settle on the same conclusion that Dabiri seemed to, namely that having preferences is necessarily a problem. Preferences aren’t supposed to be completely exclusive. They merely show partiality. Alarm bells should only ring when preferences become inflexible or are informed by general ideas as opposed to genuine experience.

It’s not only unfair, but also unrealistic to say that we shouldn’t have preferences about who we date. Generally speaking people are inclined to date people who they feel culturally and morally compatible with. While that doesn’t strictly mean that they should come from a particular race, life experiences leave us with entirely personal impressions that affect how you feel about potential partners in the future.

The real problem is that dating apps are inherently flawed. They skew attraction on a superficial level, of which race is undoubtedly the most sensitive category. We’d be better off quitting these apps and going back into the real world, where we can decide first hand what we like.