In the otherwise newfangled world of online dating, an old secret remains: All is not fair in love.
This ugly truth was revealed in the book Dataclysm by OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder, released last year, which used data collected from OkCupid users. It found that while we’d like to claim we have advanced as a society beyond judging people by the color of their skin, our habits show otherwise. Regardless of gender, according to the book, whites are most preferred, while blacks are least preferred. Asians and Hispanics fall somewhere in between. Toss gender into the quotient, and the facts get even more uncomfortable: Asian men, black women, and black and Latino men are considered the least desirable in the dating market, but Asian and Latina women are seen as the most desirable—perhaps because of fetishization, Rudder suggested.
But Rudder’s theory does not include a key, growing part of the American population: individuals who identify as multiracial. In a country where the number of people who identify as multiracial has grown substantially and 93% of multiracial people identify as white and black, what does dating data show about them?
A forthcoming study from the Council on Contemporary Families, to be published in August by the American Sociological Review, looks at this very question. Researchers analyzed data collected between 2003 and 2010 from a major online dating website and combed through 6.7 million messages exchanged between heterosexual men and women. The researchers were looking for how often Asian-white, black-white, and Hispanic-white multiracial people received responses to messages, compared to people of one race.
The three groups were the most common multiracial identifications on the site. Reciprocation, or response messages, were key to figuring out where multiracial people fell in perceived attractiveness because they were more “honest,” explains Celeste Curington from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and one of the authors of the study.
“We look at response rate versus attractive rate because of social desirability bias,” she says, noting that being multiracial often carries an added unspoken benefit of being “exotic.” “People will be less likely to claim what they will view. The response rates are more accurate [as a measurement] since we can actually see what they do.”
At first glance, there seems to be a remarkable advantage to being multiracial on the online dating scene.
“The most surprising finding from our study is that some white-minority multiracial daters are, in fact, preferred over white daters,” the authors write in a press release. Called the “dividend effect,” the authors found that three specific combinations were heavily favored in online dating: Asian-white women, Asian-white men, and Hispanic-white men.
But beneath the superficial results that being of mixed race is advantageous remains a more complicated, race-tinged story, write the authors, who note that the study’s results do not suggest a totally even playing field.
“White men and women are still less likely to respond to an individual who identifies as part black and part white than they are to a fellow white,” the authors write. And when they do respond, skin color still plays a role. “In some cases they [the preferences for the three multiracial groups] seem to be closely linked to a continuing partiality for lightness or whiteness,” the study notes.
But being lighter skinned is not the whole story. Virginia Rutter, professor of sociology at Framingham State University, and Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College, reviewed the results. The two warn against the takeaway that multiracial people are considered more attractive along skin color lines—a far too simple conclusion, they say.
It’s not as simple as societal preference for lighter-skinned people, and future consequences have yet to be measured, according to Rutter, who says that it helps to consider the results through “the arc of time.” Only 48 years ago, the ban on marrying a person of a different race was lifted nationally, and Rutter thinks societal acceptance of mixed race couples might indicate more acceptance—or, very possibly, less. Curington, one of the study’s authors, points to the multicultural movement of the 1990s that popularized identification of a person beyond being black, white, Asian or Hispanic as a key factor, too. “After those changes came about, there was an increased representation of mixed people in general,” Curington says.
“As these changes lead to a growing multiracial population, is it possible that the multiracial dividend will be extended, or at least begin to counter some of the racial penalties that have existed in the dating and marriage market?” ask Rutter and Coontz in their review. “Or will individuals perceived as mono-racial blacks fall even further behind?”
What further complicates these findings more is the exoticizing of multiracial people. Pop culture tends to mark “the ethnically ambiguous” person to be attractive to either sex for their enigma and lack of clear origin, Curington says. “If you look at cultural representations of multiracial people, going back to the early 1900s, they are often portrayed as exotic and sexually wanton,” she says.
But being multiracial might also act as a marker of progressiveness, particularly for Asian-American women. As Asian-American generations ground themselves in American culture and seek mates who can transcend their cultural tradition while also being able to understand their American upbringing, Asian-American women might prefer multiracial men for two reasons: First, they offer a dual upbringing that blatantly signals to Asian-American women the ability for the potential date to transcend both cultures; and second, they offer a “middle ground” of sorts for Asian parents—not quite white, and therefore more acceptable for older generations seeking to keep Asian culture intact in their offspring’s mating choice, but not quite Asian either, or having the “exotic” factor to come into play.
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