karena tsai
lettering artist + writer + creative

racial formation and online dating

exploring online dating as a racial project

Digital spaces were created with the intent to embody a non-discriminatory utopia that didn’t seem possible for humanity. However, since the advent of the Internet, computer-mediated communication, and social network sites, researchers have thoroughly studied pertinent online phenomena and found that this is not the case. The societal problems that occur in real life bleed onto digital spaces and take on different forms in cyberspace. Of particular interest is online dating as a instigator for romantic relationships. Cacioppo et al. finds that more than one third of couples meet in online spaces versus traditional offline venues, which has been continually rising. Their study shows that the Internet has an effect on the dynamics of marriage, especially as online dating has grown into a billion dollar industry (Finkel et al.). The significance of this exploration is to acknowledge the impact of the online portrayal of racial groups and analyze the role stereotyping plays in the dating scene.

Online dating begins as an extremely visual activity, as users browse and select potential connections by focusing on certain traits, and the act of browsing and selecting utilizes the categorization of people into groups by their perceived distinctions of racial identity. Race is an important part of social interactions because putting people into groups based on different attributes can yield “enormous variation over historical time and space” (Omi and Winant 105), which is fluid as seen in the development of American social hierarchy. In this paper, online dating will be investigated in terms of racial formation, as described by Michael Omi and Howard Winant. They theorize racial formation as “the sociohistorical process by which racial identities are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed” (109). This race theory will be used as the framework to show how race impacts online social activities, specifically how groups of people are represented and how those representations further stereotypes and define the landscape of user interactions and interpersonal relationships that occur online.


Omi and Winant begin the process of racial formation by introducing racialization, which is “the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group” (111). In the case of online dating, racial meaning is extended onto the “previously racially unclassified” channels individuals use to engage in online dating, which shapes how those users, regardless of motivation or intention to date, perceive different racial groups and how their perceptions can affect the way they interact with others. In order to conceptualize the phenomenon of stereotyping in online spaces, Lisa Nakamura coins the term “cybertype” to embody the ways the Internet allows for the spread and commodification of racial images (3). The process of “cybertyping” involves “computer/human interfaces, the dynamics and economics of access, and the means by which users are able to express themselves online” in terms of the cultural ideologies that are brought onto digital spaces (Nakamura 3). This means that the digital spaces that users socialize on seem to be created in such a way that inevitably bleeds racialization onto them.​
Even without the web, the dating scene is difficult to navigate in terms of race. In their 2002 study, Anita Foeman and Teresa Nance discuss the fine line between interracial attraction and “jungle fever,” pointing out that “openly expressing attraction to the images of beauty in another group is a logical extension of exposure but may be socially more risky” (239). An individual who expresses attraction to a physical characteristic that is of a different race than their own may be subject to criticism for being offensive or having a racial fetish. Furthermore, Foeman and Nance state that racial “place” influences status roles in relationships because being a particular race attaches certain assumptions, pressures, rights, privileges, and burdens based on its historical context (241). This can wedge a larger gap between people of different races and possibly perpetuate identity stereotypes based on race. In this discussion, these racial stereotypes are assumed within a romantic and/or sexual context. One of these stereotypes is that of Asian males, who are stereotyped as shy, highly intelligent, but sexually undesirable (Parungao). The “herbivore man” may shed some light on why Asian men are represented this way (Ansari and Klinenberg 157-162). The term was coined in 2006 by Maki Fukasawa, a Japanese columnist who explored different images of Japanese men. She said that “in Japan, sex is translated as ‘relationship in flesh,’ so I named those boys ‘herbivorous boys’ since they are not interested in flesh” (qtd. in Baer). As a concept, the herbivore man speaks to Japan’s population crisis—the lack of sex being had and babies being born. But the rise of herbivore men contributes to identity progress in Japan and changes to the concept of masculinity. Yasuhito Sekine, a self-described herbivore, said that “back [in the 1980s], Japanese men had to be passionate and aggressive, but now those characteristics are disliked. Our members have very mild personalities. They simply enjoy what they like without prejudice. They are not limited by expectations” (qtd. in Lim). However, the truth of this image of men in Japan can perpetuate negative stereotypes of the sexuality of Asian American men, where they are limited by expectations and are viewed with prejudice simply because the United States is more racially diverse. Additionally, the Internet is also even more racially diverse, so racialization that exists in cyberspace is played out in many ways, especially the images that are representative of certain racial groups. In the media, black women are portrayed as angry and highly sexualized, black men are seen as hyper-masculine, criminal, and aggressive, Asian women are considered exotic and submissive partners, also highly sexualized, and Asian men are asexual or effeminate (Feliciano et al. 42-43). Disrespectful or offensive use of these generalizations have caused discrimination and prejudice in many aspects of society. If online dating services are fueling this racialization, are they bringing people together or instead tearing them apart?

Online Dating Services are Racial Projects

The second part of the racial formation theory is the discussion of racial projects. Omi and Winant provide the definition for a racial project as “interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to organize and distribute resources...along particular racial lines” (125). In this case, online dating services are racial projects. This section will focus primarily on the “interpretation, representation, [and] explanation” of how race is presented on online dating services. The latter part of organizing and distributing resources will be evaluated in the third section when discussing how online dating as a racist project.
Already, in the dating scene, individuals use physical characteristics of others to evaluate level of attraction to those in the potential dating pool. Online dating sites are unique when compared with offline dating methods because users can browse profiles—online identities—and then decide whether or not they will initiate contact with that person. Meeting people offline typically requires a back-and-forth interaction that happens simultaneous to the browsing of their identity. This causes parts of online dating to be highly one-sided, and people are either accepted or rejected (i.e. on Tinder, swiped right or swiped left) before any interaction even occurs. This rapid decision-making means that users’ dating preferences are “strongly influenced by various social and cultural factors such as the media, family and friends, and racism” (Tsunokai 799). This may be problematic because the perceptions of who users will potentially date form stereotypes and turn that user away from other possibilities. To convey the significance of race in dating situations, two research studies will discuss the racial preferences of whites and non-whites, which will contrast differences regarding racial “place,” mentioned earlier.
Feliciano et al. performed a study that analyzed dating profiles used on Yahoo Personals, which was the most popular national dating website in the early 2000s (43). Their research finds that white internet daters regard race as an important selection criteria, prioritized over religion or education (49). Specifically, they concluded that white men and women will not only prefer white partners but also prefer not to date other races. White women are more likely to exclude more non-white races, while white men more often exclude black women in particular (Feliciano et al. 49). These findings are consistent in many studies on race and online dating on other platforms including but not limited to Facebook’s Are You Interested (AVI, now called First Met) and OKCupid (Mason 5). These results show that “gendered cultural stereotypes about groups shape racial preferences” (Feliciano et al. 50). The preferences and exclusions likely stem from America’s history of immigration and assimilation. For example, Feliciano et al. pointed out that “newer immigrant groups—East Indians and Middle Easterners—are more highly excluded than others” (50) by whites, as supported by assimilation literature, despite claims that “racial attitudes among whites have become increasingly tolerant” (39). Furthermore, this research implicates that “whites, as the dominant group in U.S. society, remain in the privileged position of being able to facilitate or hinder the full incorporation of minorities” (51). This dominance appears again in the discussion of who creates online dating services and what groups they favor.
From another perspective, Tsunokai et al. studied Asian American dating preferences and explored the largely uncharted realm of Asian sexuality and its presence in the media. The study examined dating profiles featured on Match.com in 2006 (Tsunokai et al. 801) and found that Asian females and homosexual Asian males have a higher preference for whites than heterosexual Asian males (808). Assimilation for Asian gay males may mean dating whites as “an affirmative sign of acceptance and status in the gay community (801). Tsunokai et al. also discuss the “model minority” stereotype for Asians in its societal context. The work states that “Asians are gradually becoming “White” due to their “success” in mainstream society. For example, assimilation-type indicators such as educational and income attainment tend to suggest parity between Whites and Asians” (Tsunokai et al. 808). As a result, men of all races seem to prefer Asian women in particular, evidence of “yellow fever” or fetishization at play (Chow and Hu). These may be possible origins for these particular preferences.
Both studies affirm the claim that racial images are influenced by history and the media. Significantly, racial hierarchies are present in online dating. Dating sites and apps allow users access to profile information, but the sheer quantity of profiles to browse is so vast that users rarely spend much time on a single profile, leading to the use of stereotyping to help speed up that decision-making process. Online dating services are indeed racial projects, spaces where identities can be interpreted and represented, because online dating preferences originate from stereotyped images of different gendered and racial groups.

The Extent to Which Online Dating is Racist

The ideas in this paper support the argument that online dating, as a racial project, is one that is racist. In theorizing racial formation, Omi and Winant include the criteria for evaluating the extent to which racial projects are racist, which is “determined by if it creates or reproduces structures of domination based on racial significations and identities” (128). With the implicit stereotyping that occurs when users prefer specific races over others, online dating services prove to be racist in this reinforcement of racial hierarchies.
A prime example of white superiority is the problematic Tumblr page that features a subset of Tinder users called Humanitarians of Tinder, which describes Tinder users who use “images of themselves in humanitarian or volunteer settings outside of the West...often posting while holding racialized children... to attract potential sexual and/or romantic partners” (Mason 1). The problem attached to this is that “in our private lives, we are morally free to have aesthetic preference between people, but once our treatment of people raises moral issue, we may not make arbitrary distinctions” (qtd. in Mason 10). With this, the commodification of racial difference is apparent in whiteness and the desire of “doing good” by “eroticizing the pain of others through the circulation of images on Tinder” and “center[ing] themselves in the midst of the pain of others” (Mason 12), reemphasizing the cultural dominance of whites over other races.
Omi and Winant consider racial projects as involving “the effort to organize and distribute resources along particular racial lines” (125), and online dating shows that the technology is created primarily by whites and the services it provides are also geared toward whites. Tinder creators argue that the app is more realistic than sites like eHarmony or Match.com, where users fill out questionnaires or profiles to match with others, and that “all that really matters...at least in the beginning of a relationship, is how someone looks” (Bilton). In a New York Times article, Tinder’s in-house dating and relationship expert, Jessica Carbino, states that “Tinder users decoded an array of subtle and not-so-subtle traits before deciding which way to swipe,” bothering to note traits like “the style of clothing, the pucker of the lips, and even the posture” (Bilton). But she failed to note the most obvious “not-so-subtle” physical trait that helps them decide which way to swipe—their race. Even with subtle traits like the ones listed, users will still use stereotypes to assume things about others and the same thought process is used.​
OKCupid CEO Christian Rudder explains in his work, Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking, that “OKCupid users employ racially-identifiable desire principles in their interactions with other users consistent with the functioning of white supremacy in the real world,” as investigations of OKCupid’s online profile matching system reveals that minority groups are consistently rated low in attractiveness (Mason 5). But despite this, Rudder “is unwilling to claim that online dating is racist” (Mason 6), which contradicts his belief that racist acts are “person-to-person” exchanges, when it is an “institution-to-person” matter, involving the institution turning a blind eye and allowing those racist acts to occur on their platforms.
Online dating sites and apps benefit dominant groups in the racial hierarchy but also cause other groups to suffer. Data gathered on dating preferences also show that users, of all races, particularly exclude Asian men and black women (Chow and Hu, Mangla). This means that certain groups who use online dating sites are discriminated against based on their race, which may implicate increased tension online, intensified harassment among online communities, and greater distancing of the digital divide.
The Internet itself has always manipulated the representations of certain cultural groups, particularly that of Asian and African American women. Both have a long history of hyper-sexualization, which may further explain racial preferences and exclusions. Asian women and black women are most often commodified and sexualized for the benefit of an online industry that is largely controlled by whites, specifically white males, reiterating again the racial dominance held by the historical illusion of white protection and manifest destiny. Gonzalez and Rodriguez analyzed the symbol of the Filipina body on the Internet, one that “sustain[s] old imperial fictions, fantasies, and imaginaries that shape desires for relaxation, wives, prostitutes and ultimately domestics and low-wage workers” (220). This points to an important basis for “yellow fever” and Asian fetishization, which Mason supports by stating that “Other bodies are...those whom imperialism rejects but cannot do without” (12). Similarly, black women are represented on the Internet by only a single image, affiliated with pornography and the eroticism of blackness. Safiya Noble’s work discusses the problem Google search’s algorithm practices place on the representation, or lack thereof, of black women, emphasizing the value for commodification and objectification. She argues that “the current online narratives...reflect the furthering of hegemonic, dominant narratives of Black women as hypersexualized and oversexed, and serve as a silencing mechanism in the efforts to gain greater social, political, and economic agency” (Noble). This kind of cybertyping on the web and by the web is what fuels the racial assumptions committed on online dating sites. But more important questions arise from these investigations: why are Asian women accepted more positively than African American women? The unequal treatment of minority groups references the complexity of racial hierarchy and society’s systemic favor for whiteness.
Exploring the online representations of different racial groups offers the confounding issue of whether online dating services promote segregation and discrimination instead of allowing exposure of racial differences to emphasize acceptance and tolerance. Kahn et al. argue that “race- and religion-specific sites are not just an indicator of ethnocentric preferences, but also may promote (or at least delay the decline) such preferences. Specifically, they very directly promote...a norm that it is acceptable to seek partners only within one’s group” (212). If online dating statistics show that whites prefer whites, would it help or hurt to promote this ethnocentric preference rather than perpetuate racist stereotyping of others? Further research could explore other possibilities of curating online interpersonal behavior in a more valuing and integrated way.
Online dating services are digital spaces where racialization occurs, they are racial projects, and they reinforce structures of domination by the racial hierarchy that is involved in online dating. Lisa Nakamura explains that cybertypes are racial stereotypes that are not only bestowed upon a digital space but also are created collaboratively due to the highly interactive nature of the Internet (5). As researchers analyze and investigate the problematic existence of cybertypes, it is important for users to know and understand racialization on online dating sites and apps. Racial differences prove to be a significant factor because they influence racial and ethnic integration. The research that has been done on the topics of race and the effects of online dating poses interesting issues of cybertyping. The creation of social online platforms can be improved and may also help alter the way users interact with others and perceive different cultural groups.
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