Several weeks ago, I went to the Children’s Museum of Manhattan with my aunt and uncle and their two children. Located in the posh Upper West Side, the museum was open for free that day. As such, therewerean innumerable number of people in attendance. After spending hours upon hours amongst the crowds of young children running around, yelling and screaming and otherwise having a wonderfully innocent time, it was time to leave. My aunt and uncle had to retrieve their stroller from the holding area. As they prepared the stroller, I stood by, idly observing people as I usually do.
Behind me to my side was an interracial couple that was performing the same duties as my aunt and uncle. They were preparing their child’s carriage for the trek home, fastening belts and checking levers. Unlike my aunt and uncle, though, I noticed that they were drawing stares from the adults exiting the museum. Countless people filed out of the museum, and countless people’s faces betrayed their thoughts.
The man was black, and the woman was white, with blonde hair no less. So focused were they on their child that they were oblivious to the inquisitive eyes—or more likely, judgmental ones—that sought an answer to a question that they could not ask aloud: what is she doing with him?
As long as humans have been around, pairing up with someone else for love, affection, and sex has been a relatively top priority. And with something as important as mate choice, with race being such a pervasive and invasive part of American life, it is impossible to discount the factor of race in the realm of dating.
Dating is a euphemism for mate selection. Like many other animals in the animal kingdom, human females are in the most advantageous position: they do the selection. That is to say that females, generally speaking, do not have to fight for mating opportunities. Males are the ones who must fight to gain sexual access to the female. And where there is competition, there is stratification of status.
OkCupid, a free and popular online dating site, wrote an article entitled “How Your Race Affects The Messages You Get” that made use of a statistical analysis of the data it collected about its users site usage in order to come to some interesting conclusions. By looking at the data, the stratification of race in romantic or sexual selection preferences of females become quite clear.
Predictably, white males enjoy the highest response rate at 29.2 percent. The rest of the races line up as follows: Native American, Other, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Asian, Black, Indian. White men have the second highest lead in percentage rate: aside from the Pacific Islander lead of 1.5% over Hispanics, white men hold a 1.4% advantage over the second place Native American. The article itself also points out that “White women prefer white men to the exclusion of everyone else – and that Asian and Hispanic women prefer them even more exclusively.”
This data lays bare the class structure of races in America. America is a capitalist country, with ideals rooted in meritocracy and equality. And while non-whites may be making headway in business, the workforce, and politics, the true measure of equality lies, arguably, in the all-important mate selection. Business is business: it is impersonal, now largely defined by the color green. But with whom we decide to sleep with and to become intimate with, whom we decide to let into our families, is the truest measure of acceptance. The classic story of a white man who will do business with people of all color but who becomes livid when his daughter brings back a black boy to marry is still classic because it demonstrates quite clearly the racial boundaries American society has erected.
If we take a look at the race stratification, it becomes painfully clear that whites sit at the top of the dating food chain. And as you go lower down the ladder, it would appear that there is a preference for people who look “white.” The implication: America operates with white as the normative. That is, the general assumption is that white is normal, and the golden standard to which measure everything against. The more you diverge from the physical attributes that are characteristic to wh ites, the less desirable you are.
With all of this brought to light, I wonder if perhaps race as a societal construction was set up primarily by white males as a way to control sexual access to females. Back in the day, white men enacted laws that prevented the mixing of blacks and whites; it was called miscegenation and it was deemed illegal. However, white men having relations with a black woman was something that was less taboo than white women having relations with a black man. White male slave owners were not punished for having sex with black women; these females were, after all, his property. However, for a free white woman to have sex with a black man was intolerable. And so we see that white men guarded white females from other males — and thus decreased sexual competition — by the use of written law.
In fact, the ‘white woman on a pedestal’ phenomenon still persists today: the white woman is a treasure to be guarded against the savage and base black man. This undercurrent, no matter how unconscious we may wish it to be, is evident in my experience as mentioned above. The interracial couple at the museum drew many looks. But who got what kind of looks was telling. The other couples who stared, nearly all of whom were white, gave nearly identical reactions: a look of disdain for the black husband, and a look of confusion for the white wife. These reactions weren’t overt, and their glances and expressions were fleeting and barely perceptible; yet, the sense of disapproval was palpable when observed repeatedly in such a short amount of time.
Evolutionary psychology and sociobiology lay claims that human behavior is guided largely by our evolutionary imperative to pass on the best genes to the next generation. Considering that men are the ones who must compete for sexual opportunity, I wonder if perhaps racism is influenced by a male desire to root out as much competition as possible. Within Asian circles, it’s not uncommon for men to see a white male-Asian female couple and complain that “the white man is taking all of our women.” This sentiment amongst males of other ethnicities is not uncommon either.
There is an adversarial undercurrent belying this sentiment. When a non-white male is seen with a white female, it’s often presented as a “win” for the collective non-white group. When a non-white “gets the white chick,” it is seen as an accomplishment. That it is seen as something to achieve implies that there is significant difficulty in the task, and that it is a challenge worth pursuing. And thus, non-white males reinforce the white-woman-as-treasure belief amongst themselves.
Among the non-white female population, white men are seen as more valuable as well. From my own experiences, and confirmed by the OkCupid study, Asian women in America prefer white men. Heck, they prefer white men in China too. Stuart Hall’s concept of the chain of meaning makes it all the more painfully clear and obvious that whiteness is valuable: in China, whiteness is equivocal to being upper class and carries with it an implication of superiority, wealth, a better life, and much more. Here in America, while whites are not necessarily associated with all of these things, whites are still on the top of the power structure. Whiteness is clearly a desirable trait.
I was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the data that OkCupid collected makes the dating scene seem rather bleak. Discouraging indeed. Race in America rears its ugly head most apparently in the realm of sexual selection. Whiteness as a symbol of desirability is so far-reaching and so deeply ingrained into societies all over the world. And if one thinks about it for too long as I oftentimes do, it can become a little depressing and even overwhelming. Such rumination begs the question, Can we ever see a world where our differences can be appreciated and celebrated without stratification and without being abused as a tool of power and control? Unfortunately, the answer would seemingly be no. After all, if you were white and enjoyed privileges and advantages through no hard work of your own, would you so readily give it up? Sociobiology, with its emphasis on the competitiveness of evolutionary fitness, has a simple answer: no.