Ethnicity in Online Dating

OK Cupid’s ethnicity profiling astounds me. You can choose to identify as:

Asian
Middle Eastern
Black
Native American
Indian
Pacific Islander
Hispanic/Latin
White
Other
Undeclared

I wasn’t kidding when I titled my first post “I Am Ethnicity: Other.” That aside, WOW this is American. In Britain ‘Asia’ colloquially refers to South Asia, which isn’t even a category (if I were Sri Lankan or Pakistani I would be deeply unimpressed) but why mix colloquialisms like ‘Asian’ with countries, as in ‘Indian’, when you could pick one or the other and go into greater, perhaps more representative detail? Which brings me to the question of what exactly these categories are for. That is, do they exist so you can pick your partner based on cultural background or physical features?

If you want to know my skin colour, let’s make a category for it! OK Cupid can put up a bunch of colour boxes and ask me to tick which one is closest to my skin colour at its most neutral, and when people sign up they can tick the furthest ends of the spectrum they’d be willing to date. Come on, if this is a priority for people at least be honest about it!

If you want to know my physical features put up representative pictures of people from different parts of the world and ask me to tick which one is closest to my features. Or, because it’s ridiculous to expect somebody’s ethnic background to give you hints about whether or not you’d find them attractive, you could LOOK AT MY PHOTO. What if I don’t have a clear photo, you say? Well, I hear people on OK Cupid also give a bunch of information on stuff like personality, interests and lifestyle, maybe that could hold some clues as to whether or not we’re compatible…

And if you want to know about my cultural background, which I suspect is what that is all about (CLASSY please, don’t want none of that ghetto bling all up in yo’ face!) then you do yourself a great disservice to look at my skin colour for clues when my country, class and education level tell you so much more about me, for better or worse. OK Cupid have missed out or misrepresented so many regions of the world, that a much wider range of people with absolutely nothing in common are forced to default to ethnicity: other, not just mixed race people like me who are, frankly, used to not even being considered to exist.

But even for me, this is incredibly marginalising. If I were using OK Cupid to look for a partner then I would be upset by the way this cuts my chances for exposure to people who maybe haven’t ever needed to be racially aware because of their own privilege or cultural background, neither of which is an insurmountable obstacle to a relationship. Nobody chooses “other.” Why would you? It’s not a category, it’s a non-category, and it’s a way to set people up for subconscious racism that will affect their chances of meeting someone like me, with whom they may have a million things in common that you just can’t see in a photograph.

Just read OK Cupid’s own data on race – it basically supports this, and the author of the post is none too complimentary about these results, but there’s not a hint of turning inwards to help the problem. The way I see it, they could choose from several possible directions: break the options down into all possible ethnicities, like a census (that would make me mixed white/Asian); give a multiple choice question of which culture(s) people feel they are most a part (I would actually tick British and Japanese, as that’s where I’m set to emigrate to); or really make it all about skin colour and get people to choose from a selection of tans or whites to protect people from accidentally ending up with someone too dark for their sensibilities.

Or, you know, remove this misleading category once and for all and let people judge by photo and profile rather than allowing them to search with unrepresentative criteria from mixed-up categories. If protecting the prejudiced is really a priority, get people to choose from two hidden sets of boxes: one is “White or Not White?” and the other is “Racist or Not Racist?” racists only get people who’ve ticked the same box as them, done. Call it as it is.

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2 Comments

Filed under ethnicity: other, the personal is political

2 responses to “Ethnicity in Online Dating

  1. abitha

    Huh, this is interesting. I registered on OkCupid not long ago, and it never even registered with me that they asked about race, much less the WAY they asked about it.

    If it’s any comfort, ethnicity isn’t one of the default filters that comes up when you search for a match, so someone would have to be being *actively* racist and click on advanced options (rather than just passively selecting ‘white’ without thinking because the screen told them to) in order to deselect you in this way.

    I seem to remember that there are also some questions relating to race and cultural background in the long list relating to ‘improving your matches’, but with all of those, you can select that it’s irrelevant which option a potential match has chosen. I’d imagine most people do put ‘irrelevant’ for these race-related questions even if they *are* actually racist (because nobody wants to admit such a thing to themselves, do they?), so it’s unlikely to have that big an effect. (For my part, I specify that it’s important that potential matches *don’t* choose responses that are racist!)

    Does this kind of inadequate/irrelevant ethnic profiling tend to be your experience of a lot of websites (dating or otherwise), or is OkCupid an exception? Does the fact that it’s a dating website make it better or worse than it would be on some other kind of site, or is a (badly-worded) question about ethnicity equally unwelcome anywhere?

  2. I originally signed up to OKCupid after reading this girl’s experiences and wondering if I would have a similar response as a lighter mixed race girl. I was genuinely surprised to discover that this was actually not the case, and have ended up using my profile there to meet articulate, respectful and interesting new people in my area, something I will be blogging about soon!

    As a result I’ve had a chance to see for myself the things you mention here about the matching questions, your choice of importance attached to them and ethnicity as a special option rather than default, but I still maintain that if they’re going to mention ethnicity at all (and I can see why they do, I don’t necessarily object to it being there in an appropriate form) then it should be about either appearance or cultural background, and the information requested should be consistent to reflect this. Either way, it would require a lot more detail, but I don’t think that would actually make the OKCupid staff members’ jobs any harder, just compiling the data for their blog more of a mission. (But a mission I consider worthwhile, because right now mixed race people do not exist in the eyes of OKCupid, as there’s not even an option to describe yourself within the ‘Other’ category.)

    My experience is that ethnicity isn’t a requested category on most websites, probably why this experience was so jarring, but that it is routinely a factor on paper forms. At my work this takes the form of a numbered list from which you have to choose a number to put in a box, but even then there is a “Mixed: White and Asian” option. It’s not necessary for people to get much more specific than that really, although I am sometimes required to pick from a type of Asian, as it’s a MASSIVE CONTINENT with many different physical features and cultural backgrounds attached to it. I have no problem supplying my ethnicity details to give them an idea of how they’re doing with equal hiring, and if it’s done discreetly so much the better.

    What I have a problem with is wanting to give my ethnicity details and being unable to, because the only category offered to me is “other” and I would prefer not to Other myself. I would rather put “Mixed Race” with no details whatsoever than “Other” because “Other” is a non-category, the equivalent of “You do not exist to us.” It doesn’t logically matter more on a dating site than anywhere else, but was particularly hurtful because you have to provide information about yourself that, for better or worse, will help people to choose whether or not to contact you. To be unable to claim such an important part of my identity in such a context, especially when the other categories were so arbitrary and America-oriented to begin with, was particularly frustrating.

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