Last week, UC San Diego sociologist Kevin Lewis released a study that examined 126,000 interactions on OkCupid over 2.5 months, and the statistics show that the vast majority of OkCupid users rarely interact with users of another racial group (with Asian women being the huge exception).
But wait! Apparently the results also reflect good news. Fear of rejection, rather than racial bias, is the main reason that many OkCupid users still stick to approaching people of their own race. And if Person A is approached by Person B, who is a of a different racial group, Person A is more likely to later on approach someone of Person B's racial group.
Before we go ahead and cheerlead for the glorious future that interracial dating has, hold up.
A closer look at Time.com's article about the study shows this:
"Lewis couldn’t tell how extensive the contacts were — whether these people had just exchanged pleasantries or had actually gone on dates or made it to the aisle. But the first contact seemed to be a key event."
And that's where the hidden story is. It's too simple to say that the numbers behind the "first contact" between users of a different race on OkCupid are necessarily good news.
EXHIBIT 1: Fetishization online
If we are going to discuss interracial dating on OkCupid, or any other online dating websites, we cannot simply blindly celebrate any and every instance of "interracial contact." Many minority OkCupid users — me included — have had experiences with online fetishization.
Granted, this isn't as bad it gets, and it happened only a couple of times. My Anglo features may be why I often get a pass from being treated like a fetish. But there are so many other examples beyond mine.
Like Anna Lekas Miller on Feministe:
"I’ve heard several men say that they want to sleep with a black girl just to 'have' her. Sleep with a Latina girl because she is spicy. Sleep with an Arab girl because it feels dirty and forbidden. Sleep with an ethnic girl just because she is ethnic and not because she is herself."
Or Elaine Dove on Jezebel:
The ad that said I was Asian generated approximately 80 responses in about 6 hours, after which Craigslist struck the ad as being a fake. Many if not most of the responses started with something like, "I love Asian" (I'm not kidding) or "Asian women are so sexy."...The ad that did not specify my race drew a small number of responses, all from educated white men.
It's not that fetishization doesn't happen offline, or that all interracial interactions on OkCupid are automatically based on it.
But there's more to the numbers behind interracial dating than simply, "Oh, the more willing people are to communicate with someone of a different race, the more tolerant we are as a society."
EXHIBIT 2: Intolerance galore
OkCupid's biggest strength and biggest weakness is that it gives you a great deal of access — you can find people who are right up your alley, who will read Shakespeare and Toni Morrison, and get pita and labneh with you.
Or it can be an experience of people who are anything but up your alley — people who will send you degrading messages about everything from your ethnicity to your sexuality. While I've certainly never been called a "spic" on OkCupid, I did once get into a fight with a user who messaged me with objections to my bisexual status: "Didn't God make Adam and Eve?"
Eventually, after a couple of ignorant OkCupid messages about my sexuality, I ended up making two OkCupid profiles to avoid these encounters — one for men, one for women.
But that's nothing compared to Bim Adewunmi's account over at The Guardian , which was quite the awful experience with online dating:
"In no particular order, I've had someone ask me why my profile picture doesn't show all of my face, before helpfully suggesting it was because I was an 'ugly black girl.' More than one person has asked me if it's true 'What they say about black girls.' Several have asked me: 'So where do you really come from?' And these were just the straight-up, old-school racist ones."
If Bim Adewunmi had been a statistic in the OkCupid study, the results would've merely shown that men of other races were contacting her — not exactly a win for progress.
Maybe the online disinhibition effect is to blame for some of these accounts. Before that fight I had on OkCupid trying to justify why bisexuality wasn't immoral (to this day, I regret I even got into it), I had never faced the brunt of homophobia.
But online, with my attempt to find both men and women, my sexuality became fair game.
"Contact" on online dating websites is not always a glorious act of crossing the interracial divide. Let's think past the statistics and focus on the narratives. There's a lot more to this story.