openDemocracyUK

Racial exclusion in the world of online dating

There are plenty of people who don’t regard publicly announcing their racial preferences as wrong in any way.
Peyvand Khorsandi
4 September 2010

There are plenty of people who don’t regard publicly announcing their racial preferences as wrong in any way.

I was browsing a popular singles site recently when I came across a picture I recognised. It was of my local Lib Dem councillor who I’d approached regarding an ongoing noisy neighbour problem.

Cllr Booth, let’s call him, put pressure on the local authority to act on my complaint but then stopped contacting me himself when they failed to.

To his credit he’d ticked ‘any’ in the ethnic preference box – as you’d expect from the only political party whose leader was bold enough to propose an asylum-seeker amnesty in a televised debate in the run up to an election.

It struck me that the dating site of a liberal newspaper offering users a choice on race is surely the envy of the BNP, which faces financial ruin after a legal challenge over its discriminatory membership rules.

Unlike a considerable number of the site’s anonymous users, Cllr Booth is not so crude as to implement a whites-only policy to deter Others from – at worst – adding him as a favourite or sending him a flirty message.

Still, I was suffering sleepless nights with my neighbour’s one-man all-night noise rampage and the good councillor was not responding.

Should I try the dating site? I thought. Sense prevailed – though I would happily take him for a meal to shut my neighbour up.

Then I came across another face I recognised. It was Nancy (not her real name) a dusky blonde 36-year-old American – a popular teacher at my local yoga studio.

The first thing I look at is the rating for “want children” – I don’t and prefer not to waste the time of thirtysomething women for whom this is “absolutely crucial”. With Nancy I was out of business but nosed on. 

Undergraduate degree: (“absolutely crucial”) – tick, although I don’t understand why anyone would demand a degree from a lover. A diploma in hairdressing would be useful though

Postgraduate degree: (“moderately important”) er, no, but I did do a TEFL course after uni and a journalism course and life's taught me a great deal in the past 15 years so, tick.

Food: she loves to cook and eat and is not a vegetarian. Hurrah.

Ethnicity: white/Caucasian (“decidedly important”). Oh dear. That's one step down from “absolutely crucial”, what Jean-Marie Le Pen, Eva Braun and Tiger Woods would put.

There are many people who don’t regard publicly announcing their racial preferences as wrong in any way. I never expected this yoga teacher to be one of them. Yogic philosophy encourages harmony, not discord – ‘yoga’ means union.

Suddenly we were in Apartheid South Africa or the Deep South.

By contacting her I would be washing my hands at the wrong basin. Admittedly, she didn't specify “absolutely crucial”, but “decidedly important” means that if I were the last person on earth she might consider it.

What does white/Caucasian mean? Are people from the Caucasus allowed? Are southern Italians allowed? Armenians? What about Turks and Jews, for historical notions of whiteness are entwined with Christianity – is this a purely racial or socio-economic designation?

My friend Ali is Iranian but unlike me he is fair-skinned with green eyes – does the fact that I have a UK passport and he is a rejected asylum applicant with no right to work in this country make me whiter?

Also, where do you draw the line between a Scandinavian, a Mediterranean and someone who's a bit too Arab-looking? And once you have children, should you be able to choose whether they can play with children of other ‘races’?

After all, it takes less than a second to register and dismiss an unwanted ‘favourite’ designation from someone of the ‘wrong’ appearance.

Curiously one woman who’d stipulated white/Caucasian “absolutely crucial” was black. Then there were the annoyingly confusing “white/Caucasian; mixed; Latino” selections leaving out the whole of Asia and Africa. What does mixed mean for crying out loud? One woman I went on a date with I later noticed had listed pretty much every choice on offer except African-Caribbean. All of this on a liberal newspaper’s website.

It made sense to consult my aunt Sarah, a sociology lecturer who is also a dusky blonde American in her mid-30s.

“I think racism is endemic in this society in some really virulent, subterranean ways and that most people who see through racist lenses have no idea they are doing so,” she says. “I love teaching Judith Butler’s stuff on sex and gender for this reason – to even raise the question, why categorise people’s bodies in the ways we do? Some students say that yes, it might be freer if we were more flexible in our identities and relationships, but then straight away shut down to say no – too confusing to be workable. But they can't say why at first and are antagonised by the thought.”

There is, she adds, no such thing as ‘benign’ racism.           

Whichever way I think about it I feel disappointed – before each class Nancy recites a Sanskrit prayer and then goes on to teach what is an Indian art, if one that is increasingly a product to be consumed in the West (McYoga is on its way).

What has she learned from her years of yoga, yin and yang, Cheech and Chong, eat and pray and love? You could argue none of us are exempt from prejudice but to put other users off adding you as a ‘favourite’ is surely a bit mean. While I don’t see Nancy’s logic I submit to it in case she calls the sheriff.   

Nancy is “left of centre”, not interested in “show-offs and money” and wants a man who will impress her with his “desire to leave this world a better place than you found it.”

Somehow I don’t think categorising people according to race is going to do that. In fact, history teaches us that not doing so is decidedly important.

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