What Keeps Online Dating Segregated (and How to Fix It)

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Online dating — as well as regular dating — is a very segregated activity, but a new study suggests that it may not take much to break racial and ethnic barriers.

As much as we like to think that America is a postracial society, Americans still prefer to date someone from their race. Studies have shown that this preference is stronger than almost any other when it comes to finding mates, although it’s not entirely clear why.

But an intriguing new study of online dating by sociologist Kevin Lewis at the University of California, San Diego, and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that people might be limiting their choices out of a fear that they’re not attractive to other races.

Lewis examined the interactions of 126,134 newly signed-up members of the online-dating website OKCupid over two and a half months. He found that, indeed, most people very rarely strayed beyond their own ethnicity in reaching out to potential dates. And if they did, they were less likely to get a response than from people of their same race. White folks, both male and female, overwhelmingly made more contact with whites, which is hardly surprising since there are more white people on the site to choose from. White folks were the most likely to seek out people of another race. Minority groups (those who identify themselves on OKCupid as black, Hispanic, Indian or Asian) were much more likely to stay in their own racial lane when in search of mates online.

Only Asian women didn’t fit this trend. They were more likely to contact white guys than other Asian guys, which my Asian girlfriends tell me is because, in part, they’re not fans of the traditional role that girlfriends and wives have played — and continue to play — in many Asian societies. They were more likely to respond to white guys too, but then again, all races were most likely to respond to white guys.

(MORE: Love Isn’t Color-Blind: White Online Daters Spurn Blacks)

The preferences weren’t immutable, however. Lewis found that once people had been approached by somebody from a different race, or had gotten a response from one, they were more likely to initiate contact or respond to someone from that race in future interactions. In fact, these people logged 115% more interracial exchanges in the two-and-a-half-month study period between them than OKCupid members of a similar background and region who had not been contacted by a person from another race. And the groups who did the most in-race dating were the groups who showed most marked change. Interestingly, though, getting a message from a black guy didn’t mean that women would look at all other races. It just meant they’d look at other black guys.

Again Asian women were among the outliers; once contacted by someone from another race, their interracial exchanges went up 238%. For Asian men it was 222%, and for black women it was more than 100%.

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.

(MORE: Why We Don’t Trust Online-Dating Sites — but Use Them Anyway)

Reaching out to someone of a different ethnic background may be awkward because online users engage in what Lewis calls “pre-emptive discrimination.” That is, they expect — based on the way race has shaped their lives so far — rejection, or at the very least, to have little in common with someone who doesn’t share their heritage. This would explain why white people, who are likely to have experienced the least racial discrimination, feel most comfortable about crossing the ethnic line. But, says Lewis, his data suggests that if someone — more likely a man, according to the data — makes the first move, and overcomes his fear of rejection, online daters realize the pool of potential partners may be wider and richer than they had previously imagined, and they tend to initiate more interracial contacts and to respond to ones that come their way more often.

Lewis is the first to admit that the study is small and has obvious limitations. But it does seem to provide something that’s been lacking from the world of online-dating trends — some hopeful news that biases may be breaking down and discrimination may be getting weaker as people text their way to love. It also may prove that Asian women may have already figured out what the folks in Lewis’ study are just finding out — that there’s no harm in reaching out to someone who doesn’t look or think like you. You never know what you’ll find.