The personal is political, and also personal: Why choosing to date within your race isn’t racist

I fear that I’m about to wade into all kinds of messy territory, but alas, that is the work of feminist critical thinking. This morning I came across a Slate piece by Reihan Salam about why expressing a same-race preference on dating websites is racist. I beg to differ. Salam’s main argument comes down to this:

“There are good reasons to question the moral appropriateness of strong same-race preferences and their close cousin, in-group favoritism. In The American Non-Dilemma, Nancy DiTomaso argues that persistent racial inequality in the United States is not solely or even primarily a reflection of racism and discrimination. Rather, it reflects the fact that whites tend to help other whites without ever discriminating against or behaving cruelly toward blacks and other nonwhites. As long as whites tend to dominate prestigious occupations, and as long as they control access to valuable social resources like access to good schools, the fact that whites, like all people, will do more to help family, friends, and acquaintances than strangers will tend to entrench racial inequality, provided that white people choose to associate primarily with other whites. DiTomaso observes that while Americans place very high value on the idea of equal opportunity, virtually all of us seek ‘unequal opportunity’ in our own lives by leveraging our intimate relationships to achieve our goals, including our professional goals. Yet most of us don’t see the help of family and friends as an unfair leg up. This kind of ‘opportunity hoarding’ is accepted as par for the course.”

Interracial dating is not the ultimate manifestation of an anti-racist society, nor is it a walk in the park for the people in those relationships. For those who want to date outside of their race, it can mean damaging relationships with their families, becoming a target for discrimination, or being asked ridiculous questions like these. And in case some of you are thinking, “They shouldn’t  let the ‘racist’ actions and ides of others stand in the way of their diversity-tolerance-and-unity-building love,” I’m here to politely remind you that this isn’t Romeo and Juliet. These are people’s lives. I’m not sure about you, but if I knew dating a white girl would be grounds for me to lose my job or get kicked out of the house, I’d go ahead and pick from another dating pool. I’ll take “bills paid and a roof over my head” for $800, Alex. 

The situations I note above are extreme examples of negative outcomes from being in interracial relationships and involve the discomfort and disapproval of outside parties. But there are valid reasons for wanting a partner that shares your racial background. Relationships are personal. They are informed — and sometimes regulated — by politics, but they are also often special and meaningful in our lives. For me, just a few of those reasons are:

  1. It is important for me to share certain cultural experiences with my partner that are specific to Black communities. This is particularly important living in the United States, where your race absolutely dictates the experience that you have here.
  2. Dating a Black girl does not erase internalized racism and sexism, and those biases can still permeate relationships. I face enough micro-aggressions throughout the day, I definitely don’t want to have to deal with them in my relationship.
  3. Part of my personal (spiritual and political) growth has involved embracing Black love in all of its forms. In my specific case, dating within my own race is doing anti-racist work.

Throughout the article its unclear whether Salam has more of a problem with people preferring to date within their own race or the fact that they are willing to admit it publicly. I find myself questioning why that distinction matters. The question isn’t: “Are you adamantly opposed to dating people of the following races?” — which I agree would be kind of racist. Admitting that you are more comfortable dating within your own race is being very vulnerable and honest about what you are looking for in a partner. Furthermore, if an unwillingness to date outside of your race is the cause of “in-group favoritism,” lying about it on your online dating profile is hardly the solution. Nor does it make for a very fulfilling relationship.

It is also worth mentioning that there is a difference between a white man only dating within his race and say…me, a black queer feminist woman. On the one hand, his preferences just so happen to reinforce the devaluing black beauty in favor of that of white women in our racist, sexist society. I, on the other hand, am intentionally reclaiming and celebrating black beauty, which is a subversive act in the context of that same society.

Ultimately, Salam agrees that there is plenty that we can do to break down the social and economic barriers that marginalize communities of color besides interracial dating. He points a dissertation from the philosopher Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman called “The Duty to Miscegenate,” which emphasizes inter-dining.

“Despite the title of his dissertation, Coleman does not see intermarriage as a solution, as ‘the production of cross-caste children has proved unreliable in giving rise to cross-caste commonality.’ Rather, he emphasizes the importance of routinely putting members of different castes on an equal deliberative footing by encouraging the sharing of cross-caste meals, or ‘inter-dining.’ Eating together can serve as a solid basis for companionship, a word that is itself rooted in the sharing of bread. The rural white Southerner who dines with nonwhites as a matter of course is doing more to tackle stigma than the urbane white hipster who hardly ever does the same.”

I agree with Salam that we should be a little reflective about our personal choices in dating. We have all internalized prejudices about people who are different from us, not just along race lines. But it’s ok if that reflection doesn’t leave you with a case of jungle fever. We all — white people who “voted the right way” included — resist racism in the ways we can and that doesn’t have to mean enacting an equal opportunity policy in our love lives.

Avatar Image Sesali answered yes to that question on OKC and that didn’t stop a whole army of white dudes from messaging her.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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