Gordon: An interracial failure

The Yale prospectus is a catalogue of New England eye candy: ortho-perfect smiles, windswept bangs and the fading tans of Cape Cod summers. Flipping through the pictures as a high school senior, Sarah X was smitten. She blushed at Brooks Brothers blazers. She swooned over taut limbs in Ultimate Frisbee action shots.

Once she arrived on campus, however, none of those blue eyes gazed in her direction.

Sarah is Latina. At Yale, she has been disheartened, like many other minority women, by the white, blonde and skinny female ideal from which her phenotypes exclude her.

The rarity of interracial dating at Yale, and across America, is unsurprising. As a country and college, we are extremely self-segregated. When it comes to relationships, similarity is a powerful aphrodisiac, whether it is physical likeness, shared beliefs, values, social class, education or culture. So as long as our society is racially divided, dating will be also.

There is nothing racist about a racial sexual preference; people are often attracted to physical and personal characteristics that belong, typically, to particular ethnic groups. However, we have all grown up in a profoundly racist society. Racial preference becomes problematic when we conceive our personal relationships through this prejudiced lens of economics and power.

At Yale, Sarah felt that the white men she attracted were drawn often to the “exoticism” of her Latina looks. Today the word “exotic” evokes coconut bikinis, belly dancers, geisha girls and Turkish harems — a transnational, hyper-sexualized female “other.”

I recommend Googling “exotic” if you’re in the market for a personal lap dance, Brazilian swimwear or a mail-order bride.

When a dating preference is based on a racial stereotype the cross-racial object is reduced to a collection of essential, sexualized qualities. To “like Asian women” is to have a preconceived, generalized idea about what it is to be an Asian female — as a result, 30 percent of the world population is homogenized. These individuals can sometimes feel pressure to play into the racial stereotypes they believe determine their attractiveness.

Our notions of desirability are still embedded in histories of oppression. The long idealized innocent, docile and domestic woman is, essentially, an eroticized indentured servant. Racism became institutionalized, in part, through the domination of non-white sexuality. Now flyby strip clubs and X-rated Web sites reflect our society’s bigoted sexual myths. Pornography’s stock characters include the well-endowed black man, the petite, submissive Asian woman and the Jezebel.

The media not only perpetuates certain racial fetishes, but also places an overall premium on whiteness. Because Western values are globally pervasive, status, and therefore desirability, is conferred by a light skin tone. It is no surprise that America’s greatest female black icons — Halle Berry and Beyonce — and Latina beauties — Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek — have particularly light complexions.

Freshman year, Sarah realized that her attraction to clean-cut Anglos was the result of some un-politically correct parental wisdom. From a young age her family had advised her that marrying someone of lighter pigmentation would ultimately improve opportunities for her children. In order to be fully accepted into American society, her parents told her, if subtextually, that skin color must be gradually, generationally bleached.

This hierarchy of hue often exists within minority communities. In America and around the world, skin color is closely tied to perceptions of class and wealth. Telenovela starlets are usually blond, while skin-whitening products have achieved popularity in Southeast Asia.

In a Ross study of Internet speed dating, 17 percent of black women in America indicated a preference for a person of lighter complexion. This number is over twice as high for black men. The disparity is no shock; standards of beauty are always more stringently imposed on women and the white Western media dictates these standards. This is compounded by the idea of “race treachery” — a disproportionately female concern.

There is often pressure within historically oppressed minorities to preserve their culture through intra-marriage. This is especially significant in the African-American community, whose collective identity was so brutally and systematically stripped by the institution of slavery. Women may experience greater race traitor pressure because they consider themselves the last defenders of the black family or, perhaps, because of the lingering memory of the sexual violence committed by white men against female slaves.

Intra-racial marriage often isn’t reactive, but in fact born of racial pride and a preference for non-white beauty. This, however, runs counter to the mainstream ideals extolled by the American media.

Minority women are left in the most difficult dating position. They are, in general, more inclined to date within a pool of same-race men, which, at least at Yale, is already small.

Yale, thankfully, is a more progressive, enlightened environment than the rest of the country. Students here are more likely to be seen as individuals than be defined by a race, religion or nationality. These racial divisions, however, still persist. Hopefully, one day our world will move beyond sexual racial prejudices. But in the meantime, I hope that Disney’s first animated film featuring a black princess (“The Frog Princess,” to be released in 2009) won’t be horrendously offensive. She’s an indentured servant to a white woman in New Orleans with a voodoo priestess fairy godmother. So … fingers crossed!


  • Anonymous

    Claire, having an opportunity to be in your home town this summer I understand where you're coming from. Sitting in some of your city's parks I saw couples of every color scheme hand-in-hand stroll by. London was definitely far above almost every city I've visited in the States. However, "the rarity of interracial dating" is more of a misconception than unsurprising. Maybe we're both operating on observation bias coming from a family that is interracial and running in crowds or working in small groups in which when we discuss our love lives every single member of the group is dating someone of a different race. I'm just not convinced your stance here is entirely valid.

  • Really?

    "There is nothing racist about a racial sexual preference; people are often attracted to physical and personal characteristics that belong, typically, to particular ethnic groups."

    I encourage everyone to introspect on this one. I'm not sure I know the answer, but it does seem like a problematic issue. In a way, couldn't you argue that a huge chunk of racism can be traced back to sexual preferences?

  • unsure

    but if racism never existed (ha!) then having a racial preference would be same as preferring people with blond hair or big eyes or facial hair. a totally innocuous sexual preference. i think that's what she's saying..?

  • Adam T.


    This is an interesting article, but I think you use a fundamentally murky and even dangerous method. You make several quick moves that you don’t realize you’re making. I will just try to focus on one.

    The question you failed to answer is this: Who decides whether our racial preferences are ‘genuine’ or racist? The problem is clearest in paragraph 5. You undermine your argument when you state that there is “nothing racist about a racial sexual preference. People are often attracted to physical and personal characteristics that belong, typically, to particular ethnic groups.” By using the word “often,” you glide over all the reasons that some “people” might be interested in these “personal and physical characteristics,” while the rest of your article does a thorough job of mining the history of Western colonialism for the roots of exotic stereotyping, finishing with our hyper-capitalist world where the white man in a business suit represents a mate who “improves opportunities.”

    These explanations are interesting and perhaps some of them are true. They are Historical but really they masquerade as something much more like Science. That is, they are Marxist. It is in the same channel of thinking that had produced everything from anthropology to Social Science, which tell us things like: Women (with a capital W, that is all) like men who are stronger and bigger because they want protection. Men (with a capital M, that is all) like women with big breasts and big hips because they are more fertile. Women like men who are powerful, who are better at searching for resources, so they can have a safer place to raise their young. I suppose that the dream of the “human sciences”—psychology, and anthropology, and feminism (Marxism with a new vocabulary)—is that one day we will be able to explain how each person will act all the time. We will construct an interpretative framework that will allow us to throw people into categories (the number of these categories is growing, although your article mentions three: race, religion, nationality). This is the goal of the project even if it is denied. Research is being conducted everywhere, not only in psychology surveys but through the appropriation of Historical accounts to explain all present action. Through the lens of history, we will be able to see all the “histories of oppression.” And we will be able to ends all kinds of evil and hatred—simply by the act of pointing them out. This will come about through a sort of collective self-reflection called the practice of History or Social Science.

    But interpretations like this that masquerade as Science can never be comprehensive. At the core, they are humans talking about other humans. As soon as we try to start explaining our prejudices as a product of Structures, we give the Structures themselves authority and take them away from ourselves. In other words, we give our authority away to others. Then a flurry of questions starts for the ‘individual,’ the most deadly being this: a white male loves a black woman, but does he ‘love’ her as an ‘individual’ or does he love her to exercise domination instincts inherited from colonialism? Who gets to answer this question? The couple, or History?

    Let me ask you a more difficult question. Say we have somehow set up an authority figure (let’s call it History with a capital H, or even Science), which says that this particular man has been ‘programmed’ by a ‘history of oppression’ to eroticize black females as a power complex. What if the same white man with a black girlfriend who both claim to love each other, just said: “No. What you say is not why I love my girlfriend. We love each other. And I have nothing else to say about it.” What does the Historian or Anthropologist or Feminist or Psychologist do? Should he be required to say more than this? Is he accountable to someone else for why he loves someone? Should he be punished for lying?

    This is a yes or no question, and what is actually at stake is human freedom. You have proposed a model like Yale where people are more ‘enlightened’ perhaps by being in a more multi-ethnic multi-cultural environment. But this does not mean that the original prejudices were erased. They were replaced. (This is not to say the old ones were not ‘bad’ ones: there are very evil prejudices). The problem is that in giving up the authority of interpreting our own motives to History, or to Anthropology, or to Social Science, we lose our own Authority. We become slaves, once again to someone else’s interpretation of us. The ‘conquering empire of light’ (Enlightenment, to use Burke’s cartoonish definition) does not leave us more free. It is just an alternate form of enslavement.

    What is most interesting to me about your approach is how much affinity is has to the model provided by Christianity. The act of thinking about the ways we might have ‘sinned against others’ seems like exactly what you wanted to do in this article. Except with one important difference. By using History as an Authority, you have imposed the thinking on the thinker. Thinking becomes a collective act (the act of Historical Research) instead of a personal act. The individual is destroyed by the general will (History as a collection of ‘facts’). Thinking about the past is no longer an act of Confession, but a forced mumble of someone else’s words. Isn’t this exactly what happened to Christianity, and isn’t it exactly what your approach will lead to? “I have sinned against the Black race. Black race, forgive me.” I would be totally in favor, Claire, of people being able to say things like this. But I want them to be true: and they can only be true confessions if they are personal confessions, not confessions forced by History or by a Group. And neither can they be to a group, a race, a nation. Humans have to apologize to other human beings, not to entire races, not to genders, not to History.

    Another way to reword the problem you are addressing is this: What do we do with our inherited prejudices if they are hateful, evil? The only good answer I have heard is not an extended project of finger-pointing, but forgiveness. It was Jesus of Nazareth who looked at the prejudiced and indifferent Roman soldiers who were crucifying him and said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Should the ‘enlightened’ perhaps forgive the ‘unenlightened’ brutes who ‘know not what they do,’ who have inherited certain prejudices and are even carrying them out now? Or should the offended engage in a never-ending game of finger-pointing? The former is definitely more difficult. But forgiveness has the power of surprise on its side. It could shock people into throwing off their evil prejudices. It is the greatest exertion of human freedom, and it has to begin not with condemnations from the standpoint of History, but with a conversation between two human beings.

  • Essence Magazine Reader

    You made a lot of generalizations in your article. I don't really care who anyone else dates. I believe each person has to decide for him or herself. As far as Beyonce goes though, she married a black man didn't she? No mistaking Jay-Z for anything but a brother. That said, I did notice in "Essence" that L'Oreal for some reason chose to whiten her skin beyond its natural tone and also did the same to Rhianna. This is happening in the 21st Century! They denied having done it, but it's patently obvious that Beyonce's skin was lightened in the ad.

  • Anonymous

    In my experience, there is more pressure for rural black males to carry on the family name and date only black women than for women. Thanks for bringing up these issues!

  • Anonymous

    "However, we have all grown up in a profoundly racist society."

    If you honestly think that our contemporary society is "profoundly racist," I'd love to see what you'd classify the pre Civil Rights Era as.