Racial Preferences in Dating

A White man leans into the ear of a Black woman who is laughing with he eyes closed

In October 2017, I was interviewed about racial preferences in dating for the Triple J show, “The Hook Up,” along with Dr Denton Callender, a research fellow at the Kirby Institute, and Dr Ian Stephen.

The podcast included calls from listeners who shared what it’s like to be fetishised on dating apps, as well as the racial biases that White people exercise.

I am featured at the beginning, when host Hannah Reilly asks me to comment on ethnic preferences. (Note that ethnicity is about culture, and race is about physical traits. To illustrate this distinction: there are Black Latin people – they’re classified as Black in terms of race, and Latin in terms of culture.)

Below is my transcription of the segment that features me.

[From 2.19 mins] Hannah: I asked sociologist, Zuleyka Zevallos, where these ethnic preferences might be coming from.

Zuleyka: It goes back to the way we think about beauty. We’re socialised from a really young age to be looking out for certain types of physical traits – and a lot of them are associated with Whiteness. It’s about: having very light skin; having a particular type of nose – various types of features that are more common amongst people who are White.

Hannah: So you think beauty is a cultural idea, not a physical one?

Zuleyka: It is very much shaped by culture. We know that because there are patterns. You talked about the patterns on dating apps. There are patterns in which people couple more generally, in marriage – those types of patterns. If it wasn’t culturally shaped, there wouldn’t be patterns because everyone would have an equal chance of hooking up with people, and having relationships with, people outside of their own racial group.

Hannah: I’ve heard the argument that having an ethnic preference is like having a preference for blondes or brunettes. Is that really the same thing?

Zuleyka: Not really, because there is a lot of variability within and across racial groups. So you can find a lot of different traits across ethnic groups. But since people will say, particularly on their online profiles, when they’re using dating apps, they will say things like: “No Asians.” Or, “No Black people,” things like that.

Hannah: We are going to be talking that in more detail in just a little while.

Zuleyka: Great! I think that things show that people learn to think about sexuality and what attracts them in particular ways that are very much exclusionary to people of colour.

Hannah: And so, do you think we’re socially conditioned to find certain ethnicities more attractive?

Zuleyka: Yes. It comes across in a lot of research particularly to your listeners who would be people of colour would be told things like, “Oh you’re pretty for a Black girl,” or things like that, which show that people are thought about being attractive or unattractive the closer they are to European ideals of beauty. It’s through various forms of culture, from paintings through to film – we’re surrounded by these ideas that a certain type of look is more attractive than others.

Hannah: This preference for whiteness in dating, do you think sometimes we find that hard to accept?

Zuleyka: I think so. I think it’s because in Australia, we don’t really have a language to think about race. We don’t really talk about race, unless we’re talking about racism. In other countries, like the United States, people have more open conversations. Whereas here, I think that we’re scared to talk about race and racism because people are afraid to be thought of as racist. It’s not like people will be consciously discriminating against groups, even when they say things like, “No Asians,” or whatever it is – [Hannah interrupts].

Hannah: – Wait, how is that not consciously discriminating?

Zuleyka: [Laughs] Well if you speak to people who make those statements, they will tell you that they think they’re not being racist because in Australia we think of racism as something that is really overt. Like screaming at somebody an insult, or not giving somebody a job. Overt forms of racism is what we recognise as racism, but the everyday functions of race – like whom we’re attracted to – we are afraid to think about what that might mean about our racial identities and how we relate to other people.

Hannah: Do you think we’ve always had these types of biases towards – like you said – whiteness in dating, but are less open to admitting it now?

Zuleyka: Yes I think they’ve always been there. In Australia and in other settler nations that have been settled by Europeans, the ideal has always been White. But I guess nowadays people understand that racism is not a good thing, nothing to be proud of. So we have the opposite effect where people will say that they’re not being racist and they’re afraid of being thought of as racist, and it’s actually quite problematic. Because it means that we can’t get to the root of why people have these preferences to begin with.

Yeah that’s really interesting. I’ve heard from you on the text line, 0439 757 555. “I see partner preference as a separate thing from one’s capacity to support, tolerate and even celebrate different ethnicities.” And that’s from James. What do you say to that?

Zuleyka: There’s a difference I guess between hooking up on a once-off and then thinking about who you’re going to settle down with. Because then you are getting into not just physical attraction but also thinking about religion, culture, possibly getting married, where you’re going to get married, whether it’s going to be a religious ceremony, what your kids are going to be raised as. So it becomes a little bit more complicated.

Hannah: Jackson from Central Coast, you’ve got a view on beauty standards you wanted to share.

James: Yeah I do. I was just thinking before about how you were saying, I think you were mainly talking about in Australia, how whiteness is seen as the main preferred beauty standard. Or what we think of as beauty in certain characteristics in White people. I kind of thought to myself that would be expected, considering that the majority of our population is White. I think that you would expect to find that if you went to an African country or an Asian country, you’d find that the major ethnic group there would be thought of as the beauty standard. For example if you went to Japan, there’s be Japanese people there that were thought of as high beauty standard, but they’re not so much [here] for example. And an African person would be for Africa. So I just thought that where the majority of the population lies is where the higher majority of the beauty standard is drawn to.

Hannah: Yeah I’ll just throw this to Zuleyka who is a sociologist. What do you think about that?

Zuleyka: Well, it’s sort of passing the buck a little bit because the fact is that 50% of Australians are either a first or second generation migrant. And while many of those migrants have come from various European backgrounds, we do have a lot of diversity. And of course Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always been here.  Australia is a multicultural country. The fact that there are many White people here who are the majority doesn’t mean that should be the main ideal for beauty and for sexuality, because we are such a diverse nation. We really need to start embracing that in many different ways, including in the way we think about beauty and attraction.

[… Conversation moves to Denton. Forward to 15:37 mins] 

Hannah: Zuleyka, I’d like to know, I feel like what we’re talking about here in more specific terms is, like you were saying, Denton – describers of what you’re into. Like, “No Asians,” “No, x, y, z.” I’ve read that there’s an argument here like you [Denton] mentioned before that it’s a right to a preference. Do you think that’s the case?

Zuleyka: Well, people certainly think that it’s their right, because they think they can’t help who they’re attracted to. But the fact is, as soon as you start to exclude people, then you’re participating in the broader pattern of exclusion that people from minority backgrounds face. That’s what people from White backgrounds don’t understand – that “I don’t have a preference towards X, Y, and Z groups,” they are contributing to the daily experiences of racism that those groups already face at work, at school, when they’re walking down the street. So this is just another form of discrimination that minorities are facing that White people don’t have to deal with.

Hannah: And I guess the difference is also the use of the word “preference” rather than exclusion. Like, sure – you’re allowed to have a preference. But that doesn’t mean you have to have it on your bio to affect others. You can just, like you said, you can choose not to match with that person or choose not to pursue that further.

Zuleyka: Exactly.

Hannah: I’ve been hearing from you on the text line … one person says: What about people who are White who have a preference for Black people? I went to school with a girl who only dated Black guys. [Denton laughs.] Does that mean she says, “No White guys” on her profile. Would that also be considered racist? That’s from Grace in Melbourne. Zuleyka?

Denton: Yes. Yes it would.

[All laugh] Zuleyka: Yeah it works both ways – but having a preference for a particular racial minority is still a form of racism. They’re kind of two sides of the same coin, to say, “No I won’t date this group,” and also, “I am extremely attracted to them because – ” What are you actually saying you’re attracted to? Skin colour? It’s such a superficial thing. And what we know from research is that when minorities experience this form of attention, it actually affects them quite negatively on a psychological and emotional sense. Because you don’t know whether or not you’re just interchangeable from anybody else from the same background. It also makes you feel like you can’t really trust people, if they’re liking you for you, or you’re just going to be a once-off, one-night thing, to tick you off their list of people they want to hook up with.

Denton: Yeah, and I think you’re really hitting on what is the core challenge and issue here, which is when you judge people based on stereotypes, more often than not you are wrong, unfortunately. Stereotypes are one of the ways we try to organise complex information in our social world. But they are pretty limited. We would all like to be treated as individuals in any social circumstance, but sex and dating in particular. As you say, people really need to be honestly reflecting on the stereotypes that they maintain about racial groups, and asking: Does that really seem fair? Does that really seem accurate?

Hannah: And also to just admit that we have them at all.  It’s quite hard and obviously uncomfortable to ask yourself, Do I have these stereotypes, or ideas or misconceptions about people of different races? I think everyone does. It’s how people are raised and socially conditioned, I think. But like you said, Denton, it’s about stereotypes and really shallow ones. […]  

Listen to the entire podcast below.

Check out The Hook Up on Triple J.


7 thoughts on “Racial Preferences in Dating

  1. Regarding James’ point: “I think that you would expect to find that if you went to an African country or an Asian country, you’d find that the major ethnic group there would be thought of as the beauty standard.” – in my experience that doesn’t really pan out. I was born in a place where over 80% of the population is Black, and characteristics of that group are derided. The desired traits are those prevalent in the ruling class which is of European ancestry.


  2. I have no idea of how common interracial marriage is in Australia. It’s fairly common in the San Francisco Bay area. I myself am in a interracial marriage.

    I think that even here it would not be considered racist to have a racial preference in dating.

    It feels like that is a taboo.


    1. Abraham Matthews Interracial marriage is different than racial preferences. People who are respectful of their partners’ differences are different than people who are either: A) excluding people due to their race; B) only interested in hooking up with people due to their race. Options A & B are both about reinforcing racial hierarchies along a continuum of racial superiority. Option A is about thinking other racial groups are inferior and undesirable. Option B is about only being interested in fetishing racial minorities based on damaging stereotypes.

      People who are simply attracted to others, without fixating on race, without exclusion, without biases and prejudices, are not reinforcing racial inequalities.


  3. I completely agree with all your points. In the black community, black women tend to feel ostracized when as black men we feel a certain level of hierarchy in the world for dating and/or marrying white or lighter skinned women.


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