Racial Segregation In Online Dating May Be Based More On Anxiety Than Prejudice

Though interracial romance is always on the rise, Americans still tend to stick to partners within their own racial or ethnic groups. Sociologist Kevin Lewis wanted to see if this held true for online dating, as well. His results — from an analysis of more than 126,000 OkCupid users — indicate that online daters do overwhelmingly flock to same-race matches. But this tendency may have more to do with a fear of rejection than with racial prejudice.

For the study — published online Nov. 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — Lewis analyzed 2.5 months worth of interaction patterns from (heterosexual) OkCupid users. He noted that folks tend to self-segregate in online dating by mainly reaching out to and messaging other users of the same race. Yet when someone of another race initiated contact, OKCupid users were keen to reply. And once they did this once, they became more likely to initiate interracial contact themselves within the next week.

"Based on a lifetime of experiences in a racist and racially segregated society, people anticipate discrimination on the part of a potential recipient and are largely unwilling to reach out in the first place," said Lewis, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California San Diego. "But if a person of another race expresses interest in them first, their assumptions are falsified — and they are more willing to take a chance on people of that race in the future."

In other words: It's not that we don't want to date members of other races. We're just kind of afraid that they won't want to date us.

Lewis said he takes heart from his analysis of OkCupid mate selection. The results show we can change ingrained patterns of choosing partners with the right prompts. For instance, Indians were the most likely to stick to same-race partners initially. But they also showed a greater tendency to reverse course when contacted by someone of a different background.

Are there non-digital implications from this online dating study? I think so. The results may also help explain why people shy away from interracial friendships or participating in groups that are overwhelmingly another race. In our not-at-all post-racial society, many people have been raised to assume they have nothing in common with those in other groups, or that members of another group wouldn't want to be friends with them. Lewis' study is limited, but it hints that for many folks today, self-segregation is based on anxiety and awkwardness — which are both much easier to overcome than ingrained hate.