Negotiating Racial and Ethnic Differences Online

Online and off, we all try to put our best foot forward, emphasizing our good traits and downplaying the ones we consider less desirable. Different from face-to-face meetings, online we each decide what to disclose and what to keep to ourselves. Even with pics and cams, there is room to choose how to portray yourself to someone who can’t see you in real time until you’re ready to show them.

People naturally display flattering pictures of themselves (sometimes younger – less wrinkled, more hair, thinner), use backdrops, clothing color and even Photoshop to maximize skin tones, and crop and alter on their own behalf. In text, the many synonyms for attractive are commonplace online – good-looking, easy-on-the-eyes, hot, eye-catching, etc. You may also hear about wealth, profession and other traits considered desirable, including “whiteness.” The culture of personal ads seems to reflect the racial hierarchy offline – with people either preferring partners of their same race and ethnicity or someone white.

A 2003 study of personal ads on Yahoo! found that Black, Latino and Asian men were more likely to express a race preference for a partner than White men. Men looking for male partners were more likely to express their race preferences than men looking for female partners. Gay Black and Latino men were less likely to have a race preference than Asian or White gay men.

Whether a person mentions his preference of race for a potential partner in an online profile reflects his own sensitivity to race and ethnicity. You could argue that people who don’t mention race are actually race-blind in their selection of partners. But it may also be that they don’t understand racial dynamics and politics. Whether a person advertises “all races welcome” or “African-American woman preferred,” if he mentions race and ethnicity, he is someone who is aware that skin color has an effect on the development of intimate relationships in our society.

In the gay community, there is a strong feeling among black men in particular that they are subject to sexual objectification online. Men who look for black men online are typically expecting a well-endowed “bottom” (the receiver during anal sex). Some say this reeks of the times of slavery and racism. Preferences of other racial and ethnic minorities, gay or straight, may also be tinged with stereotypes – a docile, exotic Asian person; a passionate, fiery Latino partner, etc.

What does this mean for you? It means that you have more options online to be clear about who you find desirable, and more opportunities to meet the object of your desire. But it also means you have more opportunities to potentially continue existing cultural stereotypes of people based on their looks, backgrounds and how much they earn.

I’d suggest working to change those stereotypes, through virtual words and actions. Be aware of the luxury of being able to find your fantasy-mate online – but also be aware that behind that fantasy lives a real, living, breathing, complex person.

About the Author:

Deb Levine, M.A. is a health and sex educator in Oakland, California. She has been an online advice columnist for more than 10 years, first as Alice of Columbia University’s award-winning Go Ask Alice website and then as Delilah for the Oxygen network. She has appeared on E!, The O’Reilly Factor, and NBC Nightly News, among other national and local shows. She has been quoted in such magazines as Cosmo, Mademoiselle, Maxim, and Men’s Health. Deb has authored “The Joy of Cybersex: A Guide for Creative Lovers.” (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), “Virtual Attraction: What Rocks Your Boat.” CyberPsychology & Behavior, Special Issue on Sexuality and the Internet (2000), and “Breaking Through Barriers: Wilderness Therapy for Sexual Assault Survivors.” Women & Therapy (1994).

She was responsible for supervising Thrive Online’s interactive programming devoted to healthy living in the areas of nutrition, fitness, sexuality, and general health. She has developed sexual-health content for a dual platform site on AOL and the Web. She has also participated in HIV prevention, sexual assault, nutrition, body image, conflict resolution, and self-esteem programming for students, staff and faculty.

Article by Deb Levine, M.A. ©

Leave a Reply

New Report