“It’s just a preference.”
In the romantic world, this phrase is commonplace, be it in reference to height, weight, hair color, etc. However, “just a preference” tends to be the company line when it comes to race. It’s a justification all people of color have heard or will hear at some point in the dating space. On a campus that touts diversity, it’s interesting how averse to diversity many students may be when it comes to who they choose to couple up with.
In a dream world, this wouldn’t be the case, yet everyone has preferences when it comes to choosing a partner. Some want tall, muscular, slim, blonde, tan, rich, smart and any other combination of arbitrary features. Who is anyone to cast the first stone? Some may prefer oranges over apples or the beach over skiing.
It’s not “problematic” on the surface level to have a preference for anything. But where these preferences come from is often neglected. All preferences come from somewhere — they don’t build themselves, and it’s important to question where they originate. Racial preferences — and this is surprising — usually stem from racism.
Students are quick to claim that they are progressive, and that’s probably true. But all have schemas that come from years and years of conditioning and information absorbed from the media; bombardment with imagery informs sexual and social attitudes daily. Twitter celebrates its “White Boy of the Month” annually, a product of years and years of white leads dominating film and TV. American attitudes are informed by tropes that are as old as the country itself.
World War II produced a wave of anti-Asian propaganda that sought to emasculate and desexualize Asian men through caricature — a trend that persists through film and TV. The image of the “dominant Black savage” was born with this nation and is ingrained in films still regarded as classics, such as “Gone With the Wind.” It’s not a coincidence that Asian men and Black women consistently have the least success with online dating, as found in a 2014 study conducted by OKCupid.
Black men are often met with a similar situation on Grindr and other gay dating apps, where they are likely to face either gross fetishization or immediate dismissal. When people think about who they want to date or even just spend a night with, many don’t consciously recall propaganda and racism as the reason for aversion to certain types of people. They might not even think of themselves as averse — they’re open to anything — but the reality is that everyone leans a certain way, and it’s not for nothing. Races have been coded, and people have been conditioned to buy into these codes, no matter how arbitrary and false.
It’s also hard to pursue diversity in dating when not confronted with diversity in everyday life on campus. It’s not a matter of seeking it out; it’s expected to just come to students. Oftentimes, it doesn’t.
While USC is a large campus that houses people of all backgrounds, diversity often feels like something students have to look for. It isn’t as easy to find as it is depicted in the welcome brochures. It’s not hard to enter certain spaces and think “Oh, there’s one type of person here.”
The textbook example of this is Greek Row, a “Chad’s paradise” and the site of viral videos of blonde girls excitedly opening envelopes. It’s not a secret that wealthy, white students primarily occupy Greek life. However, to point to Greek life as the only example of homogeneity in student life is quite the misnomer. It’s an oversight because many student organizations are the same way, it’s just not as readily noticeable.
This is not to argue that USC is segregated, just that many of the student organizations have become more demographically uniform than they ought to be. This means USC students aren’t as easily exposed to people of other backgrounds in substantive ways as they would expect.
It’s easy to look at academia as a universal solution. Ignoring preexisting societal structures outside of anyone’s direct control, the classroom is an equal-opportunity space. However, students are primarily in class to learn and may not be so focused on the people around them; exchanging with others is rarely a must and often begins and ends in the lecture hall, base and unsubstantial.
However, when the company that students are choosing to keep — for reasons social, professional or otherwise — begins to look homogenous, it’s a problem that affects how they think. People don’t recognize the exclusion problem in who they’re dating when that exclusion and homogeneity become the norm in all other spheres, namely the clubs and organizations students join on campus.
It’s also naive to assume this is a problem that can be corrected overnight. People will always have preferences — everyone will. But it’s important to reevaluate them, to recontextualize the schemas the brain automatically creates and ask why feelings are held about certain types of people. If the answer isn’t something that would be appropriately shared aloud, then it’s likely best to act against it.
This takes time.
At their worst, “preferences” are backward and vile; but at their best, they’re tragic barriers in the way of great and unique opportunity. With a little effort, all barriers can be kicked down: First comes the recognition that they exist.