Abby Taskier: Examining race-based attraction

By Abby Taskier, Columnist
Published April 2, 2015

I have often found myself drawn to men of color. In high school, a handsome, Black athlete made my body feel something that no white boy in high socks had ever been able to do. My attraction to him was magnetic — and I justified it as such to my white girlfriends who just “weren’t into Black guys.” Being a student at a majority-white high school, I shamefully felt the need to justify my attraction to a minority student by referring to it as “carnal.” It couldn’t just be attraction. It couldn’t avoid explanation. It had to be because my body was heavy with desire, or because he was a great guy. It had to be because of something, because we were different, and because otherwise, to my peers, to this world, it wouldn’t make sense.

My oldest sister, a college student at the time, proposed a biological explanation: “You’re probably attracted to Black guys because biologically you want to diversify your gene pool for your offspring.” Freshly immersed in evolutionary anthropology classes, she tended to overanalyze situations that required no analysis. There was the opposing argument that same-race preferences in sexual relationships actually benefitted the biological fitness of one’s offspring. The latter argument, the racist argument, was the one the majority of our white bodies abided by.

As I experienced it, conversations on race-based attraction occurred all too much. Over cafeteria lunches, we talked about hook-ups — ones that had happened the weekend before, ones that would happen the following weekend, ones that we wished would happen but never would due to the ever-present, very unscathed social hierarchy of high school. A boy might have said something like, “There’s no one in school that I want to hook up with,” and if on the rare occasion someone proposed the option of hooking up with a Black girl, he might have said, “I’m not attracted to Black girls.” Then, directed at the one Black person sitting at the table, he might have added, “No offense.”

“No offense” was a phrase used so often, uttered so reflexively, and yet was so overtly offensive. It was said with the ingrained belief that no matter what came before it, as long as it was followed by “no offense,” the person saying something objectionable would be absolved. I can’t know what it must have felt like to be a person of color in that situation, listening to an ignorant white kid deem your whole race unattractive, but I can only imagine that it was painful.

I won’t deny the fact that like many of my peers, my sexual preferences have at times been reduced to specific racial groups. It’s a deeply concerning reality that no matter the person, no matter how kind or good-looking or smart they are, if they fall into a certain racial category that has been routinely associated with physical dislike, they’re not then considered to be the most “viable mate.”

Over Spring Break, my housemates and I traveled to Naples, Florida, for the week. It’s a small town — expensive, well manicured, brimming with rich, old white people. We downloaded Tinder for the occasion, having little intention of utilizing it for its intended purpose: a meet-up. One of my housemates, my good friend — a beautiful Indian woman — swiped her fingers across the screen of her phone, sifting through the mounds of Florida preps who had “just moved to Naples, looking for a good time.” After a little while and only a few matches, she set the phone down. “I miss Ann Arbor,” she sighed. “People here are so racist.”

It was true. A platform like Tinder, a dating app governed by the laws of attraction, fosters racism. A person’s face comes into focus on the screen, and if it’s not the color of your liking, you swipe left. No consequences. No one judging you for your “inherent” sexual preferences. There’s no need to justify why you did or didn’t swipe left as it applies to race. And this is arguably a more concerning form of racism, the kind hidden behind a screen, the kind that holds no one accountable.

So, here is the pivotal question: Is race-based attraction inherent, or is it informed by the racial associations that permeate our culture so deeply? When, during my semester spent abroad, I strolled the streets of Havana and received cat calls that often began with hola blanca, “hey white girl,” was I in part being targeted due to my whiteness? Absolutely, because a country so polluted by slavery and racial inequality can only construct a reality in which a white person, the former imperialist, is associated with superiority. And that is only talking about Cuba, not America, where racial inequality exists not only because of our past history, but also because of our present history.

It would absolve us of any social responsibility if we denied the fact that attraction is informed by implicit racial biases, because to do so would deny the complex systems of racial inequality and racial control that America has created. For instance, our knowledge of the fact that the majority of incarcerated people in this country are minorities does permit us to form a racist association: If you are a person of color, you are more likely to be a criminal. To deny this association is to deny the fact that we are racist because of the complicated racially advised context in which we live. And to deny that is to deny that racism can and should be unlearned.

There are arguments suggesting that same-race preference is, in fact, inherent. It’s thought that we are intrinsically attracted to ourselves, and that in unfamiliar situations, we gravitate toward those who look the same as us. This is corroborated by the clumps of people seen walking together on campus, categorized by their skin color, and occasionally sporting their token friend of color.

While this might be argued as biological, it doesn’t really matter if it is or isn’t. Same-race-based attraction manifests the assumption that racial difference indicates cultural and economic difference, thus making integration uncomfortable. Our society has surpassed the need to explain or justify things biologically because we negate our biological needs every day due to technological progress. In which case, it doesn’t matter if there is an innateness to same-race preference — that preference, regardless of its foundation, has been dramatically shaped by racism.

We’re used to relying on our attraction in order to dictate our sexual and romantic pursuits. Attraction feels chemical, and it is, so we go along with it. If it says, “You only like white guys,” then that’s who we seek out — white guys. However, as we abide by what our bodies might tell us without challenging why, in fact, we feel that way, we negate the possibility for our preferences to expand. There’s no use in pretending that we wear no racial lens when at a party, when on a dating app or when we’re noticing someone on the street. But to recognize that lens as problematic is to recognize race-based preference as a problem.

This acknowledgment is not intended to instill guilt. Guilt, at its core, is useless. It’s meant to call into question whether or not “just not being into” a specific race is OK. It’s meant to seek an answer as to why we are willing to justify racism on the basis of physical attraction. It’s meant to propel the shedding of certain associations that may have caused you to consider an entire group of people unattractive. Identify those associations. Feed them to yourself. Remember that attraction is based upon so much more than skin. I’ll remember this, too.

Abby Taskier can be reached at ataskier@umich.edu.