New Book co-Authored by UMass Amherst Sociologist Jennifer Lundquist Examines Racism in Online Dating

“The Dating Divide” is the first comprehensive look at “digital-sexual racism,”
Jennifer Lundquist
Jennifer Lundquist

AMHERST, Mass. – While the internet is often heralded as an equalizer, a seemingly level playing field, the digital world also acts as an extension of and platform for the insidious prejudices and divisive impulses that affect social politics in the “real” world. Similarly, online dating was heralded as a way to democratize courtship, but a new book co-authored by University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Jennifer Lundquist illustrates how it actually exacerbates racial divisions.

Shedding light on how every click, swipe or message can be linked to the history of racism and courtship in the United States, “The Dating Divide: Race and Desire in the Era of Online Romance” (University of California Press, Feb. 2021) is the first comprehensive look at “digital-sexual racism,” a distinct form of racism that is mediated and amplified through the impersonal and anonymous context of online dating.

In writing “The Dating Divide,” Lundquist and her co-authors – Celeste Vaughan Curington of North Carolina State University and Ken-Hou Lin of the University of Texas at Austin – draw on large-scale behavioral data from a mainstream dating website, extensive archival research and more than 75 in-depth interviews with daters of diverse racial backgrounds and sexual identities. Their research illustrates how the seemingly open space of the internet interacts with the loss of social inhibition in cyberspace, fostering openly expressed forms of sexual racism that are rarely exposed in face-to-face encounters.

“Just as anti-miscegenation laws codified racial categories, dating apps and websites reproduce the racial divide with racial categories and filtering mechanisms,” the authors say. They argue that the anonymity built into the design of online dating – perusing, ignoring, messaging, responding – requires constant categorization of large populations of people based on markers like skin color, eye shape and hair texture that are tied to social categories of ascribed difference, such as race.

“This new racism allows people to filter or ignore entire groups of people on the basis of those markers, yet it remains invisible from the public eye,” they say. “At the same time, the desegregated space of the internet interacts with the kinds of disinhibited social interactions that online discourse exacerbates, fostering openly-expressed forms of sexual racism that is rarely exposed in face-to-face courtship markets. This is what we refer to as digital-sexual racism, a distinct form of new racism which is mediated and amplified through the impersonal and anonymous context of online dating.”

Lundquist and her colleagues contend that racism and sexism are part of the language of this technology, which, in turn, normalizes systemic isolation and sexual racism as a mere matter of “personal preference,” part and parcel of current digital technologies that have become so deeply engrained in our lives that they amplify, reinforce and rationalize oppressive social relations.

These racial categories, they say, are the most important predictors of how White daters select whom to date. In many cases, the researchers found that White daters will ignore the overtures of non-White daters with a more desirable education background, height, and body type, while being more responsive to White daters who lack those qualities. While some non-White daters develop strategies to navigate this racially hostile dating world, at other times they themselves internalizing and reproducing the pervasive “techno-sexual racism.”

“Our research suggests that, as online dating technologies increasingly replace local, in-person markets of romantic interaction, daters will use these private tools free from social sanction to even more efficiently apartheidize their dating experiences,” they say.

“We strongly believe that companies can actively combat digital-sexual racism through design,” they conclude, “but more important than what any company can do, we as Americans must also engage in public conversation about intimacy and race. After all, as we fight racial justice in ‘public life,’ we must also remember that every romantically hopeful click and swipe determines the future of race in America.”

The Dating Divide: Race and Desire in the Era of Online Romance
Celeste Vaughan Curington, Jennifer Hickes Lundquist, Ken-Hou Lin
University of California Press - February, 2021
Hardcover/Paperback/eBook, 320 pages
ISBN: 9780520293458