LIGHTS OUT

‘No Blacks’ Is Not a Sexual Preference. It’s Racism

The debate around ‘sexual racism’ is particularly heated within the gay community. Some call it preference, others call it prejudice.

09.09.15 5:00 AM ET

“Please don’t think this is racist but…”

That was the disclaimer that an Asian man sent to Rokashi Edwards, 25, a black programmer living in Toronto, before telling him that he would never consider having sex with a black man. Shocked, Edwards tried to push back on the man’s claim that he wasn’t being racist but he ran up against the same obstacle that many gay men of color face in the world of online dating.

“It’s just a preference,” he was told.

The conversation could go no further.

If you’re a gay man, phrases like “no blacks” and “no Asians” aren’t just words that you’d find on old signs in a civil rights museum, they are an unavoidable and current feature of your online dating experience. On gay dating apps like Grindr and Scruff, some men post blunt and often offensive disclaimers on their profiles such as “no oldies,” “no fems,” and “no fatties.” Among the most ubiquitous are racial disclaimers like “no blacks” and “no Asians,” which are most frequently posted by white men but, as Edwards’s case proves, not always.

Sometimes, men even use foods as metaphors for entire ethnic groups: “No rice” to deter Asian men, “no spice” to keep the Latinos away, and “no curry” to tell Indians they don’t have a shot.

Those who deploy these disclaimers defend themselves from accusations of “racism” by claiming that they merely have “preferences” for certain races over others. Wrote one gay blogger, “Don’t tell me I can’t have a preference! I don’t want to have sex with women. No hard feelings. Does that make me a misogynist?” Others have argued that it is impossible to separate the language of so-called sexual racism from racism in other spheres of life. There is a reason, they insist, that men of color are most often pushed to the sexual wayside. “No whites” is a much less popular slogan.

Debates around “sexual racism,” as researchers have labeled it, are particularly heated within the gay community, although it is certainly a source of controversy in heterosexual circles as well. It is also an argument that could soon be settled by emerging sociological research.

A new Australian study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior entitled “Is Sexual Racism Really Racism?” suggests that the answer to that question is probably “yes.” Sex researchers Denton Callander, Christy Newman, and Martin Holt asked over 2,000 gay and bisexual Australian men how they felt about race and dating through an online survey. These men also completed a region-specific version of the Quick Discrimination Index (QDI), a standard survey instrument that measures attitudes on race and diversity.

After putting these two data sets together, the trend was clear: “Sexual racism… is closely associated with generic racist attitudes, which challenges the idea of racial attraction as solely a matter of personal preference.”

As part of their research, Callander and his colleagues created a new eight-question survey to determine men’s attitudes toward racial preferences on online dating apps like Grindr. Respondents were asked whether or not they agreed with statements like “People who indicate a racial preference in their profile are not trying to offend anyone,” and “As long as people are polite about it, I see no problem in indicating a racial preference on my profile.” Remaining “neutral” was also an option. The men were assigned scores based on their responses.

There has been a substantial amount of commentary about sexual racism among men who have sex with men but, until now, no one has tried to quantify it. Callander told The Daily Beast that his team’s survey will require further refinement going forward but he called it “a good start.”

Even before the researchers compared the men’s attitudes on race and online dating to their QDI scores, they unearthed some telling data points.

Sixty-four percent of the men said it is acceptable to state a racial preference on an online dating profile and 46 percent said these preferences do not bother them. Men who had experienced racial exclusion in the past were, predictably, more likely to report being bothered by it than men who hadn’t but, still, a staggering 70 percent disagreed with the argument that sexual racism is “a form of racism.” A majority of them perceived racial exclusion as “a problem” but were reluctant to attribute it to racism.

“While society is generally pretty comfortable condemning racism, there has been a surprising reluctance among people—gay or otherwise—to challenge racialized sex and dating practices,” Callander told The Daily Beast.

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The correlation between the men’s online dating attitudes and their QDI scores was even more disappointing, if not unexpected.

Like the sexual racism survey, the QDI asks respondents to agree, disagree, or remain neutral in response to certain statements. In this case, the QDI included items like “Overall, I think minorities in Australia complain too much about ethnic discrimination,” and “I would feel OK about my best friend having a relationship with someone from a different ethnic group.” Lower QDI scores indicate a lower level of tolerance for multiculturalism and racial diversity.

With both sets of survey results in hand, the researchers ran two regression analyses to test for any correlation between them. The results are bad news for anyone who still believes that a disclaimer like “no blacks” is “just a preference.”

“Almost every identified factor associated with men’s racist attitudes was also related to their attitudes toward sexual racism,” the researchers reported. Or, phrased in a more optimistic way: “Men with more positive attitudes toward racial diversity and multiculturalism (on the QDI) tended to view sexual racism less positively.”

This correlation strongly suggests that racial discrimination on gay dating apps can be attributed to racist attitudes and not, as so many maintain, to benign aesthetic preferences. Sexual racism, it turns out, is probably just plain old racism disguised in the language of desire.

“While it may feel like our desires are our own, in reality they are influenced heavily by social norms,” explained Callander. “For me, the findings of this study are a reminder that even though society and individuals may actively reject racism, racial prejudices are increasingly subtle and they can find their way into even the most private and personal corners of our lives.”

The study also found that certain independent factors were associated with higher QDI scores and a more critical stance on sexual racism: a college education, past experience with racial exclusion, identifying as gay, and living in a more sexually diverse neighborhood. Other factors like being white and using online dating services more frequently were linked to lower QDI scores and a more favorable attitude toward sexual racism.

In fact, men who used online dating services more frequently were generally more likely to register as racist on the QDI, which might explain why a full 96 percent of the men in the study reported having seen a racially discriminatory profile over the course of their online dating experiences.

For gay men like Eric, 30, who lives in Atlanta, navigating the thorny issues surrounding race in the gay community is a disheartening “day-to-day experience.” (Eric asked that his real name not be used for this article.)

Eric, who is mixed-race, told The Daily Beast that some men who list “no Asians” on their dating profiles have messaged him anyway, explaining that he is “white enough” for them or that he is attractive to them because he can “pass” as white. Eric confronts these men by asking them to explain in detail why they think he passes, a question that would require them to talk about his physical features in uncomfortable detail.

“I usually end up with a version of ‘I don’t know, you look kind of white,’ or ‘You seem white,’” he said.

Eric’s experience with online dating highlights another troubling possibility raised by the study’s authors, namely, that gay dating services may actually be encouraging men to sort potential partners by race—at least, more brazenly than they would in person. The authors suggest that dating services that allow users to sort others using racial categories like Grindr, Scruff, Growlr, and others may even “encourage the belief that [these categories] are useful, natural or appropriate for defining individuals and sexual (dis)interest.”

“Thus, men who frequently visit such web services may find their beliefs confirmed and reinforced in an environment that appears conducive to sexual racism,” they speculate.

In other words, sexual racism in gay online dating could be a self-perpetuating cycle, with apps encouraging its perceived social appropriateness by virtue of their very design. So how could that cycle be interrupted? Many gay men, the authors note, will be reluctant to perceive sexual racism as “racist” because that term is “a strong label imbued with heavy social condemnation.” Indeed, one of the most common online strategies for shaking off accusations of sexual racism is appealing to the severity of that term.

“Aren’t the majority of people who type ‘no blacks’ in their profiles more likely to just be plain old stupid rather than ‘sexually oppressive’ haters?” one defense reads. “Rude and socially inept, yes. But racist?”

For Steve, 28, a white gay man living in Philadelphia, one solution is understanding that the word “racist” applies to more than just, as he put it, the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions and ‘I’m not trying to be racist’ does not mean ‘I am not racist,’” Steve told The Daily Beast. “It just blows my mind that people could write off entire minorities without any exception and not see that as at all problematic.”

For his part, Callander would like to see his team’s findings used in “implementation research” that could identify “strategies for reducing sexual racism and changing the way that people think about race and romance.” After all, if racism and sexual racism are indeed linked, then strategies to reduce the former should affect the latter as well.

“I am not interested in condemning or criticizing people’s desires, but if we recognize prejudice within ourselves, we must be willing to challenge and confront it,” Callander told The Daily Beast.