ONLINE DATING is challenging, to say the least. I don’t know any online dater who hasn’t experienced at least a couple of awkward encounters, mixed signals, or creepy vibes before finding who they’re looking for (if they do in fact find that special someone). Numerous blogs and social media profiles filled with user-submitted screenshots of online dating atrocities and horror stories attest to this.
So why would someone who’s curious but disengaged from the spectacle of online dating wade into these murky waters? More to the point, why would someone of Chinese descent (a.k.a. American-born Chinese, a.k.a. Asian, a.k.a. non-“white” human) look for love on a website called WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com?
Now, technically, I’m not single, but a few months ago I temporarily shed coupledom—at least on paper—to embark on some undercover reporting in order to answer a weighty philosophical question: “Am I white?”
In mid-January I signed up for WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com, taking advantage of their $4/week membership option to learn more about this online community. The “About Us” page made it clear that anyone could join who was at least eighteen years old and who agreed to the standard rules and regulations.
The website is the brainchild of Sam Russell of Utah, who argues that the site has the “right to exist,” and is welcoming to all, regardless of race. This suggests that the political statement of its name (or intended lack thereof) may be secondary to Russell’s desire to get a chunk of the online dating market. He and his supporters have pointed out that many niche dating categories exist for different ethnicities, occupations, nationalities, lifestyles, stages in life, relationship goals, and so on. As he told the Washington Post, “It’s about equal opportunity. The last thing in the world I am is racist. I dated a black woman once. I helped raise a young black man…”
Before I submitted myself to the WhereWhitePeople Meet community, I wanted to examine the idea of whiteness. According to my sisters, my skin is “vampirically” and “unnaturally” pale, so I suppose the color could generally be described as white. But as we know, whiteness has a distinctly social construction and relationship with American identity. The concept of whiteness originated in the imperialist attempts of Europeans to differentiate themselves from the people of the lands they wanted to colonize or people they wanted to enslave, particularly after missionaries converted native inhabitants and religious distinctions could no longer be used to justify European superiority.
And in the nascent America of thirteen colonies, an American was culturally distinct from a European, but definitely not of a lineage outside of Europe. In Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur’s famous 1781 essay “What is an American?” he tells us:
He is neither an European nor the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.
In 1781 I might still have been considered white, but not American. According to Michael Keevak, (Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking), European traders “almost uniformly characterized the people of China and Japan as white.” But not for long. East Asians were sifted out of the definition through scientific attempts to prove biological race, which resulted in the invention of “Caucasian” to describe a so-called white race. So by 1790, not only would I not be considered American by social construct, I wouldn’t be white either. Moreover, I wouldn’t be American by legal construct; any immigrant who looked like me or wasn’t considered a “free white person of good character” couldn’t become a naturalized citizen under the first U.S. Naturalization Act passed in 1790 (this racial eligibility was amended in a series of changes over time). In fact, Chinese persons or those of Chinese descent were only added after 1940, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 abolished race restrictions for good in determining eligibility for citizenship. (Today, I enjoy my own race-based niche for statisticians interested in voting behavior—Asian-American—though I prefer to go by “human” or simply “Jessica.”)
Many Americans don’t believe institutional racism exists or that its effects continue to resonate—despite plenty of evidence and demonstrations of the lasting clout of white privilege. In fact, some of these people welcome the existence of WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com after years of feeling as if their voices haven’t been heard.
One commenter on the WhereWhitePeopleMeet Facebook page wrote:
I know: it was the word “white!” Better take it out of the dictionary. (Don’t I go to the head of the class now?) Oops, sorry, I used the word “class.” Better take that one out, too: it tangentially evokes the words “warfare” and “privilege,” which go with “white.” Oh, no!! I used the phrase “take that one out.” Do I get arrested and jailed for plotting a terrorist attack? Oh, Jesus Christ! I’ve just sealed my fate! I’m doomed for saying I was “plotting a terrorist attack.” Aarggh!! Now there’s an add-on charge because I used the Lord’s name in vain, which amounts to mocking my own religion, which qualifies as hate speech and indicates prohibited thought crimes, requiring extra penalties for possible future hate crimes against any and all religions…
Another warned of an impending threat to white people:
[M]ake NO mistake about it…they are coming for us…give it 10-20 more years…mark my word’s [sic].
Yet another commenter, aggrieved by the removal of a billboard advertisement of the site suggested that Where WhitePeopleMeet.com take legal action against the billboard company for “federal racial discrimination.”
If the adage “opposites attract” holds true, my research so far suggested I would have no trouble hitting it off with many potential suitors. It was time to dig in and sign up.
I had fully intended to use my real name until colleagues with more online dating experience suggested I might want to be more cautious about joining a site that seemed to be attracting a crowd of non-Hispanic white people who feel victimized by the empowerment of minority populations. I chose “Jenny” as my alias and posted a photo of myself in sunglasses.
As I filled out some basic personal details, I noticed the site was not particularly sophisticated and was also chock-full of misspellings—certain participants would have to choose “Buddihst” as their religion or indicate they were looking for a “serious relationshiop.” Something else I noticed was that if you indicate you’re a woman, the “looking for a” automatically fills with “man,” and vice versa. (I guess the “open to all lifestyles” claim doesn’t refer to genders or sexual orientations.)
When I signed up on WhereWhitePeopleMeet in January there were 5,362 members: 1,330 women, 3,950 men, and eighty-two unidentified individuals. (When I checked back in March, there were approximately 7,000 members in total.) About 3,000 of the men listed were from the United States. When I searched by ethnicity, 130 identified themselves as white, seven as black, two Hispanic, one Middle Eastern, one Asian, and three as “mixed.” The majority were between the ages of eighteen and fifty.
One of the most detailed profiles I came across was of a man from Wyoming with a ten-year-old daughter. He describes his priorities as “God, guns, family, and country,” which he calls a “philosophy of freedom, & morality.” He’s a Christian who says his faith was challenged by “a weak Methodist Church, as a child; & a thorough brain washing, compliments of the public Secular Humanist Seminary, I thought was a school).” He eschews entertainment that “spews from the Marxist Hell hole of Hollywood these days).” This man’s “perfect” woman doesn’t have piercings (other than the ear) or tattoos; dresses, thinks, acts, and lives “Western;” and “has no problem baiting a hook, loading a clip, or saddling a horse; but expects a man to do it for her,” among other details. He also noted, “intelligence is a definite plus; unless she is to [sic] smart to have anything to do with me.” He even included a message “for you leftests [sic]: Your failure to be informed; concerning history, &/or current events; does not make me a whacko. Nor, does your lack of a realistic world view; rooted in didactic reasoning, & consistent logic; make me a whacko.”
I also encountered quite a few anti-socialist and anti-communist political enthusiasts, including one college student in Rhode Island who describes himself as “committed to fighting against Cultural Marxism and just Marxism in general.” He’s looking for a loyal and independent white female, of any eye color except brown, who “must be anti-communist.” He also has a preference for “icy women.”
A California man’s profile says: “I’m here because I support the concept. ALL peoples have the right to freely associate, to preserve their heritage, and yes, even (gasp!) date who they want. I’m an unobtainable ideal whose best use is as a mode against which to compare prospective partners, to see how short they fall (In all humility).” To be honest, I couldn’t tell if this guy was joking or not. There were quite a few trolls on the website who were obviously not using it as a matchmaking service. For example, I came across a profile with a username of “iselfidentifyaswhite” and the name “Caucasian Blackman.” Some other profiles touted such glaringly racist ideas or complaints that I couldn’t be sure of their authenticity.
This informal qualitative analysis suggested that for dating success my profile should convey that I am not “too” smart, that I am against liberal values, am an adherent of Christianity, and am subservient enough to make men feel powerful and competent but that I’m not too needy. It would also help if I were located in the Midwest and definitely as “American” as possible—so not Asian.
Since this conflicted with all best versions of myself, I aimed for a simpler, less detailed profile that did not explain my nerdiness, my love of metropolitan areas filled with diversity, how appalled I was with the lack of technical know-how by the developers (Russell hired his son to build this site) and the misspellings (I couldn’t get over this), not to mention my views on gun violence in the United States, or income inequality, or anything in the social justice word cloud.
And so I gave my real age, ethnicity, and physical description. I noted that I speak French, enjoy music, business, writing, and dancing, and that I’m nonreligious. I also explained that
I moved to Washington, DC, last year to work at a small nonprofit organization that advocates for making the world a better place. Having lived in Montreal for several years gave me an appreciation for strong indoor heating and shawarmas. I am curious about the world, about new foods, and about how to live a life full of stories. I love meeting new people, and I love hearing people’s deepest, darkest secrets…which is probably why I studied psychology in undergrad and economics, of course, to better understand the relationship between markets and individual behavior.
In the section asking what I’m passionate about I said I’d “rather take the risk than be comfortable. I’d rather talk to people I disagree with and learn something than talk to those who consistently share my worldview.” I said I was seeking someone who doesn’t take themselves, or life, too seriously. Someone who’s thought deeply about their own values, the importance of family, and why they make the decisions they do. I concluded by saying I was looking for someone who wasn’t afraid to answer my questions, no matter the “political correctness” of their opinions and then listed the questions:
Why are you using this dating website instead of another?
Do I count as a white person?
Would you date me?
Would you pursue a serious relationship with me leading to marriage (or only with someone of the same race)?
What is one of your favorite movies and why?
What are you reading right now?
For the first three days, my profile was met with radio silence. My ego rationalized this was probably because there seems to be little activity on the website in general. In fact, despite my lack of activity, I got listed in the “popular members” section after I served a frenzy of friend requests in a last-ditch attempt to interact with some members.
By the end of the week, I had six “friends” in total, two strange online conversations, and one polite message from a man in Texas not interested in long-distance relationships. The longer of the two conversations was with a married man who was no longer sexually excited by his wife. I approached cautiously and asked if he thought I counted as a white person. “Yes, you count.lol,” he wrote. “Race doesn’t matter much to me. It’s the person that matters.”
I agreed that race doesn’t matter and tried to ask about why he was on the site. “I’m not here to make any statements,” he wrote. “Personally. I don’t give a f*** about political correctness.” I was amused that he sanitized the f-word in his excoriation of political correctness but he seemed sincere in saying he was basically on the site in hopes of meeting some interesting people.
I asked him to define what he meant by political correctness and he expressed concern that it censors people from expressing their opinions: “I think people are too afraid to speak their minds, afraid of whom they may offend. I listen to people’s opinions and voice my own as well. If you don’t like what I’m saying, don’t listen….[Smiley face emoticon]”
When challenged to offer a controversial opinion, he said he doesn’t agree with having to pay for public assistance programs.
I think generally speaking, that most people on public assistance are just too lazy to contribute in a meaningful way to society. I’m tired of my tax dollars going to support some lazy SOB that has the system figured out. They ought to be drug tested too.
I wanted to find out why he thought his opinion wasn’t politically correct, but he started getting suspicious as my reporter traits started to show. I attempted to temper my conversation with personal questions, and before the conversation fizzled he offered this: “If you speak your mind, you’re labeled a racist and I’m tired of it. Besides, not all people on public assistance are black or minority yet they do the same thing.”
My second and more unsettling interaction was with someone who asked why I sent him a friend request since I don’t live in the same state, then followed by saying that he was “only interested in getting to know women if they are looking to have a baby with me.” He later clarified, “I mean if they eventually have my baby.” For the record, I checked his friends list, which did consist of four white women who didn’t live in his state either.
Admittedly, my experience at WhereWhitePeopleMeet was brief and ended without any clarity on my whiteness. Not that I really expected any. I certainly don’t question the site’s legal right to exist. But a lot of stupid and tacky things (as demonstrated by Amazon’s vast catalog of human ingenuity in creating useless products) have a “right” to exist. Arguably, they don’t make the world a better place.
“Julie,” a commenter at WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com expressed an argument many have used in support of the site’s legitimacy:
Anyone criticizing this site for being racist needs to open their eyes and read the number of other orginizations [sic] for African Americans only. Asians only. Native Americans only Etc. there is nothing wrong if an individual chooses to date within their own race. They have more in common.
Now here I do have a problem. It’s true that in the world of online dating, choice overload forces daters to scrutinize, to create profiles, to filter data. Dating sites help narrow down the choices and even refine the type of person we’re looking for—and yet we have romantic ideals and fantasies that are too large for any one person to fulfill, making choice overload even harder to bear. Filtering for lifestyle can be a convenient way to find someone compatible, but race or ethnicity shouldn’t be a proxy for lifestyle or for values.
The argument that one has a biologically supported “racial preference” in dating that excuses them from dating people from other groups (“Chinese women are my type,” for example, or “I only have sexual chemistry with white men”) is invalid and shockingly lazy. Preferences are not orientations by any stretch, and emotional connections can be formed beyond culturally engrained attraction to superficial traits.
And getting back to the site I briefly joined, how hard is it to meet white people on a mainstream dating website anyway? “Racial preference” already exists on non-niche sites where black women and Asian men predominantly face tougher odds of being messaged back, and where white people fare very well when it comes to finding each other. OkCupid founder Christian Rudder wrote in a blogpost analyzing his website’s data on race,
Beauty is a cultural idea as much as a physical one, and the standard is of course set by the dominant culture. I believe that’s what you see in the data here. One interesting thing about OkCupid’s interface is that we allow people to select more than one race, so you can actually look at people who’ve combined “white” with another racial description. Adding “whiteness” always helps your rating! In fact it goes a long way towards undoing any bias against you.
These trends point to culturally supported heteronormative masculine and feminine ideals that seem to have some say in determining racial preferences. East Asian women are often stereotyped and objectified as submissive, sweet, and caring in a cartoonish depiction of femininity. Asian men are often stereotyped as effeminate. And let’s not forget that Hollywood isn’t doing a lot to portray attractive men and women who don’t conform to the dominant race-gender paradigms.
In the end, WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com is a venue that attracts more trolls than white people looking for love and isn’t well optimized for the serious online dater. It may stay afloat to generate a comfortable little sum for the Russells before disappearing into Internet limbo, but even when it meets its inevitable demise, other dating sites will continue to categorize individual people—sites that I can only hope will someday see the value in venturing beyond collages of identity labels.