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What online dating can teach us about fighting racism
It's not easy overcoming racial prejudices and fears, but an emoticon message may briefly help
Time to update the relationship status?
Time to update the relationship status? (Thinkstock)
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t's no secret that online dating provides its own unique set of insights into human mating behavior. For example, within my first month on OkCupid, it was revealed to me all men add two inches to their heights and describe themselves as fun, while all women are terrified of posting photos of themselves with children for fear of seeming like they're ticking biological time bombs.

But while those concerns almost exclusively remain in the world of online dating, one of the most robust patterns actually transcends our real world interactions: Online daters tend to self-segregate and stick to people within their race.

However, a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that while those intra-race tendencies are a significant factor in online dating, the system can also help facilitate overcoming those biases.

UC Sociologist Kevin Lewis analyzed the exchanges of over 120,000 heterosexual OkCupid users who self-identified as one of the top five most common racial categories on the site: Black, White, Asian (East Asian), Hispanic/Latino, and Indian (South Asian).

The first layer of his findings confirmed the self-segregation with the one exception being Asian women. No explanation is given for why this is the case, but it could be related to the fact that another recent study showed Asian women get messaged by almost all men. For all other demographics, though, people were significantly more likely to initiate contact and receive return messages from users within their race.

Yet, this trend was not rigid, and in fact, with a little nudge, people became more receptive to dating people outside of their race. Once people were contacted by users of another race, they became more likely to initiate and engage in messaging with other races. Overall, these users were 115 percent more likely to engage in interracial exchanges than their racial and regional counterparts.

What these online dating exchanges model is the necessary push to overcome what Lewis calls "preemptive discrimination." He explained the process to the UC San Diego News Center:

Based on a lifetime of experiences in a racist and racially segregated society, people anticipate discrimination on the part of the potential recipient and are largely unwilling to reach out in the first place. But if a person of another race expresses interest in them first, their assumptions are falsified — and they are more willing to take a chance on people of that race in the future. [UCSD News]

And while Lewis' study was only of online daters, it is easy to see how the results could be replicated in other social settings. People are afraid to reach out to other races because of a built-in fear of rejection; but the data of OkCupid exchanges suggests that once initial contact occurs, it "might potentially set in motion a chain of future interracial contact among others."

However, it is important to note that Lewis' findings also showed that after a week of interracial exchanges, users returned to their usual self-segregating patterns. "The newfound optimism is quickly overwhelmed by the status quo," he said.

Yet, despite this reversion, the study still proves that, as Lewis said, "racial boundaries are more fragile than we think." And really, if all it potentially takes is a 12-word message with an emoticon to overcome hundreds of years of institutionalized racial anxiety, albeit briefly, then there is hope.

Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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