Mixed race dating

If you haven’t been to see #Hashtag Lightie at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London it runs until 2nd December 2017. Written by Lynette Linton and directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair, it’s a funny, moving play with some great acting and characterisation, all about the experience of being mixed race in London, with some interesting insights into the politics of mixed race people having relationships with black or white people. And after the performance, you get a Q & A with the playwright and actors.


What is a “lightie”?

A “lightie” is a (not altogether acceptable) term used to describe light-skinned black or mixed race people, often young women. The main (mixed race) character has a popular Youtube channel called #Lightie, on which she provides make-up tips and focuses on her light-brown skin.  Her sibling is called “My Caramel Queen” by her black fiancé, exoticizing or fetishizing her mixed race. Whether it is acceptable for him to focus so much on her skin colour, and whether it is more or less acceptable because he is black, is discussed in the play.

Is it wrong to call people “lighties”?

Sexual racism can be defined as being selective on the basis of race in our choices about sexual partners. It’s a controversial term that I’ll discuss in more detail in my next blog post. The term “lightie” can be considered an example of sexual racism, because it focuses attention on the face that light brown skinned women are considered by many to be more attractive or exotic than dark skinned women.[1] Nadia Rose, UK rapper, argues in the Channel 4 programme Is Love Racist?, aired in the UK in July 2017, argues that in the media lighter skinned black women are used much more than darker skinned ones. One possible psychological explanation for this is that the facial features of mixed race people with a White heritage can often be more similar to White features, compared with the features of say Black or Asian people. This makes White people more likely to perceive similarity and affinity with them on the basis of physical appearance alone, and could account for their popularity in the media. But what about in relationships? Are mixed race people more successful than monoracial, especially in online dating? Are White daters more likely to date mixed race than Black or Asian daters? And does it matter?


Nadia Rose, UK rapper

Could White daters become less restrictive in their racial preferences?

In online dating, profile pictures are very important, and people can be very fussy about appearance. American sociologist Shantel Gabrieal Buggs[2] suggests White daters that have not messaged or dated non-White daters might be most likely to take a first step towards interracial dating by interacting with part-White mixed race daters, because they have a shared racial group membership. This could help daters widen the restrictions they place on their personal dating pools. In Is Love Racist?, Keon West, a psychologist at Goldsmith’s University, London, surveyed (and is currently writing up for publication) the first large representative sample from the UK on their dating preferences, and reported that only 9% of White respondents said they would date outside their race. (In contrast, results were 46% for Black respondents and 67% for mixed race.) So there is definitely room for expansion in the White dater’s pool of potential daters. Another American sociologist, Brandon Andrew Robinson,[3] describes the process of eliminating particular racial groups from our profile on dating sites as “racial cleansing”.

keon west

Dr Keon West, Goldsmith’s University

Why should we measure our responses to messages rather than our stated preferences?

It should be pointed out that there is a difference between stated preferences, as in the UK survey above, and actual behaviour when it comes to dating. Various studies show that people’s behaviour generally does not line up with their stated preferences, especially in dating,[4] partly because those preferences are too abstract: meeting a real person changes things. Behaviour on dating sites can be measured in terms of (a) whom daters initiate a conversation with, but, even better, (b) to whom they respond. On this second measure, used by Lin & Lundquist (2013), daters are less restrictive than on the first measure.[5] So although a White man might say he doesn’t want to date mixed race women, he may still reply when he gets a message from one. (Men tend to get far fewer messages than women,[6] which may explain why many studies[7] show them to be more open to dating outside their race.)

on phones in cafe Free Unsplash

Photo on Unsplash

Black daters are discriminated against on US dating sites, but what about mixed race daters?

Even using this better response measure, there is still strong evidence of same-race preferences in responses to initial messages. For example, Black daters in the US, especially women, get the least numbers of responses from non-Black daters.[8] So is it the same pattern for mixed race daters, or are they seen differently?

Black-White people are often seen as Black

There has been a tendency for people to categorise mixed-race people into the lower status racial group of the two groups they belong to – for example, to see a Black-White mixed race person as Black rather than White.[9] If this happens in dating, we would expect the same pattern to be shown for Black-White mixed daters as for Black daters as described above, in other words, getting the least responses. Studies in the US show that while daters have a strong preference for same-race dating, they also respond to messages from members of higher status racial groups.[10] So a Black dater responds to Black daters but also to White daters, as they are a higher status group. (The racial hierarchy in the US is different from the UK. Studies tend to support Bonilla-Silvia’s (2004)[11] triracial hierarchy: White, then “honorary White” (Asian, Hispanic, mixed race), then Black.) Bringing these two findings together, we might then expect mixed race people (e.g. Black-White) to be assigned to the lower status group (e.g., Black) and therefore responded to less often than the higher status group (e.g., White) would be. But if they don’t get categorised to the lower group, we might expect Black-White daters to get more responses than Black daters, as daters respond to the higher status that Black-White would have compared with Black. So we have two hypotheses.

Mixed race daters are very popular

Research by Curington et al (2015)[12] on mixed race dating in the US supports the second hypothesis: mixed race daters are very popular, suggesting they are not assigned to the lower category. (The study counts the number of responses to initial messages, the same as the Lin & Lunquist (2013) study described above, making it easier to compare the results.) Below are the response rates of White, Black and Asian men and women in order, starting with the most preferred group (mixed race daters’ responses are not reported):

White women’s response rates: White and White-Asian, Black-White, Asian, Black men
White men’s response rates: White-Asian, White, Black-White and Asian, Black women
Black women’s response rates: White and Black-White, Black men
Black men’s response rates: Black-White and White, then Black women
Asian women’s response rates: White-Asian, White, Asian men
Asian men’s response rates: White-Asian, Asian, White women

(Note: Results for Hispanics have not been included in this article, to reduce information overload for my mainly UK readers for whom this category is less relevant.)

Mixed race daters are NOT categorized into the lower status group

Although White daters and White-Asian daters are the most popular, Black-White daters are much more popular than Black daters. So the phenomenon of categorising and treating Black-White daters as Black, or White-Asian daters as Asian, is not found here. Further research is needed to investigate whether daters categorise them in the high status (i.e. White) group, or categorise them uniquely. If you want to delve deeper, read the paper.


Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

What about mixed race daters’s preferences?

The Curington et al (2015) paper discussed above only gives monoracial daters’ responses; it does not report data for mixed race daters’ responses. Another study, McGrath et al (2017),[13] analyses US metropolitan mixed race daters’ stated preferences (but not responses to messages). It finds that mixed race daters tend to prefer someone from one of their two racial groups. For example, a White-Asian dater prefers Whites or Asians to Blacks. Additionally, mixed race including White tend to prefer White. However, they are more open to dating outside their races than monoracials. For example, Black-“other”[14] daters are about two and a half times more likely to select an Asian than Black or “other” monoracials are.

Mixed race dilemmas in partner choice

Future research will need to investigate mixed race responses to initial messages too, as well as collect data from the UK, where the patterns of racial choices are very different. (More of that in a future blog post.) In #Hashtag Lightie, one mixed race woman is in a relationship with a Black man, and another with a White man. They are accused of choosing sides, as if mixed race people have to choose between two identities when they enter a relationship, and suggesting that choosing a mate has to be a political act. So choosing a partner is perhaps more complex than the studies above reveal.

Fluid identities make mixed race people more open

If you haven’t yet read The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla, this is highly recommended to understand the identity dilemmas and experiences of discrimination of mixed race people. Research on mixed race identity is encouraging, however. Parents expose their mixed race offspring to both cultures, and teach them about cultural differences and acceptance.[15] This means that mixed race people appreciate that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact.[16] The McGrath et al (2017) paper above cites a number of studies showing that people who view racial categories as being “fluid and malleable” (p. 1923) are less likely to use stereotypes and more willing to interact with people different from themselves, and feel more comfortable with multiracial relationships. So we would expect mixed race people to be more flexible in their dating preferences, which could be good for improving diversity norms in the dating world.

We often categorise mixed race people wrongly

One strength of the Curington et al (2015) study was that daters were made aware of the race of fellow daters, rather than relying on photos. People are very bad at assessing from a photo whether others are mixed race or mono-racial. One study in the US showed that people got this wrong about 50% of the time.[17] So on dating sites we should be careful not to categorise people just from their photos.

It’s good for us and for society to get to know people different from us

It is important that future studies on dating choices make race explicit. Sixty years of extensive research on intergroup contact theory[18] shows that if you have positive, meaningful contact with someone from a different race from you, it will reduce your prejudice towards that group, as long as you are aware of which race they are from. You might think “But I’m not racist” – but many studies on unconscious bias show that we can exhibit bias without being aware of it, simply because we are influenced by stereotypes and societal norms.[19] In any case, we can all benefit from making friends from people that are different from us – it will make us feel warmer towards them and help us understand them better, rather than just being not-prejudiced-against-them-in-principle, in an abstract kind of way. That is so important in the current political climate.

shanique-wright-368291 unsplash

Photo by Shanique Wright on Unsplash

Interracial dating is a great way to connect with groups we don’t mix with so much

Since dating is a form of intergroup contact, it’s encouraging that White people are now dating more non-White and particularly mixed race people, since research[20] shows this should make White daters feel warmer and more trusting towards, less anxious about, and less threatened by non-Whites.

Meghan and Harry are helping to change societal norms!

Intergroup contact research also shows that social norms play an important part in changing our attitudes.[21] Even observing White people in relationships with mixed race people can improve our feelings towards them, and so this will continue to become more acceptable with the recent engagement of mixed race Meghan Markle and her White fiancé, Prince Harry.

Harry and Meghan

Researchers at The Centre for the Study of Intergroup Contact, including PhD candidate Angelika Love, are beginning to research the processes and consequences of friendships with mixed race people compared with mono-racial people. So far, research on intergroup contact has focused on mono-racial groups. There are many hypotheses. Because we might see mixed race people as belonging to more than one racial group, it could mean friendship with mixed race people improves not only our attitudes towards them, but also how we feel about the racial outgroup(s) they belong to. (Outgroups are groups that we are not members of.) Or we may respond in a more nuanced way than we do to mono-racial group members, because we have to work harder at categorising them. Mixed race people that we become friends with or date might also act as bridges, and could sometimes give us access to, say, Black or Asian communities that are hard to get to know. As described above, this is great for intergroup contact effects outlined above, and its subsequent effects on integration and social cohesion.

There is still a long way to go. There shouldn’t be inequality between lighter and darker skinned people, especially in the media, and we shouldn’t fetishize, exoticize, or romanticize mixed race people. Instead, perhaps we should try to focus a little less on race when deciding who to message online, and more on our fellow daters as individuals and human beings, seeing them as unique, valuable and people to learn from. Dating is a great way to broaden your horizons and get to know people different from you. Don’t restrict your dating pool – the perfect person could be out there in a group you haven’t previously considered!


Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

[1] Buggs, S. G. (2017). Does (mixed‐)race matter? The role of race in interracial sex, dating, and marriage. Sociology Compass, 11:e12531.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robinson, B. A. (2015). “Personal preference” as the new racism: Gay desire and racial cleansing in cyberspace. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1, 317–330.

[4] Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 245.

[5] Lin, K. H., & Lundquist, J. (2013). Mate Selection in Cyberspace: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Education. American Journal of Sociology, 119, 183-215.

[6] Ibid. Men sent 80% more messages and received two-thirds fewer messages than women. Only 3% of the messages sent by men were responded to, compared to 6 % of messages sent by women.

[7] Hitsch G. J., Hortaçsu A., Ariely D. (2010). What makes you click? Mate preferences in online dating. Quantitative Marketing and Economics, 8, 393–427. Also Lin, K. H., & Lundquist, J. (2013). Mate Selection in Cyberspace: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Education. American Journal of Sociology, 119, 183-215.

[8] Lin, K. H., & Lundquist, J. (2013). Mate Selection in Cyberspace: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Education. American Journal of Sociology, 119, 183-215.

[9] This is called hypodescent, or the “one-drop” rule.

[10] Lin, K. H., & Lundquist, J. (2013). Mate Selection in Cyberspace: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Education. American Journal of Sociology, 119, 183-215.

[11] Bonilla-Silva, E. (2004). From Bi-racial to Tri-racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 27, 931–950.

[12] Curington, C. V., Lin, K., & Lundquist, J. H. (2015). Positioning multiraciality in cyberspace: Treatment of multiracial daters in an online dating website. American Sociological Review, 80, 764–788.

[13] McGrath, A. R., Tsunokai, G. T., Schultz, M., Kavanagh, J., & Tarrence, J. A. (2016). Differing shades of colour: online dating preferences of biracial individuals. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39(11), 1920-1942.

[14] “Other” represents all other racial groups, not included in the Black, Asian, White or Hispanic categories.

[15] Bonam, C. M., & Shih, M. (2009). Exploring multiracial individuals’ comfort with intimate interracial relationships. Journal of Social Issues, 65, 87-103.

[16] Shih, M., Bonam, C., Sanchez, D., & Peck, C. (2007). The social construction of race: Biracial identity and vulnerability to stereotypes. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13, 125-133.

[17] Herman, M. R. (2010). Do you see what I am? How observers’ backgrounds affect their perceptions of multiracial faces. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73(1), 58-78.

[18] Dovidio, J. F., Love, A., Schellhaas, F. M., & Hewstone, M. (2017). Reducing intergroup bias through intergroup contact: Twenty years of progress and future directions. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 20(5), 606-620.

[19] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

[20] Hewstone, M., & Swart, H. (2011). Fifty‐odd years of inter‐group contact: From hypothesis to integrated theory. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(3), 374-386.

[21] Christ, O., Schmid, K., Lolliot, S., Swart, H., Stolle, D., Tausch, N., … & Hewstone, M. (2014). Contextual effect of positive intergroup contact on outgroup prejudice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(11), 3996-4000.