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In this essay, I make two main points: First, I call for a focus on the impact of structural conditions on preferences regarding intimacy. We tend to think our preferences are natural and fixed when, in fact, they may be more plastic and susceptible to structural influences than we imagine. To illustrate this theme, I examine a few structures that channel our preferences, namely, racial screening mechanisms on Internet dating web sites and sex segregation in queer social spaces. Second, I provide a warning against uncritical celebrations of increasing interracial intimacy as a sign of reduced prejudice and social progress. Our celebrations should be tempered by the awareness that race structures even our most intimate relationships. Although two people have crossed racial lines and may have even committed to spending their lives together, we cannot easily conclude that they have transcended race. Because race and gender intersect to determine an individual’s value in the romantic marketplace, the two partners are unlikely to be similarly situated in terms of their options for leaving the relationship should it become unhappy. For instance, black heterosexual men enjoy greater options for interracial coupling than do black heterosexual women. Further, people of color who are in interracial relationships may have to suffer racialized microaggressions in order to maintain the relationship. Yet these subtle insults may escape the awareness of the white partner in the relationship, who might not intend to cause any harm or see the comments as racially offensive. One source of such racialized harms is likely to arise from racial disagreements in perceiving discrimination. Because black people and white people tend to view allegations of discrimination through fundamentally different lenses, they are likely to disagree as to the existence of discrimination, even when they are in an intimate relationship.
This essay allows me to extend the analysis from three of my prior publications and explore their intersections. First, I consider whether a proposal I made regarding expressions of racial preference in casting advertisements might be applied to such preferences in the online dating context. Second, I extend to the romantic arena a phenomenon that I identified as “perceptual segregation,” previously examined primarily in the workplace. Third, I have previously argued that, in predominantly white and gay romantic marketplaces, men of color face pressure to conform to certain racialized sex roles, such as the “aggressive black top” and the “submissive Asian bottom.” In the final part of this essay, I present an empirical study of online dating trends that tests this argument.