Preference or prejudice: Choosing interpersonal partners


There is a fine line between preferences and the concept of racism and prejudices when dating. 

Cherry Tran

When it comes to choosing dating partners, individuals may prefer particular ethnicities; to them, it’s a matter of likability, but it could also be underlying racism.  

“Right now, especially on TikTok, there’s always videos of like what type of girls you want, a Black girl or a white girl?” said Somerle Rhiner, junior in sociology and women’s and gender studies. “Well, you just excluded Asian-identifying and Latinx girls. Already there’s exclusion and stereotypes come out from that question. Why’d you pick a Black girl over a white girl or a white girl over a Black girl?”

Multiple elements factor into interpersonal attraction and how individuals designate preferences. However, ethnic preferences can steer into racism.

“It’s a preference but it also underlies racism,” Rhiner said. “Like looks, beliefs and everything all follow race. They’re really interconnected. I think it can exude racism or prejudice from people with prejudice towards a group of people.

“Preferences with race are so heavy. Race is attached to everything in a way that’s how you appear. It kind of goes into a possible fetish or hatred [toward a group].”

Many people hold preferences when seeking potential partners, whether through looks, personality or toward particular ethnic groups. However, there is evidence that preferences in attraction are perceived as racist —even for people who claim it doesn’t undergird racism, according to a study done by Michael Thai, psychology professor at the University of Queensland, Australia.

“The fact that I dated a lot of white guys isn’t because of a preference, more on just demographics,” said Katie Bailly, senior in psychology. “The pool of availability is very low beside the white people. I think it depends because preference is subjective.”

Interpersonal attraction from people to people results from factors including similarity, physical attractiveness, proximity or reciprocity. Studies showed that one of the most prominent factors of attraction is familiarity. Familiarity breeds attraction. People are more likely to be attracted to those they’re familiar with or often exposed to.

Factors of interpersonal attraction have shaped many people’s dating experiences. Likewise, familiarity altered Bailly’s preferences.

Students at Iowa State have admitted to possessing preferences for partners, even ethnic ones, but many are uneasy about the underlying prejudice it may hold.

“I honestly think there’s a fine line between what is preference and what is prejudice,” said Hugo Perez, senior in liberal studies. “If somebody were to say like, ‘oh I don’t want to date this person [because of their race],’ that would be a form of racism.”

The divide between preferences into prejudice is sometimes blurred and can easily be crossed, students said.

“Even participants who believed that having racial preferences is not racist consistently rated a target disclosing racial preferences as more racist,” Thai’s article said.

Although Thai’s study shows having racial preference can be perceived negatively, members of an ethnic group are unlikely to marry outside of their group. In this study, results indicated strong ethnic preferences even in a population of progressive individuals.

Rosemary Galdamez, senior in environmental science, said she prefers to date someone with the same cultural background as her.   

“I feel like it would be problematic if I didn’t date anyone because of them, solely because of their race or ethnicity […] With women of color, if you say you want to be with them because they’re exotic […] that’s really problematic,” Galdamez said.

Similar to Galdamez, Perez also prefers to date someone of the same ethnicity as him. It makes him more comfortable that they share the same culture and beliefs, he said.  

There are explanations as to why Galdamez, Perez and many others prefer to date in their racial group. Research has exhibited that people are more attracted to those who are similar to them.

Despite the prejudice that preferences may encourage, students believe it’s a normal thing to possess, as long as people understand why they feel such ways. Students considered the first initiative to avoid overstepping prejudicial boundaries is to check oneself.

Bailly said preferences border into fetishization, then it becomes obsessive and inappropriate.

Fetishization is described as the notion of excessive obsession (which may be sexual) toward things such as an ethnic group or their culture. Most students agreed the line is crossed as dating preferences intersect with fetishization.

“A lot of Asian women know about ‘weeaboos,’ which is usually white men who are obsessive over anime culture but they also have this sexualization of the characters but also the women,” Bailly said. “I think it can be really inappropriate, especially in conversation or questions they ask that may be intrusive.

“There’s a difference between interest and an obsessiveness kind of thing. It’s OK as long as you recognize where the line is and that you don’t go over it. I think it’s holding yourself accountable… asking [yourself] if it’s OK you think this way.”  

Rhiner said when people have this bias toward an ethnic group already, they need to be conscious about it.

“I don’t think it’s alright that I have [preferences] either,” Rhiner said. “I think it’s just asking yourself questions like why do I think like this? What is the reason behind this? Because the more you dig deeper in those questions, it helps you learn that you have a prejudice towards this racial group.”

Galdamez said she thinks it’s fine to know what kind of person someone is attracted to, if someone is attracted to one type of race more than the other. She said it’s fine and no one can really tell someone to start dating other races.

Galdamez also said it depends on how people’s preferences are perceived through their experiences and the people they’re around because preferences can be embedded in racist stereotypes, whether people acknowledge it or not.

Perez said as these preferences are being utilized in choosing potential partners, it’s important to understand them culturally as well.

“It really comes down to the individual, what their background is […] you have to understand the cultural background as well because there’s some culture where they have to marry within their own race […] I would say, though, in a diverse area if you’re only excluding certain types of people that you don’t want to date, I feel like that’s racist,” Perez said. “In the end, people should know what they want, love is love.”