Love And Romance: Is One Race More Attractive Than Another?
Over this past month, we've been exploring the way race impacts the dating world with #xculturelove. Recently, we discussed the way racial and cultural preferences play out in our dating lives.
Interracial marriage in America has risen sharply in recent decades. But are people still bringing old myths to their dating experiences? Michel Martin of NPR's Tell Me More spoke with NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam and writers Naima Ramos-Chapman and Noah Cho, who wrote a piece for us recently about feeling "undesirable."
(Below are some highlights; listen to the audio to hear the full interview.)
On how self-esteem and identity are formed
Noah Cho: I don't like looking at myself in the mirror and I think that when Code Switch asked me to take the pictures to be included with the piece, that was actually really the hardest part of that. The writing was actually fairly easy because that came from a really wounded place in me, but to actually have to see my picture was far more difficult. And yes, of course, that does speak to my self-esteem.
If I'm hearing my mom's white friends really mocking my dad's accent and really making it more effeminate throughout my childhood — especially after he passed away, and they felt safer that they could do that — that's going to affect me and that's of course going to affect my self-esteem. And if I hear friends from every race telling me pointblank, "I do not find Asian men attractive," there is going to be a point where yes my self-esteem will be effected.
But that's also going to affect how I can pursue a relationship, or feel that even if someone is attracted to me — being willing to accept that from them, that they want to be with me or they would find me attractive.
On how demographics impact identity
Shankar Vendantam: The data that I'm looking at from the 2000 Census shows that among all Asian-white, heterosexual marriages, for example, 75 percent of those marriages involve a white husband and an Asian wife. Among Asian-black marriages, 86 percent of the marriages have a black husband and an Asian wife.
So there [are] clearly gender biases here in terms of who is privileged and who is not privileged in the dating pool. And so what Noah is experiencing is — yes, it's partly what he's bringing to the table, but what he's bringing to the table is shaped by what the table is bringing to him.
On the questions people get asked when dating
Naima Ramos-Chapman: I identify as black, but I think I present sort of racially ambiguous. So a lot of the times I feel exotified by people who look at me and kind of project their fantasies of what they hope I might be ... And often I find that people kind of say, "Are you sure that you're just black?" or "Are you sure that you're just regular black?" And it kind of comes off very offensive ...
I've gotten, "Are you Vietnamese and French?" Well, what would make you think that? You know, why that projection? So it's kind of just very far flung. And to me, coming from New York, Puerto Rican-black is kind of a biracial or ethnic mix that's pretty common. So, you know, the fact that you would ask [if I am] Vietnamese or Korean or Hawaiian and Peruvian — it's kind of interesting the questions I get.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Valentine's Day is just around the corner, and so love and romance are on many people's minds. NPR's Code Switch team has been focusing on interrelationships for their online series on cross-cultural love. And the series has brought out some interesting stories about interracial relationships, especially at a time when some people like to think of this as a post-racial era.
So that's why we thought this would be a good time to bring some of the voices from that online conversation to the radio. And we also thought this would be a good time to dig into some of the facts and myths about interracial romance. So joining us to do that, Noah Cho is a middle school teacher and an editor for Hyphen magazine. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
NOAH CHO: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Naima Ramos-Chapman is a freelance writer who blogs for PostBourgie.com. Naima, thank you for joining us.
NAIMA RAMOS-CHAPMAN: It's great to be here.
MARTIN: They both participated in Code Switch's Cross-Cultural Love series. And also with us for additional perspective - and we hope to separate some of the facts and fiction - from fiction around interracial romances, NPR science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. Welcome back to you as well.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: So let's start with you, and you know what, you can join the conversation at #Xculturelove. And Shankar, I'm going to start with you, and the first thing I wanted to address is the idea that interrelationships and marriage are common now. You know, of course, the president is the child of an interracial marriage. Increasingly, you see a lot of celebrities in interracial marriages. I'm thinking Robin Thicke and Paula Patton just, you know, off the top of my head. But how much of the population does this actually apply to?
VEDANTAM: A fairly small portion of the population, Michel. I think, as you say, they are more common now than they used to be, but I think about only 1 percent of all marriages in the United States are interracial. So it's still a very small minority, which is why, very often when interracial couples walk by the street, they draw glances.
MARTIN: And to that point of, you know, Shankar, you're a student of stereotyping, and how we form stereotypes and impressions and perceptions. And one of the enduring stereotypes is that certain groups are particularly attracted to certain other groups. I mean, the whole black men lusting after white women is an enduring and, in many cases, lethal stereotype in this country. There's also the one about white men lusting after Asian women. So is there any misconception or stereotype that you would particularly like to address about which people are more likely to date outside their race and which - and where most interracial couples even live in this country?
VEDANTAM: So, you know, there was some really interesting research that was published last year, Michel. There was a study by Adam Galinsky, Erika Hall and Amy Cuddy that looked at the ways in which our stereotypes about race intersect with our stereotypes about gender. And they found that racial stereotypes actually are gendered in such a way, such that Asians, in general, are perceived to be more feminine and blacks, in general, are perceived to be more masculine. So there were these stereotypes about the races were gendered.
And as a result, when you look at heterosexual dating patterns, what the study said was let's look at the relationships that whites have with either Asians or blacks. And what they found was that white men, heterosexual white men, are far more likely to be dating Asian women rather than black women, whereas heterosexual white women are more likely to be dating black men rather than Asian men. So in the general dating pool Asian women seem to be prized for their femininity because Asians, in general, are stereotyped as being more feminine than masculine, whereas black men are prized for their masculinity, and therefore, more prized in the dating pool, the heterosexual dating pool, because as a group, you know, black men - or blacks are seen to be more masculine.
What this means, and I think that it's borne out by the data, but also by the stories of some of the people who have appeared on this project, is that Asian men and black women often end up with the short end of the stick. That they're often seen as being less desirable. They seem to have less options in the dating pool.
MARTIN: I want to hear more about your other things that you've discovered in the course of doing this research and reporting. So - but Noah, let's turn to you. You're biracial. Your father was Korean, your mother is white. And you wrote the piece "How I Learned to Feel Undesirable" for Code Switch. And you reported in the piece, actually a very poignant piece, that you felt you're on the losing end of one of these stereotypes that Asian men are not desirable. Can you talk a little bit more about that? And thank you again for being candid about it.
CHO: Oh, sure. You know, I think for me, a lot of biracial people struggle with their phenotype I think in a lot of ways. And for me, I present more Asian than a lot of other half-white, half-Asian people that I've known in my life. And as a result, I feel like I've been put into the category of an Asian male, even though I look at my biology and my genetics, and I know that's not true yet people still treat me that way or look at me that way.
And as a result, I think I really internalized over the course of my life that the dating pool, as we, you know, mentioned a few minutes ago, was really more limited to me. I didn't feel like I was attracted or desired. I really wrestled with media portrayals of Asian men often being very effeminate or just as comic relief. When I was growing up in the '80s, like, you know, there was the John Hughes movies, in "Revenge of the Nerds" that had Getty Watanabe, you know, and he was very, very effeminate. And he was really, really emasculated in a lot of ways. And I think that really shaped my view of myself. Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah. Naima, what about you? Your story's different. You identify as black. Your mother's Puerto Rican, and your father's African-American. But you say that your racial identity or maybe your looks mean that some people, you feel, are attracted to you for all the wrong reasons. Could you talk about that?
RAMOS-CHAPMAN: Yeah. So I identify as black, but I think I present sort of racially ambiguous. So a lot of the times I feel exotified by a lot of people who look at me and kind of project their fantasies of what they hope I might be, which, I think being curious about someone's ethnicity isn't necessarily wrong, it's just once I identify as black, that should kind of be the end of the story unless I want to talk about it in great detail. And often I find that people kind of say, are you sure? Like, you're just black? Or are you sure you're just regular black? And it kind of comes off very offensive.
MARTIN: 'Cause they want you to be something else?
RAMOS-CHAPMAN: Exactly. I've gotten, you know, are you Vietnamese and French? I'm like, well, what would make you think, you know, why that projection? So it's kind of just very far-flung, and to me, you know, coming from New York, Puerto Rican black is kind of a biracial or ethnic mix that's pretty common. So you know, the fact that you would ask Vietnamese or Korean or Hawaiian and Peruvian and black, it's kind of interesting, kind of the questions that I get.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask - since you do also identify as bisexual - do men - do you feel that you get the same thing from men as well as women? You wrote some interesting piece, too, about that, about how you have a little bit more sympathy for black men who exoticize, if I'm saying it right, who exoticize you than you do for white men because you kind of feel like, in one case, it's like their own internal stuff, with another case, you feel like it's their privilege. And so you're not feeling that at all. But I wanted to know, do men and women - do you feel equally give you that - the people who are inclined to kind of put - project something on you, do you feel you get that equally for men and women?
RAMOS-CHAPMAN: I guess, like you said before, I kind of give allowances depending on your privilege. So I think typically, you know, I kind of give a pass to men of color who definitely exoticize. But, you know, I feel like we've all kind of been in that Pecola Breedlove moment where we're like, oh, I wish I was, you know, a little lighter. So I kind of understand that, and it's kind of something that I think, because we identify under a unifying umbrella of black identity, that we can have that conversation.
But when it comes to dating white men, there's kind of, like, that allowance kind of diminishes. And I have found that, when relating to women, that the question about my ethnicity comes like further, further down the line. It's not something that's brought up within the first 5, 10, 15 minutes of meeting me. It's definitely something that maybe on date five, we might talk about because it's not, it's not their number one priority to figure out, like, oh, like what - and maybe this isn't true for everyone who asks - but kind of feeling like the flavor of the week. Or, you know, yeah, I'm going to have my first Asian or I'm going to have my first Puerto Rican woman. So it's kind of just a different...
MARTIN: I see.
RAMOS-CHAPMAN: ...A different struggle.
MARTIN: I hear you. Shankar, speaking of struggle, you know, we talked about overall social perceptions, but I really, I want to loop back to what Noah was talking about about, how he feels like, the way that people kind of looked at him affected how he felt about himself. Do you find that to be common?
VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think so. The data does show that, I think if you're black woman or an Asian man, that the deck is sort of stacked against you in the United States. And it's stacked against you because of these intersections between the stereotypes we have about race and the stereotypes we have about gender. I think what's also ironic and sad, you know, if you read Noah's story on Code Switch, is how he has internalized this as well. And he can talk about this as well. It's not just his perceptions of how other people see him, but his own perceptions of himself. And that shows how these stereotypes don't just affect us because other people perceive us in a certain way, they affect us because we perceive ourselves that way.
MARTIN: You know, Noah, what about that? And I do have to say, I hope you don't mind my mentioning, your picture was published with your piece on NPR's website, and a lot of people thought you were quite handsome...
CHO: ...Right, actually...
MARTIN: If we can say that. But there are people who felt that this has more to do with self-esteem than with race. That perhaps part of it was, you know, you're living as a minority in a majority kind of white environment where you didn't have a lot of other people who looked like you, and that, that that's really more what it was about. What do you think?
CHO: Well, sure, you know - and, you know, I was trying not to read the comments, of course, on the piece. But I did see a few, and somebody did mention, like, well, I can't believe he's bringing race into his insecurities in this piece. And somebody responded with, so you don't want him to bring his insecurities into his insecurities? And, you know, I think, yes, my self-esteem was affected by this, but it was intricately tied to my racial identity, and how I responded to looking at myself in the mirror. And, you know, I don't like looking at myself in the mirror and when Code Switching asked me to take the pictures to be included with my piece, that was actually the really, like the hardest part of that.
The writing was actually fairly easy because it came from a really wounded place in me. But to actually have to see my picture was far more difficult, and, yes, of course, that does speak to my self-esteem, but it's also like if I'm hearing my mom's white friends really mocking my dad's accent and really making it more effeminate, you know, throughout my childhood, especially after he passed away and they felt, like, safer that they could do that, that's going to affect me. And that's of course going to affect my self-esteem. And if I hear friends from every race telling me point blank, you know, I do not find Asian men attractive, there's going to be a point where, yeah, my self-esteem will be affected. But that's also going to affect how I can, you know, pursue a relationship or feel even if somebody is attracted to me, like, be willing to accept that from them, you know, that they want to be with me or they would find me attractive.
MARTIN: We've teamed up with NPR's Code Switch team, and we are talking about interracial romance, the realities of it and also trying to separate some myths from facts. We are speaking with Noah Cho who wrote a piece for Code Switch, that's who was speaking just now. And also writer Naima Ramos-Chapman. And NPR's science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam is also with us for additional perspective. Shankar.
VEDANTAM: You know, so I want to just jump in because I think when Noah says, people are saying this is all just about your personal self-esteem, I mean, clearly his own views do matter, and what he's bringing to the table does matter. But it's also the case that there is an empirical reality out there. You know, the data that I'm looking at that looks at from the 2000 census shows that among all Asian-white heterosexual marriages, for example, 75 percent of those marriages involve a white husband and an Asian wife. Among Asian-black marriages, 86 percent of the marriages have a black husband and an Asian wife. So there is clearly, it's not - there are clearly gender biases here in terms of who's privileged and who's not privileged in the dating pool. And so what Noah's experiencing is, yes, it's partly what he's bringing to the table, but what he's bringing to the table is shaped by what the table is bringing it to him.
MARTIN: And you also mentioned that African-Americans, in the data shows that African-Americans are actually the least likely to be interracially married of all the ethnic, major ethnic groups in the United States, which is an interesting phenomenon despite the fact that they are intellectually among the most tolerant of interracial relationships. Now data also shows that whites are actually among the least tolerant intellectually but more likely to be interracial to be married. That's curious, isn't it? Why do you think that is?
VEDANTAM: Yeah, so the data seem to suggest that, in general, the country's clearly moving in a very tolerant direction. So compared to where things were 30 or 40 years ago, significantly more people are approving of interracial marriages, and especially among younger people, you know, virtually everyone approves of interracial marriages. So there are interesting age differences here and sort of approval and tolerance of this, you know, it is interesting of course, that, you know, different groups are targeted, not necessarily because of their behavior, but again, because of the stereotypes.
MARTIN: Naima and Noah, we have only a couple of minutes left. I wanted to ask if you would share the time, and just say that, do you, what is your final thought about this? Naima, I'll start with you. I'm just wondering if you and I get together five years from now, if we'll have the same kind of conversation about this? I think it's surprising to many people that we're still having this conversation at all, but you know, 30 years ago people thought that race would essentially disappear as an important concept, and it clearly hasn't. So Naima, final thought from you?
RAMOS-CHAPMAN: I mean, I think, yeah, in the future, I just know in my own individual history that I've definitely made strides in terms of thinking consciously about my own racial preferences and kind of what I project on other people. So kind of assuming that because I'm of color and you're white that you won't relate to me beyond race is something I'm actually dealing with. So I think the more conscious we are of, and more conversations we have like this, the more we can kind of breakthrough those racial, gendered racial barriers that Shankar and Noah have been talking about.
MARTIN: Noah, final thought from you?
CHO: You know, I just think - go ahead.
MARTIN: No, go ahead. I was just kind of wondering if you had been born today, whether you would still have these feelings.
CHO: I think both geography and time really factor in heavily. I mention in the piece that in the Bay Area where I live now, you know, I see far more interracial relationships than I did in Orange County, which is where I was born and grew up. And I do think, and even looking at my own students who predominately, our largest group of students of color are biracial and multiracial kids, and I do think it's far more common in the Bay Area and it's far more common today. So I do feel like I maybe wouldn't feel so intensively about this had I been born now and in this area, than compared to when and where I was born.
MARTIN: Shankar, a final thought from you?
VEDANTAM: Well, you know, think it's really interesting because as Noah points out, there are really these geographic differences. Clearly, interracial marriages are easier and more tolerated in the West then in other parts of the country - Hawaii, for example, even more so. But I think one of the interesting things that Naima is bringing to the table that's really so moving is how these different issues are all intersecting with one another. There's gender, there's race, there's sexual orientation, there's age, there's geography. And all these things layover one over the other constantly, and we're making these judgments about one another, you know, layering all these complex things in - you know, in sort of instantaneous fashion.
MARTIN: Do you think - Shankar, if you and I get together five years from now, do you think we'll be having the same kind of conversation about this?
VEDANTAM: You know, five years from now, I would guess things probably will not have changed very much. If we have the conversation 50 years from now, Michel, I think the conversation would be very different.
MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's science correspondent with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Writer Naima Ramos-Chapman joined us from our bureau in New York. Noah Cho is a teacher and an editor for Hyphen magazine, and he joined us from San Francisco. I thank you all so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.
CHO: Thanks, Michel.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, Michel.
RAMOS-CHAPMAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: And if you'd like to add your voice to the conversation, please share your story at #Xculturelove. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.