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Is Race-Exclusive Dating Racist?

Abstract: Is it racist to refuse to date a person because of his or her race? What about only dating people of a certain race? I'm going to take a look at these issues and how they tie into the bigger question: when, if ever, is race an acceptable criterion by which to select or exclude a person?

Eddie Enygma asked the following question in discussion of my post Can Racial Minorities be Racists?:

If an availably single caucasian woman makes the conscious choice to not date a man of a particular minority race does it make her a racist?

Answer:

Not necessarily. In general, finding a person attractive is an important part of deciding whether or not to date them. It may be the case that this woman (let's call her Sue) is just not attracted to men of a particular race. We wouldn't call Sue sexist because she isn't attracted to women and therefore doesn't date them - it's simply a matter of taste.

The same could be true if Sue will only date those of her same race (or of a single other race). But the key point here is that her choice must be based on attraction. If she adamantly refused that she would ever consider dating a person of a race other than the one she prefers, it would likely be a sign that something other than attraction was motivating her.

The same is often said about people who get very worked up when asked if they would ever have a homosexual relationship. It is said that people who are really completely (or near to it as a person can be) straight don't feel threatened by such questions; they are secure in their sexuality and a simple "Nope, I've never been attracted to women/men" will suffice. But those who have had homosexual urges that they are uncomfortable with will sometimes become agitated, feeling as though they must defend their sexuality from attack. Is this true? I have no idea when it comes to sexuality. I suspect that it is in at least some cases.

But when it comes to race, I think it is more likely to be true. It is fairly improbable that Sue would not be attracted to anyone outside of her own race at all. Let's say Sue is white (caucasian) and will only date whites. There are a significant number of individuals who look almost or exactly like someone of all-white descent but are partly of another race. It is reasonable to say that Sue will find at least some of these individuals attractive. If she would still refuse to date them because of their partly non-white ancestry even though she did find them attractive, racism would probably be a motivating factor.

Friends

A question one might ask Sue would be this: Though you will only date white men, would you refuse to befriend a person because of his or her race? If Sue is not racially exclusive when it comes to friendships, it is likely that her motivations for only dating white men are purely based on attraction. Since attraction is a matter of taste that is relevant to dating, that is a legitimate reason for exclusion.

An Argument:

Based on my response to this question, someone (we'll call him Joe) might make the following argument:

You said that it isn't racist for a person not to date someone because of his or her race if that person isn't attracted to individuals of that race, because attraction is a matter of personal taste and is relevant to dating. Fine; I accept that argument.

I own a small business - we custom design sunglasses. I usually employ about eight people, and we all work together at the offices. And I don't hire black people. Now, it's not that I have anything against them. I don't think they are less intelligent, harder to get along with, or less able to do the work. In my eyes they are in every sense just as good as white people or people of any other race - nothing wrong with them at all.

But for some reason, I just feel a little funny around them. I have no idea what it is, and I know there's no reason for me to feel that way. But I do, and I can't change that. So because of that, it's just my personal preference not to hire any black people. That way I don't feel funny and I can better manage my business. I don't mean to make it harder for anyone just because he or she is black, but it is my business and I don't want to hurt productivity.

Is This Racism?

I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb on this one, realizing that many people might not share my intuition. But I have to say, assuming Joe is being completely honest, this isn't (or shouldn't be considered) racism. If he truly has nothing against black people, believes they are as a race just as good as any other, honestly doesn't know why he feels funny around them, feels bad about excluding them but really can't help how he feels, I can't bring myself to call him racist.

Why? I imagine it's because of the negative connations of "racist" and "racism". In Can Racial Minorities be Racists? I mentioned the following dictionary definition of racisms:

(A) Racist - Noun: "A person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others"

(B) Racist - Adjective: (1) "Based on racial intolerance" (2)"Discriminatory especially on the basis of race or religion"

(C) Racism - Noun: (1)The prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races (2)Discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race

Assuming that Joe is honest, he's clearly okay on (A), (B-1), and (C-1). It's not so clear that he is not racist by (B-2) and (C-2) however, as it does seem that his behavior is discriminatory.

Discrimination

But as people often point out in discussions on racism, discrimination isn't always a bad thing. In fact, we discriminate all the time. We pick out the differences between good fruit and bad fruit so we only buy and eat the good fruit. When hiring employees, people generally discriminate between those who are qualified and those who are not.

What is it about discrimination based on race that is problematic? Well, in most cases, race isn't really relevant. We don't like racial discrimination because people are excluded for no good reason. It's not that they are unqualified or undeserving - some people have simply decided to exclude them for a truly irrelevant and silly reason. And that's bad. No one wants to be excluded for no good reason, so we feel uneasy when we see people making judgments on irrelevant factors - especially when those factors are beyond our control.

But what if someone is making a realistic movie about a black/white/whatever family - for the movie to be realistic, this person will have to racially discriminate in hiring actors and actresses. His or her choice of cast will not be based on attraction or anything that is only incidentally related to race; it will be explicitly because a particular actor/actress is not of that race that he or she will not be hired.

Racial discrimination, yes. But racism? I think a "no" on this one will be easier to buy. There seems to be a legitimate reason to exclude people of certain races from the cast - and the legitimacy of this reason is what saves the act from being racist. Discrimination is not enough for racism - it must be unjustified racial discrimination.

Back to Joe and Sue

This criterion of unjustified discrimination is what I think saves Joe from charges of racism. It is his business after all, and if hiring black people would truly hurt that business because black people make him feel funny (not because he thinks less of them than members of other races), I think he has a legitimate reason for not hiring them.

Same goes for Sue - if she isn't attracted to members of certain races, that is a legitimate reason for not dating them. As long as Sue would consider dating someone of another race if she found that she was attracted to them, and as long as Joe would consider hiring a black person who didn't make him feel funny, they and their actions are not racist.

Do situations like these ever actually come up? Maybe. I think Sue's situation is more likely than Joe's. In either kind of case, I would tend to doubt the honesty of the claims made by the Sues and Joes - it's likely that they would be using excuses to mask racist feelings. But I can't exclude the possibility that they aren't.

Further Problems?

I realize that this line of argument might be extended to allow for exclusions that it seems should be considered racism. What if Joe does have a bias against black people and that is the reason he feels funny around them? Maybe he can't really change that bias - not in the short term, anyway. It is still the case that hiring a black person would make him feel funny (which he can't help, we are supposing), which would hurt productivity. Does that make his not hiring black people legitimate? I think the right answer to that is no. But I'll pause for some discussion and reflection before I try to find a good explanation of why that is.

What do YOU think?
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