Dating sites are the lazy-man’s bar. There is no social pressure for niceties. You’re free to ignore greetings from people you are not attracted to, and hit on those you think are out of your league without even fixing your hair. It’s judgement at its most unforgiving. You can browse through other human beings like they’re t-shirts in a catalogue.
Some people get hurt by the bluntness of dating sites, but it can also be refreshing. I’ve always appreciated the frank profiles. It means you know what you’re dealing with. You save yourself having to sit through all those awkward dates with people you know you will never want to see again. Sometimes there’s a truth that resonates with you in the way they phrase their honesty. And in return for the candour, you can be quite open about what you’re after too, in a way that you could never do face to face: a quick fuck, a friendship with benefits, or the love of your life.
But there is one thing that irks me every time I see it. Despite being wondrously frank, it makes me immediately lose interest. More than that, it makes me feel anxious for humanity. It’s that loud, caps-locked warning to certain races not to bother applying. Now that’s a criterion I can imagine sitting quite comfortably on the Orania town hall speed-dating register, but not on the screens of young, urban South Africans in 2011. It horrifies me that there are still people out there who can be so shamelessly racist.
But when I brought this up with a friend, he told me not to be so judgemental: “You can’t force yourself to be attracted to people you aren’t attracted to,” he said. “It’s not racism. It’s just personal taste.” And that got me thinking, when is personal taste offensive and when is it okay?
I have never specified race on a dating profile, but I’m pretty cut-throat within my own race-group: I am almost guaranteed not to be interested in blonde guys, for example. I like olive skin and dark hair. And that has the unsurprising consequence of giving me a thing for coloured guys. Would it be okay to exclude blondes explicitly? And to say only coloured guys should message me? Is specifying a race okay as long as it’s not your own race that you’re limiting yourself to?
In my quest to play Devil’s Advocate and remove my prejudice against those I find distastefully prejudiced, I started asking myself: What determines attraction, anyway? Is it socialised into us by our context? In which case can I just blame Apartheid for it, and cut everyone some slack for seeing the world like that. That would also explain why I never saw those race warnings on profiles when I lived in the UK.
“To assume that you will never feel that connection with an entire group of people implies a level of dislike for that group…”
But is it that British guys are more enlightened and open-minded than we are? Or is it simply that they don’t encounter different races as often as we do, so don’t feel the need for the warnings (and just live out their preferences in how they respond)? Or is it that in the UK race does not correlate so strongly with culture? If you’re black and British, you’re culturally identical to someone who is white and British. You’ll find the same jokes funny, have the same high school memories.
While I hope we are at last on the road to a shared South African experience, we are still a long way from it. People of different race groups here often speak different home languages, have vastly different contexts and cultures and family structures. Is it the thought of introducing a different-race boyfriend to raised-in-Apartheid parents that puts so many people off? They have to deal with a gay son already – wouldn’t that push them over the edge?
But then wouldn’t that only put off those who are looking for a relationship? What about those who check the other, more casual, less likely-to-involve parents boxes?
There is a lot of baggage with race in South Africa. Everyone is hypersensitive to it. I guess it probably is easier to sleep with and have relationships with people of the same race. But where is the fun in doing what’s easy? Where is the potential to transform your life?
A (black and Xhosa) friend of mine told me the other day how he had been so nervous to meet his then boyfriend’s (white and Afrikaans) parents, but that when he did, they were more upset about his vegetarianism than his race. They had all laughed around the braai, and the tension was immediately broken. People get over the awkwardness of our divided past, our cultural differences are much exaggerated, and there’s certainly no point restricting your options for love because of it.
Try as I might, I cannot shake the feeling that those who specify race on their profiles are not doing it for their parents. They are not doing it because they are nervous of cultural misunderstanding. I suspect it’s much more knee-jerk than that: it’s the unwillingness to get intimate with someone from a different race.
The moral dilemma comes up, I suppose, because there is a difference between being sexually attracted to someone and liking them as a person. That’s pretty obvious. I like my mom, but I sure as hell don’t want to have sex with her. There is also a difference, therefore, between being sexually repelled by someone, and disliking them. But to what extent are those two things intertwined? And is one acceptable and the other not?
My friend, presumably, is arguing that disliking a whole group of people is racist but not being attracted to them is fine. But I would argue that attraction is an individual matter – it can’t be generalised, and it can’t be predicted. You never know who you will find attractive. Sometimes there is chemistry, sometimes there isn’t. To assume that you will never feel that connection with an entire group of people implies a level of dislike for that group.
Perhaps I should cut these people some slack. But then, the rule of dating sites is brutal judgement in order not to waste anyone’s time. If I’m going to be writing off swathes of people for my short list, I choose to write off those who negotiate the world by race. Thinking that someone’s race is an important aspect of who they are is racism in my book, and I already know we won’t get on. I’m going to allow myself that one prejudice.
And while we’re at it, I’ll open up a spot for a blonde guy on my bucket list too.