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Is Love Racist? The TV show laying our biases bare

An ex-boyfriend once told me that most of his friends didn’t date black women because they didn’t find them attractive. When I got upset, he was confused. After we broke up and I took to Tinder for the first time, my inbox was suddenly brimming with messages from men fetishising me for my race. Telling me they’d never slept with a black woman before, and would I like to give it a go?

With one of the most clickbaity TV titles of the year, set to grind the gears of thousands of Brits, Is Love Racist? lands on our screens this week. It uses the shock factor, setting out to explore how racism influences our dating choices. And while there are definite issues with the show, part of me wonders if this is what some people should be forcefed to finally believe the bullshit British people of colour have to put up with when looking for a relationship, or even just on the pull.

The most important thing the show tackles, to my mind, is the myth that choosing someone to date based on their racial makeup is similar to picking a person, say, based on their hair or eye colour. Presented by Emma Dabiri, who is mixed-race black and Irish, Is Love Racist? takes 10 diverse singletons and, unawares, puts them through a series of “tests” to judge their biases on the back of a large new survey analysing 5,000 people’s dating habits – apparently the first of its kind since digital dating took off.

While some tests are less scientific than others – there’s one awful segment where a lineup of bikini-clad models are judged by the leering participants – it’s the parts that prove the extent to which white people are favoured in the dating pool that are the most fascinating. In one experiment, the singletons are fitted with eye-cameras that reveal that if you’re a person of colour, you may not even be physically looked at as a potential catch. In another, racial bias is revealed through a Harvard University association test. As Dabiri says, “We like to think that our preferences are something that are innate and really personal and individual to each of us. But if that is the case, why is there such an overwhelming preference towards whiteness?”

The reason this programme will prove controversial with large swathes of the white population is because it’s hard for them to accept how deeply racism is embedded in society. For those of us who have experienced it, it’s easy to see how it bleeds into dating and back again. As Baroness McGregor Smith says in the show, “If you’ve got preferences, I don’t think they would be different in your personal life than your work life.”

‘Why is there such an overwhelming preference towards whiteness?’ Emma Dabiri, the presenter of Is Love Racist? Photograph: Channel 4

But the average “Oliver”, let’s say, is going to hate the idea that the reason he doesn’t fancy black girls is because of a messy history which has degraded, masculinised and hypersexualised the black body, even if the show spells out otherwise. Stamping his feet on Twitter he yells into the void: “Is it racist that I prefer McDonald’s over KFC?”

They will also struggle with the idea that, generally speaking, this problem only goes one way. A black person deciding not to date a white person in the UK is far less common. According to the survey, 35% of white people said they would never date a black person, whereas 10% of black people wouldn’t date a white person. Racism is based on power structures, and this is really looking at white privilege when it comes to dating: there’s not space for a lot else once it’s established how much more desirable white people are viewed in UK society. Being the standard of beauty to the degree where you have a worldwide skin lightening industry that accounts for billions of pounds should not be discounted.

Even so, some key topics are glossed over – such as proximity being a factor in who we date. It seems obvious that with white people being the dominant race in the UK, more people of colour have to be open to dating them. Islamophobia and racism towards Muslims (no one wanted to date a guy called Mohammed, apparently), and the massive degree to which East Asian women are fetishised, aren’t covered in any depth either. “I have a thing for Asian girls,” says one idiot right at the start of the show. “They’re more submissive.”

It also annoyed me that cheeky lad stereotype “25-year-old Jordan from Southampton”, one of the singletons, is given props for not being a racist – or, to be clear, not having racial bias – even though he actively articulated the fact that he had ruled out dating mixed-race women. There wasn’t enough focus on the external influences that guide our choices; I wanted to hear more about how our colonial history has always placed people of colour beneath white people in the racial pile or, alternatively, exotified us to the degree that we’re caught in a double-bind of desirability being hinged exclusively on race.

Nevertheless, the premise the show ended on made sense: that dating apps which allow users to easily filter by race – whether that be swiping left on every black guy you see on Tinder, setting your profile to view all Asian women or actually establishing a (genuine) site called – are leading to more pronounced dating segregation. We’ve known this for a while: 2014 data from OKCupid showed that Asian and black men received fewer messages than white men, while black women receive the fewest of all users. Similar patterns were repeated on sites like Are You Interested.

It seems that, despite the first gay Muslim marriage and more mixed race people being born than ever before, British people need to start tackling their prejudices when it comes to who they’re willing to open their heart to. Love itself ain’t racist, but trust me, you probably are.