This article contains the introduction and conclusion of my paper Interracial Relationships in the 21st Century: How Online Interracial Dating Communities Function.
About 75 year ago, my then approximately 8-year old grandfather slammed the door when he saw a black man in front of him who was trying to sell nuts to people in the neighbourhood. He told me he had never seen a person with a different skin colour than white in his life, which scared him and made him run away from the man. In this period, he could have never imagined that only two generations later, one of his closest family members would get into a relationship with someone with another skin colour: interracial relationships were not usual in in that period, definitely not in the village where he lived. When my 85-year old grandmother heard I had a black American-Kenyan boyfriend, her first reaction was: ‘’A black person does not belong in our family’’.
Now, in the 21st century, a lot has changed in attitudes towards people from different races: no child would run away from seeing a black man on the street and comments like my grandmother’s have become at least remarkable. The development of digital technologies has provided new knowledge on all kinds of romantic relationships. Though this does not mean that racism has disappeared: the remnants of racist discourse is still with us today, even among interracial dating communities which argue to avoid racist thinking.
Norms in the online world
Western norms and values and white people are dominant in the online world. Consequently, white couples are the ‘norm’ and therefore are perceived as ‘normal’ couples, which makes interracial couples that involve a black and a white person ‘deviant’ or ‘abnormal’. Still, online communities that deviate from the norm are out there and are for all of us to see and participate in. It could be argued that online interracial dating communities have made interracial relationships in general more ‘normal’ as they can be established more easily and are visible for everyone and in that way people get more used to it. Controversially, they are still ‘abnormal’, as they do not fit in the ‘norm’ and their online existence could mean there is a lack of interracial relationships in the offline world. Online interracial dating communities themselves function through the idea that there really is a lack of interracial relationships in the offline world – due to the lack of time and/or lack of racial and/or cultural diversity in that world – and therefore exist to reverse this lack through digital communication.
Remnants of racist discourse
At the base of the online dominance of the West and the ‘abnormality’ of interracial relationships is the establishment of Western dominance and racist discourse which has its origin in the colonial era. Orientalism has been a powerful discourse in stereotyping ‘the other’ – by exotifying it or describing it as something dangerous – which assured the power of the West. Even though many people had the wish to leave racism behind and constructionist thinking had been established after World War II, there was still a feeling of white supremacy and racism. Though the situation for people with a dark skin colour and people in interracial relationships have been improved in the last century, this contradiction in attitudes is still with us today. One the one hand, an anti-racist norm is established in policies (for example racist laws have been left behind) and the percentage of interracial marriage have gone up. On the other hand, white people and Western norms are still dominant in today’s world and remnants of racist thinking and the feeling of supremacy are often disguised in the form of essentialist stereotyped ‘jokes’. For example, memes make use of the ‘abnormality’ around interracial relationships by making jokes about it, which shows implicit racism is a mechanism in the 21st century. Though, not all memes concerning interracial couples are the same: some are negative and others are positive towards interracial couples. This reflects the contradiction in attitudes towards race after World War II.
Normality versus authenticity
For online interracial dating communities, there seems to be a contrast between the wish to be ‘normal’ and the wish to be ‘authentic’. They argue to be ‘colour blind’ and go beyond the concept of race, which would make their relationship just another relationship. Paradoxically, partly driven by consumerism, they try to be different from ‘normal’ dating communities in mainstream society by actually emphasizing racial differences between people. The fact these communities are using the word ‘interracial’ shows they are influenced by and making use of remnants of racist discourse they argue to avoid. Also, while the love for ‘the other’ in interracial dating communities seems to be positive and is often regarded as proof that racism is disappearing, it is actually part of a wider orientalist discourse: they are exotifying ‘the other’. Online dating communities function through the influence of the dominant thinking of society in the sense that they imply their way of dating is ‘different’ by emphasizing racial differences themselves, though they choose to pick the ‘positive’ (misleading) orientalist way of thinking.
The great influence of dominant society
It can be suggested that the internet and online media are especially a reflection of the offline society. The white Western dominance versus the existence of and ability to engage in interracial dating communities, the essentialist thinking versus constructionist thinking, positive attitudes versus negative attitudes, normalization of interracial relationships versus authenticity or differentness of interracial relationships, etc. are contradictions in society that are reflected on the internet and in online media. The only difference the internet and online interracial dating communities have brought is that you can more easily engage in interracial dating – namely from behind your desk at home – which could increase the amount of interracial relationships in the offline world. But it was not the internet that introduced the ‘general antiracist norm’ after World War II. It was not the internet that gave impulse in legalizing interracial marriage in all American states in 1967. So, it is not just the internet and online media that shape the ‘abnormality’ and various attitudes towards interracial relationships, rather, society is plays the greatest role: the internet is just a mirror. This results in that the idea of interracial dating communities are more shaped by the ideas of dominant society than they are shaped by themselves. They function through the ‘normalization’ process of interracial relationships since the post-WWII period in Europe and since 1967 in the USA, and the idea of being ‘different’ shaped by racist discourse. Explicit racism is not the only kind of racism, implicit racism should be recognized as well. In fact, racism should be recognized as an ideology; it is more a collective, structural and universal mechanism or discourse than an individual characteristic. This means that not everybody necessarily shares it, but it is capable of reaching every group in society, so also online interracial communities that argue to avoid racist thinking. If racist discourse was to disappear, the interracial dating communities and interracial relationships would disappear with them and just become dating communities and relationships.