Online dating is starting to look a bit more like the idealized world of a Bennetton ad.
Online dating is starting to look a bit more like the idealized world of a Bennetton ad.

Despite growing approval of interracial dating, researchers have long documented the existence of a racial hierarchy within the dating world, with white women and men the most preferred partners, blacks the least preferred, and Asians and Hispanics in between. But where do the growing numbers of biracial and multiracial individuals fit into this hierarchy? Do they too get ranked by descending shades of lightness?

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of individuals who identified themselves to Census takers as being of two or more races increased by a third. These nine million individuals still represent less than three percent of the population. But studies predict that by the year 2050, nearly one in five Americans may claim a multiracial background. How will this affect dating and marriage patterns in the United States?

We recently completed a study of how multiracial daters fare in a mainstream online dating website. Using 2003-2010 data from one of the largest dating websites in the United States, we examined nearly 6.7 million initial messages sent between heterosexual women and men. Specifically, we looked into how often Asian-white, black-white, and Hispanic-white daters received a response to their messages compared to their monoracial counterparts.

The most surprising finding from our study is that some white-minority multiracial daters are, in fact, preferred over white daters. We call this the multiracial “dividend effect,” something that has never before been reported in the existing literature on dating and mate preferences. This finding suggests that the treatment of multiracial people may in certain circumstances be more complex than is commonly recognized in research on racial hierarchies.

We found that three multiracial groups received a “dividend effect.” Asian-white women were viewed more favorably than any other group of women by white and Asian men, beating out women of the same race or ethnic group. Asian-white and Hispanic-white men were also afforded “dividend” status by Asian and Hispanic women respectively. Asian and Hispanic women responded more frequently to the multiracial men than to either their coethnic men or to whites.​

Although white women did not prefer Asian-white men to white men, they did respond to this group as frequently as to white men. This is in practice a multiracial dividend, because white women responded to monoracial Asian men as infrequently as they did to blacks.

Much scholarly discussion of multiraciality in America has been dominated by the concept of the “one drop rule” that was long enforced in the Jim Crow South, meaning that white-minority multiracial people are treated as minorities. But our study finds no support for this dynamic in the online dating world.

That is not to say that the color line has been erased. For example, white men and women are still less likely to respond to an individual who identifies as part black and part white than they are to a fellow white. But the color line has certainly been blurred, with whites responding more favorably to such individuals than to blacks. And white women actually prefer black-white men to Asian and Hispanic men, a phenomenon that explicitly contradicts what the one-drop rule would predict.

When we look at the preferences of black daters, we find that both men and women are slightly more likely to respond to whites than to same-race daters. They are also more likely to respond to black-white daters than black daters who contact them. In earlier research we found that while black women are reluctant to send messages to out-group daters, they are extremely willing to respond to messages from daters of other racial groups. Taken together with our current findings, this former behavior is likely driven by an expectation of rejection by men of other racial backgrounds, not by an inherent preference for black men over other men.

There are several possible explanations for the multiraciality dividends we found, and they may represent different dynamics in each case. In some cases they seem to be closely linked to a continuing partiality for lightness or whiteness. In the case of the preference that white and Asian men show for white-Asian women, we may be seeing the influence of longstanding cultural representations of multiracial women as unique and sexually exotic. Likewise, Asian and Hispanic women may have been influenced by the media’s increasing portrayal of multiracial men as attractive, chic, and trendy.

Some research also suggests that Asian American women may perceive Asian men with a more recent immigration history to the United States as more patriarchal and gender conservative than white American men. Thus, Asian and Hispanic women may perceive multiraciality as a marker of Americanization or gender progressiveness. At the same time, multiracial co-ethnics may be more appealing than monoracial white men in the sense that they bring a shared cultural heritage and may be accorded greater acceptance by family members. 

These findings provide us with potential insight into the social meaning of multiraciality in the post-civil rights era United States and how demographic changes in racial identification operate at the level of everyday interactions. The growing multiracial population in the United States is likely to change not just the overall racial landscape but the most intimate arenas of personal life.


Curington, Celeste Vaughan, Ken-Hou Lin, and Jennifer Hickes Lundquist. Forthcoming. “Positioning Multiraciality in Cyberspace: Treatment of Multiracial Daters in an Online Dating Website.” American Sociological Review

Hochschild, Jennifer L., Vesla M. Weaver and Traci R. Burch. 2012. Creating a New Racial Order : How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lee, Jennifer and Frank D. Bean. 2004. “America’s Changing Color Lines: Immigration, Race/Ethnicity, and Multiracial Identification.” Annual Review of Sociology 30:221–42.

Masuoka, Natalie. 2008. “Political Attitudes and Ideologies of Multiracial Americans: The Implications of Mixed Race in the United States.” Political Research Quarterly 61(2):253–67.

Nemoto, Kumiko. 2006. “Intimacy, Desire, and the Construction of Self in Relationships between Asian American Women and White American Men.” Journal of Asian American Studies 9(1):27–54.

Pyke, Karen D. and Denise L. Johnson. 2003. “Asian American Women and Racialized Femininities ‘Doing’ Gender across Cultural Worlds.” Gender & Society 17(1):33–53.

Spencer, Rainier. 2004. “Assessing Multiracial Identity Theory and Politics: The Challenge of Hypodescent.” Ethnicities 4(3):357–79.

Spencer, Rainier. 2011. Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Celeste Curington is a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where Jennifer Lundquist is in the sociology department. Ken-Hou Lin is in the sociology department at the University of Texas at Austin.