interracial dating

Can Interracial Dating Be Assortative?

How has mate selection changed over time? How does assortative dating affect future populations?

Interracial dating among adolescent and college students has been increasing in American society in the past several decades. While dating is usually characterized assortative, or similarity on a number of variables including race, interracial dating has been generally characterized as experimental. This study raises the possibility that the increase in interracial dating among college students may fit the pattern of assortative dating if the interracial daters are similar on variables other than race.

The study consisted of three groups of committed college daters: a group of white couples, a group of black couples, and a group of interracial couples. Couples filled out a questionnaire consisting of demographic questions and their social attitudes about prejudice, religion, and sexual behavior. This study found that the three groups of daters, interracial, white only, and black only differed on nine variables. No differences were found within the three groups, however, with the exception of the parents’ attitudes toward interracial dating for interracial couples, suggesting that interracial daters follow an assortative pattern in dating similar to white only and black only daters.

Interracial Dating: Can it be Considered Assortative?

Dating in American society has followed an underlying pattern referred to as assortative dating. In assortative dating, individuals select others to date on the basis of similarity on a number of factors, such as age, ethnic background, education, race, and religious beliefs. Other factors that are positively correlated with mate selection are: attitudes and opinions, mental ability, socioeconomic status, height, weight, eye color, personality variables, number of siblings, and a host of physical characteristics.

This pattern of assortative dating has been fairly the same since the emergence of dating research in the early part of this century. While factors that define assortative dating have changed over this period, the pattern to date and marry someone similar to oneself has continued. When couples do not fit into this pattern, they generally are described as bucking the trend. Such relationships are thought of as novelties that are high risk for disruption and termination.

Evolutionary theory has affected beliefs about mate selection. For example, Darwin proposed the concept of sexual selection to account for differences in characteristics that are not tied to natural selection such as the plumage of peacocks. Darwin’s concepts of sexual selection included the belief that members of one sex have preferential choices for members of the other sex. He noted that in the human and animal world, females tend to be more discriminating in their choice of mates than males. If a female prefers a male with certain characteristics, this preferred male characteristic will become more dominated in subsequent generations.

This characteristic for the female to make choices that set the pattern for assortative mating means that these patterns are subject to variation over time. Consequently, assortative dating is affected by individual selection preferences of members of the society. For example, some characteristics may become linked at one point in time in ways they were not linked in the past. For example, if higher socioeconomic males prefer mating with very attractive females, a cross-character assortment results in which these two characteristics tend to covary. While mating patterns have not substantially changed since the industrial revolution, other consequences of modern society such as geographical mobility, online dating, and equal opportunity may introduce a greater tendency for cross-character assortment.

This study investigates the possibility that the increase in interracial dating may signal a beginning of a new trend in assortative dating in which couples select another person on the basis of similarity in variables other than race. College students increasingly seem committed to the premise that others should be judged on the basis of their merits and not on their race or the color of their skin. This commitment to look beyond race in selecting others for intimate relationships may alter the definition of what constitutes assortative dating. While it has been long noted that couples select each other with many overlapping similarities, there is no perfect match. Personality characteristics, such as being introverted or extroverted, may affect a person so that they select someone opposed to their personality type. This may signal a type of cross-character assortment in which persons select others of different races for mating, because of certain characteristics.

The extent of the increase in interracial dating and sexual intimacy may not be immediately obvious. One of the major factors affecting contemporary dating and mate selection is internet dating sites. Persons who meet on the internet and begin dating tend to be less similar than person who meet offline.

A silent influence affecting the shifts in assortative mating is the overall acceptance and promotion in the concept of diversity. No place is the concept of diversity in relationships portrayed more than in TV commercials, a recent and consistent trend. The trend is to show couples portrayed in commercials as interracial. These media messages, both cognitively and subliminally, affect how one feels about those in one’s intimate sphere.  As the concept of diversity in families becomes more dominate, a shift in assortative mating based on preferential choice takes place. 

This study assumes that interracial couples select each other for the same reasons as same race couples since diversity in families is becoming a dominate social construct. This study attempts to shed light on the view that interracial dating reflects a similar set of factors as same race dating which can be considered assortative. Although many factors could be isolated to measure assortative dating, this study limits the factors to social attitudes about interracial dating, communication with parents, religious values, attitudes about sexual behavior, family structure, family income, parents’ occupation, and grade point average.

Method

Subjects

The sample consisted of a total 38 couples, 15 white couples, 9 black couples, and 14 interracial couples. There was a total of 38 males and 38 females. All couples had been dating exclusively for at least six months prior to the beginning of the study. In all cases the interracial couples included a black male and a white female. All subjects attended a mid-South university of approximately 11,000 students.

Subjects were recruited by obtaining a printout from the university registrar of all currently enrolled students. A formula was developed to randomly select students to contact about the study. Because the student body consisted of only 3% black students, however, all black students were initially contacted about the study. White only and interracial couples who were currently dating in a committed interracial relationship were eager to participate in the study, but both black males and black females who dated only within their own race were less willing, but the reason for this difference was not investigated. Consequently, the final sample of black committed couples represented an available sample rather than corresponded to our random selection methods.

Freshmen comprised 10.5%, 14.5 % were sophomore, 19.7% were juniors, 15.8% were seniors, and 39.5% were graduate students. Only 18.2% were members of Greek organizations while 81.8% were not members. Most of the subjects were affiliated with the Protestant faith (85.6%), with the remainder (11.8%) being Catholic or Agnostic (2.6%). About 29% did not consider religion very important, while 36% said it was somewhat important and 35% believed it to be very important. Most parents were married and living together (59.2%) while 40.8% were either divorced or not living together. Single-parent families comprised 18.4% of the sample. Most subjects were from a town of less than 50,000 persons (60.4%), while 39.6% were reared in a larger metropolitan area of over 50,000 population.

Average family income of parents was reported as follows: 7.9% below $15,000 annual income; 19.7% between $15,000 and $25,000; 22.4% between $25,000 and $35,000; 14.5% between $35,000 and $50,000; and 35.5% above $50,000. Fathers’ occupations were reported as 2.6% professional, 21.1% as managerial, 15.8% service, 36.8% skilled and unskilled labor, and 23.7% unemployed or retired. Mothers’ occupations were reported as 1.3% professional, 9.2% managerial, 25% service, 32.9% skilled and unskilled labor, and 31.6% unemployed or retired (see Table 1).

Place of ResidenceLess than 50,000 population60.4
More than 50,000 population39.6
Family IncomeBelow 15,000 annual7.9
15,000 – 25,00019.7
25,000 – 35,00022.4
35,000 – 50,00014.5
above 50,00035.5
Father’s OccupationProfessional2.6
Management21.1
Service15.8
Skilled/Unskilled36.8
Unemployed/Retired23.7
Mother’s OccupationProfessional1.3
Management9.2
Service25
Skilled/Unskilled32.9
Unemployed/Retired31.6

Table 1: Subjects

Instruments

The questionnaire consisted of demographic questions regarding sex, family background information, class standing, grade point average; and family structure, family income, and place of residence. The following instruments were used in the study:

1) Parent-Adolescent Communication Scale

This scale measures the degree to which there are problems in the parent/child relationship in addition to the amount of satisfaction in this relationship. A sample question is: “My mother/father is always a good listener.” The reliability for this study using the Cronbach procedure was Alpha = 91 (see Table 2).

2) Intrinsic and Extrinsic Religion Scales

The two subscales of this study measure religious experience in global terms and the degree to which it is an internal or an external experience. Typical questions for this instrument include “My religious development has emerged out of my sense of personal identity” and “I believe in life after death.” Reliability established for this instrument in this study was Alpha = 92.

3) Sexual Attitudes Scale

This scale measures four dimensions of sexuality: permissiveness, sexual practices, communion, and instrumentality. Permissiveness items include “casual sex is acceptable” and “Sex is more fun with someone you don’t love.” Sexual practice refers to the use of birth control, knowledge of sex education, views about the use of “sex toys,” and masturbation. Communion refers to one’s overall attitude about sex, such as how one integrates sexual experiences into beliefs about relationships. Instrumentality refers to how one perceives sexual experiences. A sample item is “Sex is primarily a bodily function, like eating.” The Cronbach Alpha for this study was Alpha = .82.

4) The Interracial Dating Preference Questionnaire

This study used only Part A, containing four interracial scenarios in which subjects responded to how they and their parents felt about participating in a number of interracial situations. The Cronbach Alpha procedure determined the reliability of this instrument for this study to be Alpha= .98.

Parent-Adolescent Communication Scale.91
Intrinsic & Extrinsic Religious Scales.92
Sexual Attitude Scale.82
The Interracial Dating Preference Questionnaire.98

Table 2: Reliability of Instrument

Procedures

A random selection of white and black students was determined for contacting about the study. Subjects identified by the random sample method were contacted by telephone or in person to explain the general nature of the research and determine their willingness to participate. If they were willing to participate and met the following requirements the questionnaire and a confidentiality statement were mailed to them through campus mail. The requirements were: 1) subjects were in a committed intimate dating relationship for at least six months; 2) both the subject and the dating partner were willing to complete questionnaires; 3) subjects were not to compare answers prior to completing the questionnaires; 4) subjects mailed the questionnaire to the researchers in separate pre-addressed envelopes.

Results

In order to determine if differences existed between the three groups, a discriminant analysis was performed on the data. The analysis revealed that nine variables discriminated between the three groups (see Table 3). The variables were: 1) How the subject would feel about participating in an interracial dating situation; 2) How parents would feel about the subject dating interracially: 3) The family structure (divorced versus intact families); 4) Communication problems with the father; 5) Religious beliefs; 6) Sexual intimacy; 7) Sexual practices; 8) Grade point average; and 9) Mother’s occupation. The discriminant function revealed that group membership could be predicted about 80% of the time. Specifically, the discriminate analysis predicted group membership for the interracial couples 83.3% of the time, 86.7% for white couples, and 66.7% for the black couples.

Of particular concern was whether subjects within a group differed significantly. While the three groups of daters were substantially different, it was not known whether or not subjects within a group varied significantly. In order to test the within group differences a series of ANOVAS were executed. This analysis revealed that subjects within a group did not vary significantly on any of the variables with the exception of what the parents believed about dating interracially. This finding suggests that of the three groups of daters, interracial, black only, and white only, none differed significantly within the groups except for the attitudes of parents of interracial daters.

StepVariableWilks’ LambdaFdf
1How you feel about dating.4137.142, 69
2How parents feel.339.434, 136
3Family structure.291.326, 134
4Communication.272.128, 132
5Religious beliefs.252.8210, 130
6Communion factor.241.6312, 128
7Instrumental factor.231.7014, 126
8GPA.221.8116, 124
9Mother’s occupation.211.0518, 122

Table 3: Summary of Stepwise Discriminate Analysis

n = 76; p < 0.000

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to investigate the patterns of dating for interracial and same race couples. The discriminate analysis revealed that a significant difference existed between the three groups according to nine variables. The variables carrying the most weight were social attitudes about interracial dating, problematic relationship with the father, family structure, sexual intimacy, sexual practices, grade point average, and the mother’s occupation.

Overall, group membership is strictly defined and highly predicted for all three groups. These social attitudes are expressed in terms of how the participant and the participant’s parents feel about interracial dating couples. Social attitudes about interracial dating are the best discriminators of group membership.

One’s self-identity as a member of a particular race and the selection of another person on that basis appears to be very strong for some people, but the decision to date outside of one’s race appears equally strong for other people.

Consequently, the variable of race can both limit and expand the dating pool depending on one’s belief system about interracial dating. Likewise, this study supports other research findings in which one’s parents disapprove of interracial dating. This study shows a sharp contrast between how one views dating interracially and how one’s parents view interracial dating.

This study supports the view that religious attitudes are important in choosing a partner in a committed relationship. This study suggests that not only do religious beliefs act to bring people together, but also act to separate people according to whether they date interracially or within their own race. Because these three groups differ according to religious beliefs, it can be assumed that religious beliefs act as a kind of philosophical screen whereby one identifies with a potential dating partner. While membership in one of the three groups was mediated by religious beliefs, no differences existed within groups. In other words, interracial daters had similar religious beliefs to their partners, but were significantly different from white and black only daters.

Two subscales of the sexual attitude scale were also significant in determining the differences in the three groups. How sexual intimacy is viewed as the union of two persons and specific sexual practices discriminated among the three groups. This could mean that views about sexual intimacy could be a major factor that distinguishes interracial daters from same race daters. This finding may suggest that certain attitudes and values about sex are important in selecting a mate and they act to promote certain types of relationships. Interracial dating may reflect a particular type of attitude about sexual behavior.

It is interesting to note that communication with the father differentiates the three group of daters rather than communication with the mother. This finding may reflect the father’s overall role in social and sexual adjustment. Because fathers typically have more involvement in the offspring’s social and sexual identities, fathers may be more verbal in expressing displeasure about the dating choices of their children, especially in a longer committed dating situation. It is also interesting to note that when looked at within groups, communication with either parent was not significantly different for any of the three types of daters.

Grade point average was different for the three groups of daters. One would expect that grade point average would be a factor in dating because it can be used as a rough measure of aptitude. While the three groups differed, within groups there were no differences, meaning that persons of similar grade point average dated.

It is also interesting to note that the mother’s occupation differentiated the three groups but was not different within groups. In other words, interracial couples have parents who are similar to each other regarding parents’ occupation, as well as black only and white only daters.

Not only is it possible to predict subject membership according to whether it is an interracial, white only, or black only daters, it is also possible to conclude that within the three groups, subjects do not differ according to these variables. This finding strongly suggests that committed daters are not significantly different from each other regardless of race; that is, white only daters, interracial daters, and black only daters tend to be similar within their respective groups. The only exception is that interracial daters differ from the other two on their perceptions of how their parents view the interracial dating situation. The interracial daters have the same attitudes, but they differ on how their parents accept it. The interracial daters, as well as the two other types of daters, were similar on other variables including grade point average, sexuality, religious beliefs, and communication with parents.

Of primary importance for this study is demographic variables did not play much of a role except that family structure differentiated the three groups. While the groups were different according to family structure, interracial, white only, and black only daters did not differ within their own group. This finding suggests that the family background variable is similar within each group but different across groups. This finding supports the view that family structure is important in selecting a committed dating partner and that persons of similar family structure select one another.

On the basis of this research, it appears that a case can be made that interracial dating in American society among college students may represent a type of assortative dating in which subjects are closely matched on variables other than race. Why college students date interracially may be very similar to why students date within their race, namely, because of similarity on a number of variables. This initial research in interracial dating according to assortative variables should be followed by a larger sample with more standardized instruments for such measures as personality traits and aptitude.

While the findings in this research clearly support the view that interracial couples and same race daters differ and that couples within the three groups do not differ there are some limitations to this study in generalizing to all interracial couples. The relatively small sample in this study was from a mid-South University and may not represent students in colleges in other areas of the country. The instruments could be better defined to test specific assortative variables, such as mental ability and personality differences.

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