New documentary Date My Race forces us all to confront the role that race plays in the world of dating, specifically in the online world. Does a racial preference amount to racism?
Presenter Santilla Chingaipe has long suspected her race plays a role in her own online dating experience and puts this theory to the test. With a series of unique social experiments she also challenges other Australians with strong racial preferences to reconsider their online dating behaviour.
Santilla sat down with The Guide to discuss making the show:
Was it intimidating to put your personal dating life out into the open on TV?
Yes and no. Yes, it’s a personal story because I’m trying to figure out why I’ve not done too well in terms of online dating, but I also went in as a journo. I went in asking questions. I went in looking at race and racism - to understand why people hold certain views and what shapes and forms that. I think as much as it does feel like a personal story, it’s not really because there’s something that’s bigger than me as an individual. So, from that perspective, it wasn’t that hard, it didn’t feel that daunting.
Because you had a professional distance, was there anything surprising that you learnt about yourself from the experience, or were you too detached?
I learnt that I can cry. [Laughs]
What really surprised me was that I went into it as a journo, but somewhere along the way there was reinforcement from academics and the people involved in the social experiments that showed what I already knew: that my race was a factor and that I was essentially at the bottom of this totem pole. Having the epiphany that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I work, no matter how successful I become, race is the one thing I can’t change. There is nothing I can do about it.
I can’t control how people perceive me based on my skin colour. When I had that moment, that’s when it got quite emotional for me.
There’s the sequence where you visually represent the difference in values placed on race on the race track... Seeing all of the other women of different races ahead of you, did that affect your own self-esteem?
Probably one of the reasons I won’t go back onto online dating is I’d go on and my outcome would be predictable, I’d get two matches or something over a two-week period. I used to think "it had to be anything but race. It can’t be race. It has to be the photos I’m posting. Maybe I’m not showing enough boob or something?"But then I’d go on the show and the data that we had pointed to this thing.
Part of the problem is… I consider myself quite self-aware and confident, but there’s only so much that someone can do without starting to take it a bit personally. Because I have had quite a bad outcome, I feel like the longer I am online, the more unhealthy it would be for me. I think I’d start to second guess myself, I would start to question myself and who I am because I’d be wondering why nobody is liking me, why no one is matching with me. I don’t know if I will be going back online dating. I don’t think it would be healthy for me.
Would you have had that realization if you hadn’t participated in the show?
I did. I stopped using Tinder and all that sort of stuff, but I do use them when I’m overseas. There’s a very different experience overseas. I tend to find people are more receptive. People don’t hold a lot of baggage and views. They just see you for what you’re presenting as and if your values match and all that sort of stuff. I’d already decided prior to the show that I wouldn’t be engaging with that.
Do you think online dating forces us to confront our racial biases more directly than we did previously?
I think if anything it reinforces it. Online is a place where you can behave the way you want to behave without anyone watching what you are doing. It’s not just with racism, but with any form of bullying online, people say and do very hurtful things they wouldn’t say to someone in person. It encourages people to be more prejudicial than they would be in real life.
I don’t think people are thinking about it as much as they would in real life. If you were having a conversation with someone at the bar, you might initially think about it, but once you start chatting to the person, you might go “Oh, actually…”
How early did you get involved in the production of the show?
Pretty early on. I got a call from Matchbox Pictures who were producing it. They mentioned it to me and said ‘this is what we’re thinking about doing’ and asked if I’d be interested. I did a bunch of screen tests and then got the gig. When they went into pre-production, I was on-board pretty early on to get a sense of what I was curious about, what I wanted to find out, what my challenges were in dating.
How conscious is the show of biological desires versus the mental biases that we do put in place. For example, there are some people who are fixated on blondes or redheads.
Fetishisation is an interesting thing. We found with people from a non Anglo-Celtic backgrounds that if they weren’t getting likes, it was because people were fetishizing them.
People may say “Surely I’m allowed to have a preference”? Absolutely. Some people prefer blondes, other people prefer brunettes, other people prefer redheads. But that’s just hair colour. When you eliminate a whole group of people based on their skin colour, you’re eliminating everything else. You’re eliminating values, you’re eliminating compatibility. You are eliminating the things that makes relationships. Eventually you’re saying one group of people represents a particular thing, which is obviously not true. It’s all based on stereotypes. Racial preference isn’t just a preference, it is racism. It really is.
Date My Race airs on Monday 27 February at 8:30pm on SBS as part of Face Up to Racism Week.