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Saturday, December 10, 2022


Navigating the difference between racial preferences and racism

Racial preferences often get grouped in with racism. The distinction lies in that preferences do not result in the oppression of one group. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ user: Fae


It is important to distinguish between what is considered racist and what is considered prejudice. Many self-proclaimed activists today dedicate their time to lip service and vilifying individuals for personal preferences that are not inherently racist. It is easy to get lost in the grey area between the two, but making a distinction is important.

When we give more attention to smaller-scale social issues, we trivialize the larger struggle against systematic social and economic oppression of minorities. This is not to say that we should ignore microaggressions and unpleasant interactions with individuals who choose to remain ignorant, but we should not direct all our energy toward these things.

Preferences in the professional world — within the realms of business, academia, etc. — have the tendency to be racially biased. Unless a position is strictly reserved for an individual of a particular background, such as hiring an Arab professor specifically to teach in a Middle Eastern studies department at a university, preferences are dangerous as they are often based on stereotypes and anecdotal evidence.

When minorities are discriminated against at school or work, this is systematic and unacceptable. One such example is the case of schools in South Africa telling black students to “fix” their hair and even warning students that they will not be able sit down for exams because of their hairstyles.

But what if we focus more on personal preferences in individual everyday interactions? Is it racism if someone says they prefer certain features in a romantic partner or only chooses to befriend people of a particular background? 

Stereotypes and anecdotal evidence are also applicable to preferences in personal relationships, romantic and platonic. But whether they are racist becomes more complex, particularly because racism by definition relates to overarching systems of oppression.

Systematic oppression does not explicitly happen through personal relationships.

One can most certainly say these preferences are shallow or evidence of ignorance, but not racist. While it is also possible to make the argument that preferences are rooted in the obsession with Eurocentric beauty standards, and therefore racist, this entails that an individual is of corrupt moral character. Research shows that this is not the case. 

This is a dangerous leap that results in misguided anger and emotional responses with less than desirable outcomes.

If an individual refrains from association with certain races and cultures based on beliefs that others are inferior to themselves, this can be considered prejudiced. Their preferences, however, cannot be equated with the oppression associated with racism as they do not deprive minorities of livelihood or progression.

In general circumstances, people do not control who they are attracted to because this often happens subconsciously. We are naturally attracted to those similar to us, and many times this entails similarities in culture.  Many of us can feel offended by other’s preferences, but this does not justify labeling them as racist.

We do not live in a world where we will all be interested in one another to the same extent. The sooner we stop giving as much attention to the smaller details, the more energy and time we will have to direct to dismantling large-scale oppressive systems.

Opinion columnist Sarah Tawashy is a human nutrition and foods junior and can be reached at [email protected]

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