Romance and Race

Sociology Ph.D. candidate Olivia Hu is studying how people choose romantic partners across race lines, and how those relationships affect their understandings of social difference.

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When Olivia Hu was in middle school, around 2008, a blog called Stuff White People Like went viral. “It was this long list of stuff white liberals supposedly liked,” says Hu. “It was satirical, but on that list—I think it was between ‘Wes Anderson movies’ and ‘nonprofits’—was ‘Asian girls.’ And my young tween brain was so confused as to why I and other people who looked like me would be put on a list that mostly consisted of inanimate objects. That’s when I realized that love might be fraught for me, and I was really curious why.”

In the U.S., the number of new marriages between two people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds has been growing, but same-race unions are still the norm. A report by the Pew Research Center in 2017—50 years after Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage nationally—put the percentage at 17.

As a fifth-year doctoral candidate in sociology, Hu is now working to understand the lives behind such statistics, to learn more about love and race, especially where the two intersect. “I’ve decided to study the social forces that shaped the creation of that viral list,” she says, “as well as love and desire more broadly.”

Love Stories

Hu’s main research method has been in-depth interviews, averaging two hours, with New York-based individuals who identify as East Asian women and who are in relationships with partners who identify as male and as white, Black, South Asian, or Southeast Asian. “Most of the sociological literature on interracial relationships focuses on couples in which one partner is white,” says Hu. “But this doesn’t allow us to understand how people of color navigate the racial boundaries that separate them from other people of color.”

Fifth-year doctoral candidate Olivia Hu (Image: Courtesy Olivia Hu)


Hu’s interviews cover the participants’ life histories, including where they grew up, who they hung out with, career paths, “those sorts of things,” she says. They then discuss how the participants’ relationships have been received by family members, friends, colleagues, even strangers the couple encounters. And finally, they talk about how participants themselves experience the relationships, “conversations or conflicts, perhaps, that revolve around racial, ethnic, or cultural differences,” says Hu.

The experiences really run the gamut, she adds. “There are some folks who are very aligned with their partners on racial issues and experiences, and then others who have very contentious conversations about race.”

Hu then codes and analyzes themes across the interviews. She conducted 47 for her master’s thesis. “For my dissertation my target is 100, so it’s a lot of talking, and I say I have no idea how I would do this work if I weren’t so extroverted,” she jokes.

Friendship, Love, and Racial Understanding

One of her most interesting findings so far, outlined in a paper under review in an academic sociology journal, stresses the importance of early childhood platonic friendships in the development of individuals’ romantic preferences.

“My participants with white partners more frequently mentioned white friends when talking about how they developed their racial self-concepts and preferences,” Hu says. “In contrast, my participants with partners of color would often discuss non-white friend groups within which they could process what it means to be a racial minority and their experiences with racism, and develop pride in their racial identities. So basically, my participants with partners of color felt like their non-white friend circles provided a buffer against white racism and also encouraged them to think of whiteness as a sort of barrier to shared understanding in romantic contexts.”

A Love of Teaching

In 2022, Hu received Penn’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students. Nominations for the award are made by undergraduate students.

“Teaching is very much the soul of the job,” says Hu. “My experiences with my students have been some of the most rewarding in the past five years.”

Her “north stars” of the practice include incorporating kindness and empowering her students to be active co-creators in their own education. “I believe that education should be a collaborative process where everyone contributes something to our collective understanding as a group,” Hu says.

She also aims to provide students with a strong methodological foundation on which they can build out their own research agendas and answer their own questions. “Most importantly, I want to equip my students with the tools that they need to think critically about social problems and their solutions,” she says. “The world is getting so crazy and complex; the ability to effectively gather and critically evaluate information has never been more important.”

Hu says that in this paper, which earned an honorable mention for an award from the American Sociological Association, she is “softly suggesting” that the distinction often drawn between platonic friendships and romantic relationships is not so clear-cut, seeing a connection in how her participants “make sense of their lives and how that influences their romantic outcomes.”

In another paper, for which Hu received a 2023 award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems, she found that her participants tend to have one of three experiences in interracial/interethnic relationships.

For one, they can develop “a certain heightened awareness of structural racism, mostly by witnessing the racism that their partners encounter, or by having difficult conversations about race with their partners. Respondents with Black and darker-skinned South Asian partners were more likely to experience these changes in racial understanding,” she says. A second group of individuals experience little or no change in their racial views, something Hu found most often in participants with South or Southeast Asian partners and white partners.

A small percentage of participants with white partners experienced a shift toward what Hu calls “colorblind racism” or the idea that “racial inequality can be best addressed by not talking about race altogether,” she explains. “In this paper I coined the term ‘racial resignation’ to describe a really frustrating and difficult process by which some participants give up elements of their racial worldview to prevent further racial conflict in their relationship.”

Romance and Beyond

Hu emphasizes that her sample size is not large enough to generalize to a larger population, but says that by seeing how people negotiate their understandings of race in their private romantic lives, she is starting to uncover some mechanisms through which people in mixed unions can transform their perspectives on race and racism. “And that’s important, because how people think about race and racism informs their political orientations and decisions,” Hu says.

About her research on romantic preferences, she explains that she is not in the business of “policing desire.” “People should be able to love who they want to love. I am just drawing attention to the ways in which this love can be patterned and could also be a mechanism for interrupting—or entrenching—larger social inequalities.”

As she works on her 100 interviews for her dissertation, Hu is now including in her participant pool individuals who identify as men, and her focus has shifted slightly to “how individuals navigate different social spaces with their partner and what happens to their understandings of race after they enter these interracial relationships.” She’s also working on a project with a colleague at Princeton to study online dating.

So, romance remains in the air—and in Hu’s research.