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Stuff Only White People Like

September 17, 2010

OKCupid’s The REAL ‘Stuff White People Like’ has made a fair-sized splash around the Internet.

What did OKCupid do?

OKCupid analyzed half a million of their users’ profiles in order to answer the following (unanswerable?) question:

What is it that makes a culture unique? How are whitesblacks,Asians, or whoever different from everybody else? What tastes, interests, and concepts define an ethnic group? And is there any way to make fun of other races in public and get away with it?

Their method? To use statistical methods (not described anywhere I could find them) to uncover “the words and phrases that made each racial group’s essays statistically distinct from the others'” – or as they label these tastes, “racial outliers.”

These “racial outliers” are then ranked by how unusual the preference is. For example, blacks are twenty times as likely to write “soul food” as non-blacks. No other ratios are given, but judging by the size of the font, this is near the upper-limit of “unusualness”.

To recap: We have lists of phrases ranked by how much more likely black men (for example) are than non-black men to use that phrase.

What did OKCupid imply that they did?

On the one hand, those quotes I used in the previous section came from the article itself, so OKCupid was honest about the metric their lists actually use. But could the reader easily misinterpret these lists? Of course: Ta-Nehisi Coates did, but still made the sharp point that “average black man” is not “average black man on OKCupid”. Shani-O did, but still made the sharp point that these lists more accurately represent what people “think they *should* like, in order to attract that special someone.”

Both of these misreadings are pretty understandable, considering that OKCupid titled the post The REAL ‘Stuff White People Like’ and showed charts named “Stuff Black People Like” and wrote stuff like “Double finally, how bold is it that I am cool is the second most typical phrase for black men?” and

In general, I won’t comment too much on these lists, because the whole point of this piece is to let the groups speak for themselves, but I have to say that the mind of the white man is the world’s greatest sausagefest.

I’ll explain next why it’s nonsense to assume that anything on these lists is “typical.” In any case, OKCupid knew that a blog post called “Stuff White People Like Disproportionately to Non-Whites” wasn’t going to get many views.

What do these lists actually tell us? The case of the Boston Red Sox

Matt Yglesias noticed that these were lists of racial outliers, but he titled his post on the topic “Stuff White People Really Like“. Is this a more accurate interpretation of the lists? Not really: does anyone actually believe that white girls really like the Boston Red Sox?

I am surprised that more people – especially considering how many millions of white New Yorkers exist – have not objected to OKCupid’s insinuation that liking the Red Sox is somehow the apogee of white femininity.

How did the Red Sox get to the top of the white women’s list? It’s easy enough, if you consider how white New England is and remember that these lists favor phrases that are really unpopular among other races.

Let’s go back to soul food, which we know blacks are twenty times more likely to list than non-blacks. This means that – at most! -5% of non-blacks listed soul food. We know this is the maximum because 5%*20 = 100%.

Of course, 100% of blacks did not list soul food. But think about how quickly the “black percentage” drops as we decrease the “non-black percentage”

  • Non-black: 4%, Black 80%
  • Non-black 3%, Black 60%
  • Non-black 2%, Black 40%
  • Non-black 1%, Black 20%
  • Non-black .5%, Black 10%

Here we see that it is easier to get on the list by being unpopular among most races than by being popular in one. A 1 percentage-point change in unpopularity among non-blacks does as much for soul food’s ranking as a 20 percentage-point in popularity among blacks.

Back to the Red Sox: keep in mind that only 5% of the population lives in New England, that not everyone in New England is a Red Sox fan, and not every Red Sox fan is going to list “Red Sox” in their profile. Now does anyone want to take a guess as to what percentage of white girls actually listed the Red Sox in their profiles? One percent?*

I bet more white people loathe the Red Sox than like them, and I bet the vast majority of white people are pretty much indifferent to them. And yet we are told that the Red Sox and Megadeath and the Ghostbusters are somehow the epitome of whiteness – the “tastes . . . that are specially important to [whites].”

Or perhaps black people and so on just don’t like the Dropkick Murphys.

Stuff Non-White People Don’t Give a Shit About (And Most Whites Probably Don’t Either)

… and that’s what these lists are really about.

Anyway, I apologize to all of those who saw their ethnicity reduced to a goofy list of phrases stamped with the veneer of Statistical Science. Advanced statistical techniques are unparalleled at giving us very specific answers to very specific questions. But asking a computer to crunch a bunch of numbers is the easy part. Knowing what question you asked the computer is where the subtleties lie.

Am I taking this too seriously? To some extent OKCupid wants us to take these lists seriously:

The information in this article is not our opinion. It’s data, aggregated from the essays of half a million real people.

They want the thousands of people who read that post to believe that these lists are TRUTH, and not the result of a statistical technique more or less guaranteed to reproduce racial stereotypes. Because of this article, hundreds of black girls are probably on dates right now with white guys furtively reading from crib notes on soul food and Luther Vandross.

In any case, I am just glad that OKCupid didn’t do this by religion too. Seeing a big-lettered JOE LIEBERMAN scrawled atop the “What Jews Like” would be more than I could take.


*Seriously OKCupid, I’d love to know. Your lack of a methodology section has led to a lot of guesswork here.


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