The site's concept generated immediate backlash when a photo of the billboard on a state road in West Valley City, Utah—a suburb of Salt Lake City with a population of just over 133,000—went viral. Russell, 53, said the immediate attention came as a shock to him and his wife and co-founder, Jodie, 47. Site membership jumped from six or seven people to more than 3,000 in a matter of days.
Russell first came up with the idea five months ago, while spending a sick day home from work. He and Jodie, his wife of four years, were fascinated by the commercials for dating websites such as “Black People Meet,” “Farmers Only,” “Christian Mingle,” and "LDS (Latter Day Saints) Singles" on daytime television.
They prompted the couple to ask: “Why isn’t there a ‘Where White People Meet’ site?”
Despite its name, Russell insists that the new dating website, designed by his 18-year-old son Holden, welcomes people of every race.
“It’s not ‘WhitesOnly.com,’” Russell told NTRSCTN in a phone interview on Tuesday. “It’s ‘WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com,’ with the connotation that, yeah, the majority of members are probably going to be white.”
He added that the company wants a diverse clientele. “We want all races to join if they want to, if they like what we have to offer. It’s a free market. If they want to go some place else, I’m sorry they didn’t give us a chance, but we’d love to have everyone sign up.”
Indeed, upon signing up, members can choose various races or creeds. Anyone can browse the site for free, but a paid membership ($14.97 a month, or $69 for six months) is required for those who want to communicate with other members. The site does not yet offer premium services.
Where White People Meet is Russell’s first attempt at building an online dating service. He worked in auto sales for more than 20 years as the president of the franchise Automatic Car Credit, Inc. and owns the Layton, Utah, location. Both he and Jodie, who were both previously married for more than 17 years each, had never tried online dating before.
Where White People Meet is simply a business decision, Russell explained.
“The concept was borne from, I guess, maybe an equal rights point of view,” he said, describing other existing niche dating sites. “There really wasn’t any much deeper thought process than that.”
“The only time I had been on an online dating website was, as we were checking out our competition in building our own site—doing some research and due diligence,” he added. “Other than that, I’d never even been to a dating website before.”
Russell said he was unaware of racial bias on dating sites favoring white people until his interview with the Washington Post was published, which cited those studies.
In a 2014 interview with NPR, co-founder and president of OKCupid Christian Rudder referred to this issue in his company’s data. “Every kind of way you can measure [the success of black people] on a [dating] site—how people rate them, how often they reply to their messages, how many message they get—that's all reduced," he said.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2013 shows that “racial segregation” on dating sites is a “robust and ubiquitous social phenomenon.”
“No, I’m not that familiar with those studies,” Russell said to NTRSCTN, referring to the NPR story and the PNAS study. "The first time I'd ever heard of them was, I think a gal from the Washington Post quoted some of those things ... in the piece she wrote up." Russell said he plans to “take a look at them just out of curiosity—for a social studies lesson, if nothing else.”
In addition to race, Where White People Meet has drawn criticism for its position on same-sex relationships. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the site allowed polygamist relationships, but not homosexual ones. Russell said members are no longer allowed to choose “married” under their relationship status, though: “When we were giving you those options of checking what your current relationship status was … we were torn on whether to have that box to check for married or not."
Russell explained that the original thought behind including the "married" option was for people who found themselves in long-term separations, but were still legally married. “But then we ostensibly said, ‘Well, so it’s okay to be married, but you can’t be gay.’ … We do not encourage extramarital relationships at all.”
Despite having removed the "married" option, however, Where White People Meet users can choose “affair” in the “Looking For” section. But they still can't search for same-sex matches.
“If you’re homosexual … you’re welcome to join. I have no issue whatsoever. I have gay friends. I love everybody. I have no issue with anyone,” Russell said, citing his family’s Christian values. “We just, at this time, are not promoting that lifestyle. It’s a choice we’re making. We don’t feel like we need to further promote the cause.”
Russell explained that if gay members wanted to use the site, however, they're more than welcome to include that information in their personal profiles.
“There’s hundreds of dating websites,” he said. “And if somebody feels like they can’t live with that option, then I encourage them to join a different site, and hopefully they can find what they are looking for.”
He admitted that Where White People Meet has attracted "a racist element."
“We had to delete a few accounts already that came across as racist. And we had some that came right out and said that [they were racist],” he said. “We just deleted them and said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ We don’t stand for that.”
Russell denies that he and his family are racist, describing their experience of helping raise a black teen in the foster system from 2003 to 2007, when he coached football at a local Christian church and school. Russell said he became a mentor to some of the boys on the team, including this teen.
“We raised a young black man, got him through high school and college,” Russell said. “He calls us Papa and Mama Russell.”
After the young man received a scholarship to play football in college, the Russells provided him with a car. They welcomed him to their home whenever he returned to Utah on school breaks, Russell said: “He’s just a kid who’s been in my life for a long time … [Now] he’s on the Arena Football League team, I believe, in Seattle, Washington.”
Despite the immediate backlash, Russell said Where White People Meet will continue to exist.
“We want to grow … across the country. It’s not something we just did to get attention and get people talking, at all,” he said. “I would like to see it get as big as it can get.”