Dating apps could do more to combat racism

With thanks to my co-author, Aaliyah Blaikie

“Men ask if I would role-play black slave and white master. Others tell me they’ve never had sex with a black woman before, and when I question them on what they think is so different from sleeping with a white woman they don’t know how to answer. It’s like you’re a fair ride they want to try out so they can report back to their friends. This happens on all the dating apps — Bumble, Hinge, Match, Plenty of Fish.” This is the experience of Olivia, 51, a Londoner of Caribbean descent. Racism on dating apps in the UK is alive and well. Olivia’s explanation for this was: “It goes back to when black women were bought over from their own countries and made into circus curiosities, these savage women with large breasts and bums, curves and wiry hair, that men would lust over and see as voluptuous sex objects.”

Racism still happens on dating apps

Charvi, a British woman of Indian heritage aged 22, told us “I’ve had a couple times if I reject a guy they call me a P*ki”. Natasha, a thirty-seven year old mixed heritage woman, has been called “a P*ki” and a “monkey” on Tinder. Omar, a 21 year old British Indian man, was told by a white woman he was “too P*ki to be good looking”.

In a recent paper, Dr Keon West questioned a sample of 3,453 White British participants of all ages and several sexual preferences.[2] There was the usual widely-documented preference for White partners over ethnic minority partners. Additionally, however, participants expressed a preference for marriage with White partners, but a preference for casual sex with ethnic minorities. This is a clear example of fetishization — treating ethnic minorities as sexual objects — which is a form of racism.

Being fetishized was a common experience among our interviewees. Olivia was often asked questions such as “Do you have a really large arse? Do you have thick thighs?” Charvi was told: “I bet you’re a freak in the bedroom, Asians are freaks in the bedroom.” Gary, a 54 year old Black British man of Jamaican descent told us: “I dated one woman who wanted me to be this stereotypical black person to her friends. I became like her little pocket Chihuahua, it was strange. I was a novelty black boyfriend, a gimmick. She would ask me to dance in front of her friends. But I was never introduced to her parents. That was a no-no.”

Racism towards mixed heritage daters happens too

There is some evidence that mixed heritage daters are more popular than Black daters. However, Natasha, a 37 year old British woman of mixed heritage, told us: “I can’t count the amount of times a man’s first message to me has been ‘What’s your ethnicity?’ (99% of the time it’s white men) and when I answer, I’m blocked. I’ve also heard several times that a white man wouldn’t date me because I have black children. I’ve been told I should stick to ‘my own kind’.”

What is the effect of this ongoing experience of racism? Natasha admitted that “These messages made me feel like I wasn’t worthy, like I wasn’t good enough for a certain type of man (a white man) because I wasn’t white, and that even if I was white I still wouldn’t be good enough because I’d been ‘tainted’ by having black children.”

“Passing” for white shouldn’t be something to aim for. And yet, as Natasha reported, “I’ve gone on dates and within a few minutes the man has said ‘Oh, you look white in your pictures’. (I don’t, but that’s the ignorance.) It just makes you realise that even if you’re almost ‘white passing’ (I actually hate that phrase but I’m sure you get what I mean) you’re still not good enough because you’re not white.”

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

Are dating apps indirectly encouraging racism?

In response to the recent increase in publicity for the Black Lives Matter movement and complaints from users, Grindr removed its filters for ethnicity in June. This means users can no longer rule people out based on ethnicity. Many other dating apps don’t have filters. But Coffee Meets Bagel, Hinge and OKCupid still do, and they aren’t planning to remove them. Filters convey a message that it is acceptable to filter users out on the basis of ethnicity. Is this any different from a sign saying “No Blacks?” If not, this embeds racism into the dating “system”, normalising the pre-judging of users for their ethnicity. From here, it’s a small step (for some daters) to sending racist messages.

Ethnic minorities want to date outside their ethnic group

Ethnic filters have been justified on the basis that their ethnic minority users say they want to find each other, and that they can help to minimise encounters with racist users. But ethnic minorities are much more likely to date outside their ethnic group. As part of a Channel 4 programme in 2017 called Is Love Racist? Dr Keon West, a psychologist at Goldsmith’s University, London, surveyed a large representative sample from the UK on their dating preferences, and found that only 9% of White respondents said they would date outside their race. In contrast, results were 46% for Black respondents and 67% for mixed race. This means many ethnic minorities won’t want to use filters.

How can dating apps deal with racist messages better?

So if the ethnic filters were removed, how can apps protect users from a possible rise in racist messages? Many — but not all — dating apps already have a way to report people who violate their standards. These need to be more effective and easier to use, and generate an instant, meaningful reply for the victim. Racist comments should result in being banned immediately and permanently. Algorithms need to detect racist language; moderators need to respond faster; profiles stating ethnic preferences should not be published.

Dating apps could support responses to microagressions

A bank of stock responses could be made available for recipients to use in reply before reporting users, perhaps generated by other users. So if you get one of those annoying “All lives matter” messages, you could copy and paste an explanation of why this is insensitive. This would work well for microaggressions, such as “I’ve never had sex with a black man before” or “Where are you ‘from from’?” As Olivia describes it, many daters are “exhausted” from having to respond to these kind of comments on a daily basis on social media without having to do so on dating apps as well, but don’t want to let them pass unchallenged either in this current wave of support for Black Lives Matter. “It makes me sad, angry and sometimes disheartened, that we are in 2020 and yet some of the archaic attitudes are still going strong,” Olivia told us.

People joining the app should have to respond to the app’s community standards in a more active way than just ticking a box, perhaps by completing a questionnaire. People who have experienced racism on the app could be entitled to an even more efficient fast-track monitoring service for a period of time. All of these improvements would help to send out a message that there is a new norm: just because you’re more anonymous on a dating app than face to face, it’s never acceptable to be racist.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Footnote:

This article is the second in a series of four I’ve published. The first appears here on my blog. I’m very much aware that as a White person I am not a first-hand expert on racism and so perhaps should not be deciding whether ethnic filters are good or bad. However, I worked for eight years for a team of researchers on prejudice at the University of Oxford; and have consulted with a number of Black, mixed heritage and ethnic minority friends, family and interviewees, including my co-author, Aaliyah Blaikie. I also feel strongly that I can’t NOT write about ethnic filters, racism and diversity in dating as a London Dating Coach — it would contradict my ethos and my hashtag #ethicaldating, not to mention my upbringing! I got bullied at school in the 1980s for being the only kid to wear an “I’m against racism” badge and my family was a strong supporter of the Newham Monitoring Project at that time. My point is: I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon of Black Lives Matter! (Although now I’m probably virtue-signalling. Sigh.)

All names have been changed.

[1] Mendelsohn, G. A., Shaw Taylor, L., Fiore, A. T., & Cheshire, C. (2014). Black/White dating online: Interracial courtship in the 21st century. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(1), 2.

[2] West, K. (2019). Interethnic bias in willingness to engage in casual sex versus committed relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 57:4, 409–420.

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