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Dating Apps and Race Still a Mixed Bag

Seeing the words, “It’s a match!” on your screen after “swiping right” is a rush of dopamine. It opens the possibility of connecting with someone you might not have met in your day-to-day life without the hassle of striking up a conversation with a stranger. Before Big Tech took over our dating lives, romance was usually limited to people in our social circles from school, church, or neighborhoods. That commonly meant people from the same race and ethnicity. 


Dating websites were once perceived as frivolous and superficial, but The Pew Research Center recently found 52% of unmarried American adults now use them, enough to radically change the dating landscape. According to Stanford University surveys, 3 in 10 couples meeting online are interracial, compared to only 19% of those who met through traditional methods. This information matches the research of two Cornell University economists who also found a far higher percentage of interracial marriages. Sociologist Reuben Thomas also notes a possible rise between online dating and interracial and interreligious couples.

New York actor Nick Baker, 32, says the apps manage to bridge the gap between social and cultural circles. 


Seeing the words, “It’s a match!” on your screen after “swiping right” is a rush of dopamine.

“I prefer an app like OkCupid because you can also read a fully formed and personalized profile about someone before you even get to talk to them,” Baker says. “The first time I ever grew close to a Muslim person was a Pakistani woman I met on OkCupid. We bonded over our shared interests in TV shows and laughed about how we both were nerds.”


The duo are now platonic friends who continue to stay in touch.


While research offers hope that apps can herald an integrated, multicultural society, it also makes clear they carry an ugly, fetish-related downside.


“As a Black woman, I felt like using Tinder was very similar to walking down a street and being subjected to the hyper-sexualization I have had to deal with regularly,” says Karima Jackson, 33, a New York-based operations manager. “One of the white guys I had matched with immediately sent me a message that said, ‘What that mouth do’ (sic)? There was nothing on my profile that suggested I was looking for a hook-up.” 


She says this wasn’t the first time non-Black men sent her highly offensive, sexual comments.


“On dating apps like Tinder, it can get worse because these men can hide behind their phones. It’s clear these messages stem from their racial biases,” she says. 


The creators of dating app “Bumble” consider non-consensual fetishization a form of sexual harassment, and they advise users to make use of the app’s Block and Report feature for unwelcome or non-consensual fetishizing comments or advances. Using the feature could result in the sender getting a warning and an opportunity to amend their behavior, or it could permanently bar their account eventually. This doesn’t stop pests from moving on to plague other apps or re-opening a new account in the same app under a different name and credentials, of course.


Another nuisance race issue with dating apps appears to be users’ blatant bias in their preferences. One study reveals Black people are 10 times more likely to contact white candidates on dating websites, which puts non-white races at a disadvantage. OkCupid’s founder and data scientist Christian Rudder published a viral blog post in 2015 revealing Asian men and Black women to be the least desirable candidates, while Asian women and white men were rated the highest among users. This unfortunate trend also stretches into LGBTQ relationships, putting women of color at a near universal disadvantage. 


OkCupid, Hinge, and many other dating apps make it easy by letting users filter preferences by race. Finding matches from a specific race can be as simple as unticking a box. Studies show the algorithms of at least 25 apps further aggravate the process by suggesting new and potential matches based on the race users previously matched with. The algorithm filters non-whites from the dating pool before they can even be considered.


“Sexual racism existed long before dating platforms came to be,” said Berhman Klein Center sociologist and author Kendra Albert in a Harvard Gazette interview. “What dating apps do is automate sexual racism, making it hyper efficient and routine to swipe in racially curated sexual marketplaces.”


From 2017 to 2019 , Match Group (the parent company to Tinder, Hinge, and OkCupid), filed several patents claiming its algorithms are designed to match people with “compatible character traits and values.” Instead patents reveal the “networking architectures” mainly focused on connecting users based on superficial characteristics like eye color, hair color, and ethnicity. The shallow matching system might cater to the needs of some but fails users looking for a partner based on shared values like “caring about improving public health,” “disability rights,” and “taking action to decelerate the climate crisis.” 


For many non-white customers, the apps remain a demoralizing experience. 


“There are many hurdles and challenges when it comes to interracial dating,” Manuel Knight, a Black artist who lives in Brooklyn, New York, says. “It can be discouraging to solely use online dating as a tool to meet new people. It can hurt your confidence a lot. Online dating has its plus points, but it can be bad as it allows people to be far pickier and more self-centered.”


Knight says he comes across profiles on apps where people explicitly write, “No Blacks” or “No Asians.” 


“Normally, young people on other apps are a lot more progressive and open to dating people who are different from them. But seeing such profiles on Plenty of Fish in 2019 was disappointing,” he says. 


Anuradha Varanasi is a freelance science journalist based in Mumbai, India. She has written for Popular Science, UnDark, Inverse, Atlas Obscura, and more. 


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