This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Equal Time Magazine
By: Hana Maeda –
At the urging of my best friend, I decided to give online dating a try. Two weeks after installing OkCupid, I quickly exchanged numbers with Kyle*. Our conversations started out pretty generic—the typical “what are you doing up at 2 a.m.” to the “what’s your biggest pet peeve,” and so on. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he made some race-related comments, calling out a certain ethnic group for “not wearing fucking deodorant.” Kyle, a white man, also made fun of Asian guys at the gym and quipped how “they can’t dress well or lift weights.” Initially, I thought nothing of these offensive comments; I was distracted with the idea of dating someone new. But after I casually mentioned I was Japanese, things took a strange turn. He sent messages that specifically related to my ethnicity, like “Are you good at speaking Japanese?” or “I’m so jealous of Asians and their flawless tan skin.” Rather than discussing our goals or favorite pastimes, he seemed zeroed in on my native tongue and physical attributes.
Things eventually drifted with Kyle, but that wasn’t the end of uncomfortable, odd messages cluttering my OkCupid inbox. Oftentimes, users would ask “What are you?” or “Are you Japanese or Korean?,” as if it mattered. Even worse, I’d get offhand comments like “You look Kawaii” or “I like Asian girls.” I felt unsettled, disgusted, and insecure that I was being reduced to just my racial identity. Why did most of my conversations with these men involve race and ethnicity? Why does someone’s cultural identity determine whether to swipe left or right?
There’s no denying how mainstream online dating apps have become. You’ve probably been on two or three Tinder dates, maybe your friends met their soulmates on Bumble, and there’s always some viral news story about a couple’s success from OkCupid. Dating apps have changed how millennials find love, but just like other forms of social media, they’ve become platforms for racialized language and discrimination. Even if a user doesn’t comment on anything race-related, their biases may show. Back in 2009, OkCupid released a telling study on racial preferences based on user data—with disheartening results. In sum, black women were rated less attractive than women of other races and ethnicities, and they received the lowest response rates from most men on the site, including white, Latino, Asian, and black men. In addition, Asian men had the lowest response rates from women. When OkCupid revisited the study in 2014, the results were pretty much the same, if not even more racially divided.
Dating apps, designed to ease the the process of finding love, aren’t so effective for women of color. Instead of finding suitable matches, Asian women are often fetishized and black women are turned down. Comments about my “Asian tan skin” might sound harmless, but I felt I was only being sought after because of my racial features.
Ari Curtis, a Brooklyn-based writer and designer, knows that feeling all too well. Curtis started documenting her dating experiences as a black woman with her blog, “Least Desirable.” She says she hoped to represent women of color who date online in a substantial, meaningful way. “I wanted to contribute my own voice and experiences, to fill out the noise of statistics about women of color who weren’t telling their story,” Curtis says. “I wanted to tell my own story.”
While she hasn’t had overtly racist experiences online, Curtis notices a great deal of subtle stereotyping. “Some of the messages I’ll get seem to be specific to the fact that I am black, like ‘do you date whatever type of guys,’ or ‘do you date Italian guys,’” she says. Black men have also commented on Curtis’ hair, but one Tinder date with a white man especially stands out to her. During their second date, he joked, “I’ve got to bring the ghetto out of you!” Confused, Curtis initially brushed it off, not yet realizing how racially insensitive the comment was. “He was expecting a particular type of a black woman, which essentially is a stereotype of black women,” she says.
Similar situations like Curtis’ are widespread, other women of color have voiced their experiences online. In an article for Allure, Priya Rao, an Indian-American woman, detailed the messages she’d get from online matches, most of whom were intrigued about her ethnicity. Early in the conversation, a Tinder user pushed the question, “Indian or Sri Lankan?” And one Bumble user messaged her, “We would prob make the most adorable East Asian babies.”
Some of these messages may not have been intended to be offensive, but they can feel racist for women of color. Many relationship experts have attributed these preferences and biases to media representations of minorities. We all know how Hollywood treats women of color—black women are typically classified as the ‘angry black woman,’ Hispanic women are eroticized, and Asian women are overwhelmingly sexualized. In an infamous scene from “Full Metal Jacket,” a Vietnamese sex worker says “me love you long time” to two U.S. soldiers. This phrase, however, objectifies and generalizes Asian women as sex workers. Sex educator Michelle Hope says depictions like these dictate how society views racial minorities, influencing stereotyping on dating apps. “The media not only sensentionalizes but fetishizes race; we’ve allowed media to depict what we believe to be true about specific races,” she says. “That bleeds into our decisions when we want to become romantic.”
Beyond the media, there may also be broader, complex reasons to blame. Both Curtis and Hope point to ongoing racial tensions in the United States for racial discrimination in dating apps. “Racism still exists on dating apps because racism still exists—it’s the subculture of our greater society,” Curtis says. “It’s particularly noticeable on dating apps because it’s this weird, hybrid public space.” If anything, Hope says that “when it comes to our dating habits, dating apps have shined a brighter light on racism in our society.”
But the facts aren’t all discouraging. A recent survey published by Tinder suggested that people who date online, specifically on Tinder, are more open-minded to dating someone outside their own race and ethnicity. Among Tinder users, almost 80 percent of people surveyed said they’ve been on a date with someone of a different race or ethnicity. The dating app has also made moves to combat racial preferences by emphasizing users’ psychographics, or values, interests, and passions. Although it’s hard to completely ignore race and ethnicity when finding a match, this is a step forward. A step towards breaking misconceptions and stereotypes about people of color. A step towards respecting another person’s cultural background, rather than objectifying it. And, a step in believing that everyone is deserving of love. I’m proud of being Japanese-American, but that doesn’t mean I’m solely defined by my racial stereotypes.
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.