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Why Black Online Daters Feel Invisible on Dating Apps

When Sonjia Mackey first signed up for the dating apps Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder, she never imagined that she would soon be reconsidering her membership because of reasons pegged to her skin color. Immediately after signing up, Mackey started receiving fetish-seeking messages from her white matches, which spoke to the beauty and exotic nature of her Black skin, her presumable sexual prowess in the bedroom, and the assertive nature often associated with Black women.

“Even though these comments were included in the first few messages of communication, which helped me take resulting action like blocking them, it was still disappointing because some of these matches had potential — like he was physically attractive or we had similar hobbies and interests. And in a ‘sea of undesirables,’ it was always refreshing to meet someone that had potential,” remembers Mackey, a motivational speaker from Houston, Texas. 

But it was the actions of one specific match that really shocked her. Mackey had been pursuing him thinking he might be “the one,” but after exchanging phone and text conversations for a while, her match’s true colors were revealed. 

TAKE ACTION

• Practice ways to discuss racial microaggressions in the dating space with your friends. Here are some tips.

• Use these practices to confront racial microaggressions while dating.

• Consider: What internalized narratives or stereotypes influence your own dating preferences?

“He started making comments about how Black women were the best, and as such, they deserved to be with the best, which was white men like him. In contrast, he felt that Black men were the dregs of the planet,” Mackey says. 

Fed up by the disturbing comments, Mackey brought the relationship to an abrupt conclusion, especially when her match proclaimed himself a racist and insisted that Mackey cease any direct contact and engagement with Black men.

Mackey’s experience is not isolated. The Dating Divide: Race And Desire In The Era Of Online Romance reveals that Black online daters experienced more discrimination on dating apps compared to other minority daters. White people on the other hand, rarely receive racist harassment on dating apps. While the situation for Black online daters is the worst, this could negatively influence the experience of other dating app users of color. Most of them also shared similar sentiments on feeling judged on the basis of their racial background as opposed to other qualities. One of the interviewees, a Black bisexual woman, narrated how she constantly felt an air of invisibility in dating apps and rarely got responses from her matches. 

For many people seeking romantic partners, dating apps have provided an avenue to meet new people, especially during a pandemic where the enthusiasm to engage in one-on-one meet-ups is often long gone. A 2021 report from Tinder revealed that activity in the app was at an all-time high, with conversations 32 percent longer than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic (Vox). The trend was also spotted in similar apps like OkCupid, Hinge, and Bumble, which reported a similar growth during the pandemic (Fortune).

That doesn’t mean that dating apps are a better place for Black users, especially since a 2021 study found one of the “largest effects” on whether a Tinder user gets swiped right on is whether they’re Black (Science Direct). Even though the internet has been acclaimed as an equalizer for users, digital dating has proved that racial bias is still rampant in these spaces.

Callisto Adams PhD, a dating and relationship expert and founder of HeTexted.com, attributes the stereotyping and discrimination of Black online daters to the freedom that most of these apps provide. “Insulting or expressing offensive opinions is easier done when behind a screen. There’s also a general lack of consequences in these apps, no matter how inappropriate the behavior is,” Adams says. 

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, some dating apps like Grindr vowed to remove ethnicity filters in a bid to eliminate systemic racism (CNN). However, Adams argues that this does little to eliminate discrimination on dating apps. “When a person intends wrongful behavior towards a particular race, the ethnicity filters will make it easier for them.” But removing ethnicity filters doesn’t remove racial animus, as well. 

Mackey, who concurs with Adams, says removing ethnicity filters doesn’t change who people desire, why they desire them, and how they express that desire. Her online dating experience and that of most single Black women, she notes, has been extremely underwhelming. “I constantly entertain the notion of deleting my profiles and exiting the apps forever. The time and effort put into finding online matches is better spent on more fruitful endeavors.”

Meanwhile, one study by Cornell researchers suggested creating filters based on characteristics like political views, relationship history, and education, in addition to constantly posting policies and messages encouraging a more inclusive environment and explicitly prohibiting certain language (Cornell). Mandy Mee, a dating and relationship coach at The MME Agency, requests online daters to be more open-minded when navigating the world of digital dating. “Appreciate people’s cultures and get to know their life experiences, beliefs, lifestyles, and values. Use these attributes along with chemistry to assess a level of compatibility. You may find that you have a lot in common with someone if you look past racial barriers.”


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Black online daters experience stereotyping and discrimination on dating apps. 

• Negative experiences on dating apps lead some Black people to avoid them altogether.

• While efforts have been made to address this situation, experts argue that more needs to be done to create a more inclusive environment. 

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