by Ken-Hou Lin, Celeste Curington, and Jennifer Lundquist, authors of The Dating Divide: Race and Desire in the Era of Online Romance
Dating apps and websites have become the most popular way Americans meet new people and the only way to do so during the pandemic. Yet, for many Black Americans, these apps never fulfill their promises. Despite hours of scrolling, clicking, swiping, or answering personality questions, they often find that they are as isolated on these apps as they were in a bar or at a party. The only difference is that they now have to serve their own drink. The green dot on the screen indicates that they are online, but their profiles appear invisible to everyone else.
Gendered racism on dating apps is not news. Yet we know rather little about how gendered racism is experienced by the daters and how online dating shapes their understanding of race. In writing our book, The Dating Divide: Race and Desire in the Era of Online Romance, we conducted 77 interviews, as well as statistical analysis of how millions of daters interact (or ignore) one another, to understand how race has profoundly shaped online interaction. What we find is that race overwhelms many other variables in determining whether two people will talk to each other, and Black men and women daters were particularly discriminated compared to other minority daters.
While Black Americans experience implicit and explicit discrimination in many social settings, there’s something different on dating apps. With the abundance of options, an emphasis on visual cues, and “the need for speed,” many Black online daters feel that they are most judged based on their appearance and racial background. One of our interviewees, Sandra, a bisexual Black woman, told us:
“Even when I’m matched with others I still wouldn’t get a response. I’m a dark-skinned Black woman. Is that it? I have natural hair and have had natural hair for long before the natural hair movement. Could that be it?”
Monica, a straight Black woman, shared a similar sentiment:
“Online dating makes me feel like kind of the way that I feel in school, that I’m invisible and hypervisible. And I think it really is very much a White women’s market, so I feel like all the biases that people have outside in the real world, it just comes into effect or comes into play when you’re online dating. Like, you’re extra sexual and promiscuous. There’s so many different stereotypes about Black women that I feel like come to play in how people approach me and I guess other Black women on these platforms.”
For both Sandra and Monica, online dating does not provide an opportunity for them to be seen as who they are. Their experiences are shaped by a predictable set of racialized and gendered stereotypes that deprive them of individuality. They are seen as Black women foremost, and often ignored by others. Our statistical analysis shows that, White straight men are four times more likely to message a White woman than a Black woman, even when the two women share otherwise similar characteristics. White straight women are twice as likely to respond to White men compared to Black men.
In cases where White daters decide to message or respond to Black daters, we also found that race continued to shape each step of the encounter. Damien, a 24-year-old gay man, described to us how his sexual encounter with White men usually goes:
“Race is always brought into it. Whenever they say they want to flirt you, they always mention, for example… ‘I want your Black penis’ or something like that. They always put Black before anything. Black hands, Black muscles, things like that. Black bodies. They always do that. I’m sure within White races, when you get in bed with your partner; you don’t say ‘I want your White…'”
Michael, a straight man, has the same experience:
“There’s always this expectation of our prowess in bed. So, there’s that expectation of like, he’s kind of thug. I’m like, ‘I’m kind of a nerd.’ Some of these expectations, they’re wrong to have. It’s not like any of us see a White woman, and we’re like, ‘Yo, she could do my taxes.'”
Many Black women told us that the interest from White men is often sexual in nature. Alicia, a Jamaican American, told us:
“Certain White guys I talk to online, they’re like ‘I never had sex with a Black girl. Imagine having sex with you.’ I said to them, ‘Is that all you want?’ They respond, ‘I don’t know, maybe.’ I’m just like, okay this is uncomfortable. One guy said, ‘I don’t think we’ll date, but I just wanna have sex with you ’cause I never had sex with a Black woman.’ I felt so uncomfortable, and I was just so annoyed. It made me very upset. I was just, like, what the heck? That’s why I don’t date a lot of them online, because I get a lot of that too.”
Interactions like these hearken back to the “Jezebel,” the controlling image of the sexually aggressive Black woman that served as a powerful rationale to exclude Black women from meaningful relationships. Alicia and other Black women daters’ words are stark reminders that their online dating experiences are segmented by race and gender, and the difficulties that Black women face when utilizing dating apps is, indeed, a collective struggle.
Compared to White daters, Black daters tend to have more inclusive and progressive thinking about race and dating, and this is especially true for Black women. Our statistical analysis shows that Black women are as likely to respond to White men’s messages compared to Black men’s messages. However, this does not mean that Black women are “color-blind” when crossing the racial divide. Nena, a Black Floridian, noted:
“A couple of months ago I liked this White guy on Bumble… He tells me, ‘I love Black women.’ I could tell he’s the type that dates Black women, but… He was like, ‘I don’t like when Black people say “Black Lives Matter”; all lives matter.’ We had a discussion about it, and I didn’t like it. Then after than I was just like, yeah, that don’t make any sense to me. Then I just stepped back.”
As Nena pointed out, a willingness to date Black women often does not mean an embrace for racial justice. One can “love” Black women without seeing the struggle Black women experience on a daily basis. Alicia is also acutely aware of this difference. When sharing her experience conversing with a White men she met on a dating app, she said:
“Well, I had a conversation with him and was just like, but I’m a Black woman. If you date me, there’s certain stuff you’re gonna have to know. He was like, ‘I don’t care. I am gonna be there for your, blah, blah, blah.’ I just wasn’t convinced. You know? I just feel like when you see a red flag… I said, ‘What if we had kids together? … Do you realize because you’re White, that doesn’t mean your kids are not gonna face what I go through?'”
For Alicia, the confidence of this White man indicates little more than ignorance. Even though he sees that she’s a Black woman, he has little understanding of her lived experiences.
In 2020, many major dating services spoke out against racism, making donations, allowing their users to add “Black Lives Matter” badges to their profiles, and some removing the “ethnicity” filters from the platform. Yet, these companies never disclose whether these gestures, in fact, reduce the racism on their platforms, a place where Black daters continue to be ignored, humiliated, and objectified. These dating companies should tell us whether removing the filters indeed lessened the isolation of Black daters on their platform. Is there more they can implement to address racism on their platforms? Equally important: what can daters themselves do to really see others for who they are beyond a racial category? It is time for us to use this technology for good, and not for reproducing centuries of racism.