The fourth GDI Editorial, published in April 2018, argued that the politics of race, gender and identity were certain to impact the online dating industry soon. It suggested “niche white labels, race-based search functions, identity options, abuse moderation and gendered price structures” were all likely candidates for future equality campaigning, noting that the dating world had “barely made a start” in terms of arriving at consensuses around these issues. Forward six months, the top story on The Guardian website is titled: “Why is it OK for online daters to block whole ethnic groups?”. The subtitle: “You don’t see ‘No blacks, no Irish’ signs in real life any more, yet many are fed up with the racism they face on dating apps”. In this Editorial, we revisit the topic of race and dating with a short overview of the evolving conversation on ‘sexual racism’.
Sexual racism as a term is best traced back to the 1976 formulation provided by sociologist Charles Herbert Stember. He wrote that the practice is: ‘‘the sexual rejection of the racial minority, the conscious attempt on the part of the majority to prevent interracial cohabitation’’. He was writing just a few years after interracial marriage was legalised in every US state, attempting to help the country come together. Stember’s book, ‘Sexual racism: the emotional barrier to an integrated society’, argued that dominant psychological theories of race-based hostility had failed to take into account a sexual component, noting that white men were particularly hostile to the idea of black men dating white women. White men dating black women was also taboo, of course; the 1965 Bob Dylan song ‘Outlaw Blues’ closes with the lyric: “She’s a brown-skin woman, But I love her just the same”.
Stember’s definition came at a time when over 50% of the US population found interracial marriage to be unacceptable – a figure which has since fallen to below 10%. As social attitudes have progressed, the conversation around sex and race has become significantly more nuanced. 2003 research published in The Journal of Family Issues, for example, found that black, hispanic, and Asian men were more likely than white men to desire female partners of a particular race, but that this finding reversed in a gay population. 2014 work found that among gay men in Boston, latino men were the most frequently preferred race (54%), followed by men of white (52%), black (48%), and Asian (12%) ethnicities. OkCupid data has revealed non-black men are less likely than black men to start conversations with black women, and that all women prefer men of their own race. Each set of asymmetries raises difficult cultural questions, not least where the term ‘sexual racism’ should be applied.
Some, such as Huffington Post contributor Donovan Trott, make the case that expressing any racial preference is flagrantly racist. Trott argues that holding broad-brush opinions about an entire group’s attractiveness is analogous to holding those opinions about any other characteristic. Further, expressing a disproportionate attraction to one ethnic group can be described as a fetish, and this is just as bad. Writing about the gay community specifically, Trott says: “If you’re making any of your dating decisions with a person’s race in mind, that’s racist”. He goes on to state that gay, white men should “get to work” examining their preferences, learning to find people of colour more attractive if necessary. Arkee E., writing in Grindr’s INTO webzine, also says: “It’s crucial to continually question our desires”. Not every writer aims to suggest people should reexamine who they find attractive, but most maintain that focusing on ethnicity, or using it to screen out potential partners, is a form of racism.
Elsewhere in the dating industry, many sites exist that deliberately filter individuals along racial lines. WhiteMenBlackWomenMeet.com, for example, seeks to serve “those black women who want to meet and find white men” and vice versa. The site blogs about the rise in interracial marriages and relationships in the USA, and sees its role as complementing that trend. BlackPeopleMeet, a site that promotes exclusively intraracial dating, is listed on Match Group’s business overview alongside InterracialPeopleMeet. In the aforementioned Guardian article, Grindr’s Landen Zumwalt outlines how race filters help people of colour to “quickly find other members of their minority community” on that platform. Many members of the Twitterverse agree that wanting to date someone of a particular ethnicity is innocuous, as is screening out people for height, religion, eye or hair colour. Some go as far as to suggest ‘sexual racism’ implies nonsensical ‘sexual sexism’, and that it should not be taken seriously for that reason.
There are findings from academia that either side could employ in this discussion, complicating it further. One questionnaire* found 63.6% of gay and bisexual Australian men agree with the statement “It is OK to indicate a racial preference when looking for sex or dates online”, but only 25.1% agree with the statement “Racism is not really a problem on Internet sex and dating sites”. Moreover, 71.6% say “As long as people are polite about it, I see no problem in indicating a racial preference in an online profile”, while 83.8% disagree with the statement “I think it is better if people date within their own ethnic group”. The same study found that those factors which predict sexual racism tolerance (15% of the variance) also predict broadly racist attitudes on the Quick Discrimination Index, to an extent (10% of the variance). Elsewhere, researchers Phua & Kaufman found that gay men were generally more forthright when it came to outlining the appearance of their desired partners. This was true across several characteristics, including eye and hair colour as well as race.
Though both sides can be argued for, the majority of commentators stand in vocal opposition to sexual racism and ideas about “preferences”. That is to say, many side with Trott and few come out in defence of WhiteMenBlackWomenMeet.com. Headlines such as “Yes, Your Dating Preferences Are Probably Racist” are very common, particularly in LGBTQ outlets. Another recent GDI piece, a collaboration published in May titled “Four Lessons from the LGBTQ Niche”, made the case that queer dating apps are often leaders and trailblazers within the sector – it may be the case that the conclusions reached by these apps will be instructive for mainstream services, as was the case with geo-location as a product offering. With this in mind, and to find out more about the discussion in LGBTQ tech circles, GDI reached out to the Director of Global Sales and Marketing at Jack’d, Alon Rivel. He gave us his take on some of the issues raised above, and made it clear where his platform positions itself on questions of sexual racism.
— scott nagao (@ScottNagao) September 18, 2018
Let’s start with a simple case. A user writes “No Asians!” in their dating app profile. Why would this be classed as discrimination rather than a preference?
AR: “The reason this is classified as discrimination is because you are singling out an entire race of individuals before even giving them a chance to interact with you. You are saying that Asians have no space in the gay dating world and you are spewing hate against a group of people.
You are letting all Asians know they are not welcome in what is supposed to be a safe space for all queer people. It is one thing to have your own internal preferences and thoughts, it is another to put them out there on blast when no one is asking you. Putting that on your profile equates to walking down the street with a sign that says “No Asians”. It is extremely offensive, derogatory, and inappropriate. That is not a preference, that is a blatant attack on a group for just existing.”
Does the reverse – a user writing “Only Asians need apply!” or similar – come across differently? Is this discrimination, or is it a preference?
AR: “This is fetishizing someone’s race which is just as damaging and dangerous in the community. This behavior is just as offensive and inappropriate. You are subjecting an entire group of men as sexual objects based solely on their race. You are not actually seeking a connection with someone that is deeper than the color or shade of their skin.
Asian men are more than someone’s sexual fetish and they deserve to have an equal space in the community. We all want to be treated with respect and equality on these apps. When you are reducing someone down from human to just a sexual fetish based on their race you are limiting how the world views them not just within the dating app space but also in the real world.”
Assuming users should avoid these blanket statements about entire ethnicities, should they also avoid blanket statements about preferring not to date an entire gender? If not, is the argument here that orientation is innate whereas racial preferences are socially constructed?
AR: “You can not choose to be gay or straight. When you are saying what your orientation is it is just a fact, it is not a preference. No matter how hard I try I can not date a woman, I physically can’t because I am a homosexual man. Orientation is what you can not change, racial preference is a choice.
You are choosing to single out a group of people based on the color of their skin, you are choosing to see color, and you are choosing to reduce them down from a human to your own fantasy. These choices are not ones that will lead to positive outcomes for either party involved.”
Suppose a certain individual really does not want to date Indian singles. Different user interfaces create different experiences here. On a platform with a race filter, they would screen out Indian profiles. On Tinder, the individual could swipe left on every Indian they saw and avoid mutual opt-in. On an open forum app, they would choose to avoid Indian profiles and ignore any incoming messages from such profiles. Is racially charged language most common in these open forums?
AR: “Filtering based on race is not something that helps the fight against sexual racism. Many gay apps have actually taken a step forward and removed this as a mandatory field or option. Choosing to avoid someone on an open forum or swiping left on them because you are not attracted to them is your own personal choice. If you choose to swipe left on every Indian profile that again is something that is your private choice and not hurting anyone.
It is when you use negative language in the open forum saying ‘No Indians allowed’ or ‘Indians are not for me’ that the problem arises. You are making it socially acceptable to spew hate and intolerance towards a group of individuals based solely on the color of their skin.”
Many will argue that efforts to moderate language or educate users on sexual racism assume too much guilt. Do you understand or sympathise with any of the blowback you receive?
AR: “I sympathize with the individuals who grew up not having a safe space based on the color of their skin. I sympathize with how hard and scary it must feel to put yourself out there and date as a gay man to then see negative hateful speech against you out on public profiles based solely on the color of your skin. Educating the ignorant is just one of many steps, other steps include not tolerating the behavior and creating safe spaces where people of all races can be who they are without discrimination.
There is no need to point the finger and create shame and guilt – it is about enlightenment, education, and growth. The people we receive blowback from who demand that sexual racism is just a preference are not people we support and not people we want on our platform.”
Where do you hope this conversation will be in 12 months?
AR: “Still happening. Education takes time. Right now sexual racism is ‘trendy’ and a lot of apps are starting to try to jump on the bandwagon to be a part of the movement. My hope is that it gets better for all POC and that this does not end when the trend to be inclusive goes away. This is about people’s lives and identities. Allowing sexual racism allows for pure racism. Racism is never ok. Educating everyone and demanding change is the only way this will continue to be spoken about and hopefully start to get better.”
As more attention is paid to the topic of sexual racism, dating and social apps may face pressure to change their approaches. There is a Twitter account dedicated to posting screenshots of racial language on Grindr, for example. Several brands’ campaigns in 2018 responded to the live issue, either directly (like Grindr’s Kindr initiative) or orthogonally (like Tinder’s push for interracial emojis). More campaigns are in the pipeline. In addition to messaging, we are likely to see a spectrum of hard and soft solutions implemented, from AI powered content analysis to user reporting to Bumble-style public shamings – watching what the market accepts and rejects with passions running high will be significant. HER, the app that aims to “connect womxn and queer people”, recently gave a statement to GDI explaining their approach to sexual racism. The LGBTQ leader has just come off the back of a visual and product rebrand, one which reflects its values of diversity and inclusivity, and has seen good growth since. CMO Noa Gutterman says:
“HER has never and will never sanction discrimination by race. We have never included search or matching filters that allow users to filter by race. Additionally, we do not allow any kind of discrimination or racism on our platform between users. We have strict community guidelines that help make our platform a space for fearless exploration, and racist behavior is not permitted. This kind of behavior was tolerated for a long time on other platforms and apps, so it does inspire confidence in us that the larger LGBTQ+ community is making positive steps in the right direction.”
It is still unclear whether one blanket solution will be appropriate for the entire sector, or whether different dating sites will reach different conclusions and co-exist. Notably, niche sites like Match Group’s InterracialPeopleMeet.com and LatinoPeopleMeet.com have not been particularly vocal in defence of their USPs. The emergence of an industry standard here would be particularly interesting because, as noted earlier, there are a range of highly politicised dating app topics; whatever it is that finishes this dialogue could set a tone for future discussions around gendered price structures, socially exclusive platforms or abuse moderation norms. Another factor, not considered here, is that legislation may end up playing a role if the criticism persists. Data and privacy has been the hot button issue in 2018, but the social stance each platform takes is beginning to attract attention.