Three or four years ago, Fallon Gregory downloaded Tinder and matched with someone who was very complimentary — at first.
Ms Gregory is a Perth-based First Nations woman from the Gija/Bardi and Nyul Nyul tribes in the Kimberley, who’d never used an online dating app on her smartphone before.
While she was chatting with her match, she became a bit uneasy about how much he kept commenting on her appearance.
“When he first matched, he was like ‘oh my God, you’re so pretty, you look exotic’, going on and on about my beauty,” she said.
“And then he asked ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but are you Indigenous?’ I said yes. Then, he thanked me, told me good luck with everything, and unmatched me,” she said.
It was the first time Ms Gregory remembers being racially discriminated against on a dating app.
“It wasn’t a heinous experience”, she said, but it hurt and confused her.
“I was kind of like, ‘one second ago you were going on about how beautiful I am, talking about all the features that we have generally — like my lips, my eyes’,” she said.
“It wasn’t my appearance he had a problem with. The second he found out about my heritage, he was gone.”
What is sexual racism?
What Ms Gregory experienced was an example of sexual racism: a sexual or romantic bias against people based on their race, usually directed at people of colour.
Like many other Indigenous Australians, she’s also experienced racist abuse on dating apps, too.
It’s believed sexual racism and general racism are linked. A 2015 Australian study showed of gay and bisexual men showed a close link between sexual racism and general racist views.
The sexual racism that people from minority backgrounds face in online dating has been reported on extensively.
As far back as 2009, OkCupid.com acknowledged that non-white users generally received fewer responses to their messages based on analysis of more than a million profiles. There are even Twitter accounts like @GrindrRacism that post examples of racism on dating apps.
In some cases, this functionality is built into the application itself. Gay dating app Grindr has recently committed to removing a feature which allows people to filter out people based on their race — although it still hasn’t removed it in the month since the announcement.
Being Indigenous on a dating app
Bronwyn Carlson is a professor of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University who’s researched how Indigenous Australians use social media and other digital technologies.
She said Indigenous people face racism every day on social media, including dating applications.
Her research found Indigenous dating apps users felt that they were deemed less “attractive” than other races by users. Many said they had experienced racist abuse.
This isn’t limited to hetereosexual dating apps. Yolngu man Dustin Mangatjay spoke to the SBS in 2016 about the abuse he faced on gay dating app Grindr from other men, sharing screenshots of racist abuse he shared.
Dr Carlson points out there’s no universal phenotypical, or observable, attributes of Indigenous Australians. She said this means sexual racism isn’t just rooted in appearance, but rather perceptions of Indigenous identity.
In response to sexual racism, some people would sometimes create profiles using images of other people — sometimes blonde and blue-eyed women — to find initial matches and strike up a conversation before revealing their true appearance.
Indigenous dating app users said their racial identity was used to abuse them, Dr Carlson said.
“One trans Indigenous woman had an experience where a person told them on the app ‘I want to treat you like Captain Cook treated the Aboriginals’,” she said.
Dr Carlson said the location-based nature of dating apps exacerbates people’s fears about violence.
Dating apps generally show profiles of people who are nearby. This means when someone receives a threat, they’re also aware that the sender is generally physically close.
This matches Ms Gregory’s experience. She said there’s a taboo about using dating apps with older members of her community because of safety concerns.
“They were like ‘why would you meet up?’ But then I found out it was a security thing. My aunties couldn’t believe you’d just meet up with a white guy you don’t know,” she said.
Dr Carlson is worried about how these experiences are affecting Indigenous dating app users.
What are the platforms doing?
They both offer users the ability to report abuse to the platform to be removed or to have the user banned. These tools place the onus of enforcement on the users.
Tinder’s owner, Match Group, declined to comment. Grindr didn’t respond to an interview request.
Andre Oboler is a senior lecturer at the La Trobe University law school and chief executive of the Online Hate Prevention Institute. He said that dating app companies don’t have any legal responsibility to stop abuse on their platform.
There are legal avenues for when someone feels they have been discriminated against or abused because of their race, like making a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.
Mr Oboler said the current system places the responsibility on the individual who has been abused to seek justice, and that the process can be onerous.
“If someone wants to do something about a racist remark from someone else, the barrier is going through the process of making a complaint for what is sometimes a one-off comment. Often, the effort required exceeds the pay-off,” Mr Oboler said.
“This isn’t just an online problem, there’s a level of racism and bigotry and sexism that affect society at all times. Some people are more impacted than others.
Ms Gregory agrees. While she thinks platforms should be doing more to protect users, she acknowledges that the treatment she’s faced is a symptom of a bigger problem.
She has heard horror stories about dating that don’t involve apps, like when an Indigenous woman went home with someone she met at a bar. His friends took an image of her and circulated it on social media with a caption containing offensive racial stereotypes.
The racism isn’t limited to the apps, Ms Gregory said, but it is enabled by it.
But even knowing this, she understands the impulse to use dating apps.