When Aditi matched Alex on Tinder, she wasn’t expecting much. She had swiped through a lot of men in her three years of using the app. But when she walked into a south London pub for their first date, she was surprised at how genuinely nice he was.
She never imagined that four years on they would be engaged and planning their wedding during a pandemic.
Aditi, from Newcastle, is of Indian heritage and Alex is white. Their story is not that common, because dating apps use ethnicity filters, and people often make racial judgements on who they date.
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Aditi says it is difficult to tell whether she experienced racism on Tinder before she met her fiancé. “I would never know if I didn’t get matched due to my race or whether it was something else – there was nothing I could put my finger on.”
However, the 28-year-old remembers one occasion when a man opened the conversation by telling her how much he liked Indian girls and how much he disliked Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi girls. “He seemed to think it would appeal to me or I would be attracted by the fact he knew the difference. I told him to get lost and blocked him,” she tells me.
Race as a dating ‘deal-breaker’
Earlier this month, in light of the death of George Floyd, many corporations and brands, dating apps among them, pledged their support for #BlackLivesMatter. Grindr, the LGBTQ dating app, soon announced it was removing its race filter.
Following a widespread petition against its skin-tone filter, South Asian marriage site Shaadi.com followed suit. Match, which owns Hinge and Tinder, has retained the ethnicity filter across several of its platforms.
Elena Leonard, who is half Tamil, half Irish, deleted Hinge as she found the filter problematic. Users are asked whether being matched with members of a certain ethnic group would constitute a “deal-breaker”, as ethnicity is a mandatory field. “Being mixed, I clicked ‘other’ and didn’t think much of it,” she says.
When the 24-year-old went on a date with a Tamil guy, naturally she mentioned she was Tamil, too. When he said “I don’t usually date Tamil girls”, Leonard was thrown.
“Looking back, he had obviously filtered out Asians, but because I had put ‘other’ I had slipped through the cracks.” The experience made her question the ethics of filtering people based on race and, shortly after, she deleted the app.
‘You’re so pretty – for a black girl’
Professor Binna Kandola, senior partner at workplace psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola, suggests getting people to express an opinion about their ethnic preferences is perpetuating racial stereotypes. “They are reinforcing the kind of dividing lines that exist within our society,” he says, “and they should be thinking a lot more closely about that.”
As a half-British, half-Nigerian woman, Rhianne, 24, says men would open conversations on an app with statements such as: “I only like black girls”, or “you’re so pretty for a black girl”. “It was phrased in a charming way but I knew it wasn’t a compliment. I just couldn’t articulate why,” she says.
Leonard, who was often asked if she was Latina, agrees: “You feel highly visible through the lens of your ethnicity, but then also not seen as much a person as someone else who isn’t of colour.”
Ali, a British-Arab journalist in his early twenties, felt he was sometimes fetishised when using the app. While chatting to a SOAS student, he was only asked questions about his ethnicity despite spending the majority of his childhood in London.
“It felt like there was a bit of exoticism,” he says. “All her questions were about whether I was religious.” Ali, an atheist, said he “wasn’t a dog person”, and she replied: “Of course you aren’t, because in your faith they are considered dirty.”
The effects on self-esteem
“In Britain it is generally unacceptable to talk about minority groups in stereotypical terms so we don’t,” remarks Professor Kandola. “But the fact people say these things on dating apps show they are clearly thinking it.”
When Rhianne compared her experience to that of her white peers she was disheartened to see the ease with which they got matches. “It hurts to know that just because you are black or of colour that people see you as less attractive,” she says.
Profesor Kandola says the use of dating apps can have a pernicious effect on the self-esteem of those from a minority background. “You’re always aware of it [your race] and you’re aware of it because other people are making you aware of it.”
A Hinge spokesperson said: “We created the ethnicity preference option to support people of colour looking to find a partner with shared cultural experiences and background.”They added: “Removing the preference option would disempower them [minorities] on their dating journey.”
Some names have been changed