This past June, several dating apps — responding to a public outcry against systemic racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd — removed “ethnicity filters” from their platforms. Grindr was among the first when, on June 1st, at the start of LGBTQ Pride Month, it announced its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement across its social media accounts, adding that the company had made donations to BLM and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and due to its “commitment” to fighting racism on the app, it would be removing “the ethnicity filter from our next release.” Jack’d and Scruff (two other popular gay “dating” apps both owned by Perry Street Software), along with others, quickly followed suit.
Although researchers at Cornell University recommended this action two years ago in a paper on addressing racial bias and discrimination in dating apps, many were skeptical this would mitigate racism on platforms that have always been inherently racist.
Ryan Wade, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign School of Social Work, doesn’t believe removing ethnicity filters “will do much to address discrimination on the apps” but rather just sends “an implicit message” that possibly amounts to little more than “virtue signaling.”
“It’s unclear whether or not users who are seemingly uninterested in people of color (POC) would now be compelled to interact with POC because they can longer remove them from their grid,” Wade explains via email. “If, for some reason, they are compelled to do so, then I would be cautious about whether or not they should, if they do indeed hold prejudicial attitudes towards POC.”
Wade also points out that people who block out people of color with an ethnicity filter are not somehow only rendered visible to white people, which could then lead them to perpetrate “overt” or “covert” discriminatory acts when responding. He does note that if, by removing these filters, “the frequency with which POC are subject to erotic objectification” is reduced, then it could actually be worthwhile.
“As for [other] potential benefits, removing ethnicity filters does implicitly promote the idea that race should not be a criteria for partner selection,” Wade adds. “But this is so subtle that it’s not immediately apparent what impact such an implicit message could have. And [it’s] really tricky when we get into questions about whether or not racially-driven partner selection practices are ‘acceptable’ for racial/ethnic groups that are traditionally oppressed, versus the majority group.”
The ethnicity feature in these apps — either built into the operating system or a bonus benefit that came with an additional subscription fee — allowed users to search for people by race, as narrowly defined by the app creators. Some folks of color were able to use this feature to find a friendly face on the apps, in what can be a sea of white torsos, or in the real world, in a town palpably lacking in visible diversity. Yet, in other hands, this feature amounted to little less than institutionalized racial profiling.
I first started using dating apps when Grindr began crawling out of the primordial sea of 2009, since they seemed like a less-scary version of flirting with a guy in a loud, dark, sweaty bar. But the scariness of the apps was in how comfortable people felt in being truly awful when there was no one publicly holding them accountable. A disturbing amount of profiles declared “WHITES ONLY,” something I hadn’t seen outside of Jim Crow photos of water fountains in the South. But this wasn’t Alabama or Arkansas; this was Brooklyn and Manhattan — and sometimes within less than 100 feet away.
These modern-day sexual Jim Crows defended their stance as a “preference,” as if one’s race was mutable or a choice. As more people — particularly white dudes who were the objects of this pointed attraction — started calling out these profiles for their blatant racism, the less and less “whites only” appeared. The same for “No fats, no femmes, no Asians” (which has been around for decades, migrating from newspaper personal ads in their paid classified listings). That’s not to say there still aren’t people who, bafflingly, think that it’s OK to write that in a profile, but it seems less prevalent these days.
Still, words only go so far. It’s easy to espouse racial equality — to add a #BLM to your profile or call out racism in other people’s profiles — but it rings hollow if you don’t actually date people of color, if you don’t see them as whole people, as human beings with wants and desires and fears and insecurities, who need to love and be loved just like you. My experience on these apps has told me the opposite: that I am not worthy of love. That I am not desirable. That I am nothing unless a white man loves me. It’s what society has taught me through media representations, or lack thereof. It’s what the apps have instilled in me through my experiences and through the experiences of countless others.
In 2019, Wade and a University of Michigan professor of health behavior and health education, Gary W. Harper, published a study of more than 2,000 young black gay and bisexual men in which they developed a scale to measure the impact of racialized sexual discrimination (RSD), or sexual racism, on their well-being.
Wade and Harper categorized their experiences into four areas: exclusion, rejection, degradation, and erotic objectification. Wade and Harper hypothesized that exposure to these experiences may foment feelings of shame, humiliation, and inferiority, negatively impacting the self-esteem and overall psychological health of racial and ethnic minorities.
According to the study, while being rejected on an individual basis by white men didn’t have a significant impact on well-being, the dating app environment itself — in which whiteness is “the hallmark of desirability” — led to higher rates of depression and negative self-worth. Race-based rejection from a fellow person of color also elicited a particularly painful response.
“RSD perpetrated by in-group members — people of their same race — came up as a major point in our focus group discussions,” Wade said of the study. “Participants discussed how being discriminated against by people of their own racial or ethnic group hurt in a unique way, so we wanted to account for that too when developing the scale.”
Sexual racism, then, isn’t simply about wanting to date men of other races or facing rejection from them; it’s the culture not created by but exacerbated by these apps. Racism has always existed within the queer community — just look at the way pioneers like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were, until quite recently, pushed aside in the history of the movement for queer civil rights — but sexual racism has just become another way to marginalize and diminish members of an already marginalized group.
What, then, are the solutions? How can we fix racism? Or, at the very least, how can we fix racism on these dating apps? Well, non-white gays could play into the segregationist theory of those “whites only” profiles and migrate over to platforms that tend to cater to people of color (such as Jack’d) instead of Grindr — which has other systemic problems to address. Or we could quit the apps all together in some sort of racial boycott, although this pandemic has rendered these apps almost essential for social interaction, romantic or otherwise. But that would undercut the fact that queer people of color have as much right to occupy space, digital or otherwise, as their white peers.
More realistically, we, as in everyone who uses these apps (and is not the worst), can continue to push them to be more inclusive, to be more socially conscious, to hire people of color at all levels of their company, and to realize maybe sooner than 10 years down the road that being able to filter people by race is inherently fucked up. But one should never place trust solely in institutions to do the right thing. When it comes to dismantling racism anywhere, it has to begin with the people: We have to push each other and ourselves to do better.
I’ve had to interrogate my desires my entire dating life. Why am I attracted to this guy? Why is this guy attracted to me? What role does whiteness play in my attraction? What role does my blackness play in their attraction or aversion? It’s the burden of my blackness, but it’s time to start sharing that weight. It’s not easy work, but it has given me the tools I need to fight the programming to which I’ve been exposed all these years. It’s an ongoing fight, but there is no “fixing” the racism on these apps if we don’t address the racism of the people who use it.