When I started dating after a twenty year relationship, and after I had got through my Tinder phase, I tried OKCupid. There were lots of questions. Could I date a smoker? Did I care about their height? Was it essential that they had a degree? It all seemed a bit like shopping, reducing people down to combinations of features – like working out your spec for a new mobile phone. And then there was a final question: which ethnicities did I want to date? I had not considered this before. Was I especially attracted to Middle Eastern men? How did I feel when I imagined dating a Black man? Suddenly I was lumping men together into categories. Apparently it was acceptable to say you weren’t attracted to certain ethnic groups. It must be, otherwise why would OKCupid be allowing me to filter them out?

Ethnic filters are a form of racism

In June, in response to the recent increase in support for the Black Lives Matter movement as well as complaints from users, Grindr removed its filters for ethnicity. This means users can no longer rule people out based on ethnicity. Shaadi.com also removed its skin tones filter. Many other dating apps don’t have filters. But Coffee Meets Bagel, Hinge and OKCupid still do, and they aren’t planning to remove them.

Dating apps guide our norms

Social norms are powerful shapers of our behaviour. Online dating is a great illustration of how we watch to see what others are doing in order to decide what is acceptable. (Should you say goodbye when you want to stop messaging someone? Is it OK to talk about sex in an initial message? Should you tell your date you are dating other people?) Norms evolved over time, based on the experiences you had and the feedback you got. If you were allowed to get away with (or were rewarded for) sexting, for example, you learnt it was acceptable or even desirable.

Similarly, the use of an ethnic filter was a norm created especially for online dating. The difference is that rather than being bottom-up (evolving gradually by the users), it’s top-down, created by an organisation – an example of institutional or systemic racism.

Preference or apartheid?

It has become acceptable to talk about “preferences”, as if it’s just a matter of taste when you say “I can’t help it, I’m only attracted to white guys” or “I just don’t find black women attractive”. But is this any different from having a sign outside a hotel saying “No Blacks”? If not, then ethnic filters are racist. It’s not expressing a preference, it’s sexual racism. Sociologists define sexual racism as “an act of either sexually excluding non-whites as potential partners or including racial minorities as sexual partners based only on racial fetishes”.[1] An American sociologist, Robinson,[2] describes this filtering as “racial cleansing”. Do these dating apps understand the power of the message they are sending out?

Is ethnic filtering like segregation?

Our context determines who we find attractive

Can we help who we are attracted to? Or is our sexual “template” at least partly determined by our social environment, and in particular by the physical features we are exposed to? If all we see portrayed positively in the media is tall, thin, blonde women, for example, we are going to have a stronger association between those kind of women and positive ideas – like attractiveness, the prospect of happiness and romance, feeling good about ourselves, enjoyable sex. If we had lived in Italy in the fourteenth century, however, we would have only been exposed to the deliciously curvaceous women of the Italian Renaissance, whose body type was a sign of health and fertility and considered attractive. In other words, we are programmed by our social context. 

The less positive portrayal of ethnic minorities in the UK media has been well-documented, as well as a clear lack of diversity. Being exposed to positive role models and story lines is very gradually improving our attitudes and breaking down our stereotypes, but at present we are all vulnerable to unconscious (and conscious) bias. (Watch this space for another blog post explaining more about this process, involving what social psychologists call intergroup contact reducing our prejudices.)

More positive portrayals of Black and ethnic minority people – especially women – are needed to reduce our unconscious bias
Photo by PICHA Stock from Pexels

A thought experiment

Imagine that there existed a minority of people with three eyes that people tended to avoid when dating. Now imagine growing up in a society where everyone had three eyes. It seems plausible that we would soon start to distinguish between them and find some attractive. (The alternative is finding no one attractive, which seems unlikely.) The three eyes feature would then not be a salient one – we would focus on differences rather than similarities. Our tendency to lump everyone with three eyes together is known in social psychology as the outgroup homogeneity effect,[3] and it’s reduced by forming meaningful connections with people from that group.

Lumping together people from China, India, Tibet, Mongolia, Malaysia and so on is a laughable idea to anyone familiar with Asia. Yet people are often heard to say they “don’t find Asian guys attractive”. If everyone were Asian, then such people would end up dividing men up into subgroups and finding some attractive. Saying “I can’t help it” then really means “I don’t have enough friends in that ethnic category”.

Treat people as individuals, not as members of ethnic groups
Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

Ethnic categories are reductionist

So filtering out all Asians on a dating app is wrong on several levels. Ethnic categories also present a problem for the many mixed heritage daters in the UK. While it seems to be expected that anyone with some Black ancestry will class themselves as Black rather than White (the principle of hypodescent), many do not want to. As Natasha, a thirty-seven year old London woman of mixed heritage, put it: “The pool of men to choose from on most dating apps is heavily White, and there are apps for Black dating. But if you’re not Black then where do you fit in?”

Ethnic categories on dating apps don’t reflect UK demographics

The OKCupid categories for Asian are “Asian” and “Indian”. In the UK Indian means someone from India; in America it can mean Native American. However, Native American is a separate category on OKCupid, so it’s all very confusing. In fact, all the OKCupid categories for the US are totally inappropriate for the UK, including “Pacific Islander” and “Hispanic/Latino”. (Hinge and Coffee meets Bagel have similar categories.) There is nothing at all for mixed heritage – not that this would be a very useful category, needing to cover a multitude of combinations. “Other” isn’t very helpful either.

US ethnic categories are not useful for UK daters.
From left to right for a UK user: OKCupid, Coffee Meets Bagel, and Hinge

Study shows ethnic filtering is now seen as racist by daters

A recent study[4] of over 300 Australian gay men from a range of ethnicities found that profiles of daters stating ethnic preferences rated the target as more racist, less attractive, less dateable, and were less personally willing to have relations with them, compared to those without ethnic preferences. The findings even held for those who had ethnic preferences themselves (except for attraction). Norms are changing. Filters are no longer acceptable.

Another thought experiment: is ethnicity a deal-breaker retrospectively?

Imagine you are deeply in love with the perfect person for you. One morning they wake up with three eyes, or no hair, or a goatee – or whatever it is you think you’re not attracted to. If everything else remains perfect, will you fall out of love with them? If the answer is no, you may be ruling out some perfectly compatible people by specifying ethnicity on dating apps. Update your profiles and broaden your horizons.

Photo by Ba Tik from Pexels

Note: Future blog posts will address the issue of Black and ethnic minorities needing to protect themselves from racism, fetishization, White privilege and ignorance on dating apps. I accept that there are advantages to keeping the ethnic filters for some people, and dangers of encouraging White daters to date outside their race. I also recognise that as a White person my views may be seen as less valid, and must be informed by people who have had these experiences. I have a co-author for these upcoming posts, friends and family who are from Black, mixed and ethnic minority heritage, and a number of interviewees to help with this.

Dating apps could do more to combat racism: Second article now available here.

Can dating change the world? Third article now available here.

Why you should talk to your White partner about race available here.

[1] Han, C. S., & Choi, K. H. (2018). Very few people say “No Whites”: Gay men of color and the racial politics of desire. Sociological Spectrum, 38(3), 145–161.

[2] Robinson, B. A. (2015). “Personal preference” as the new racism: Gay desire and racial cleansing in cyberspace. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1, 317–330.

[3] Simon, B. (1992). The perception of ingroup and outgroup homogeneity: Reintroducing the intergroup context. European Review of Social Psychology3(1), 1-30.

[4] Thai, M., Stainer, M. J., & Barlow, F. K. (2019). The “preference” paradox: Disclosing racial preferences in attraction is considered racist even by people who overtly claim it is not. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology83, 70-77.