Salma Haidrani | Contributing writer | Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Are Dating Apps Racist?

Are Dating Apps Intrinsically Racist?

The Debrief: Women are often the targets of sexism on dating apps simply because, well, they're women. So how would I fare as a woman of colour, and a muslim?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know that Tinder and the host of copycat apps that have followed it, have revolutionised dating in the digital age. Forget meeting someone while you stand at the bar – you can meet them when you nip to the toilet, while you’re scrolling through Tinder on the loo instead.  Go up to somebody and speak to them IRL...as if.

Having been in a relationship for the past two years, I missed the moment when dating apps arrived onto the scene. Until recently I had had no need for them, it was only when I started writing this that I finally got round to downloading Tinder, Bumble and Happn.

I wasn’t sure what to expect: it was almost like I was in the throes of the break-up all over again wondering 'will anyone fancy me? Has sex even changed in the time I’ve been coupled up?! Hell, what I would do if I got an unsolicited a dick pic?'  How would I navigate the world of dating apps where asking whether someone is 'D.T.F.' isn't exactly considered forward? 

Women are often the targets of sexism on dating apps simply because, well, they're women. I wondered how I - as an obvious woman of colour (mixed race to be exact) and a Muslim to boot, would fare. In the wake of terrorist attacks both here and abroad, anti-Muslim sentiment has reached fever pitch. That being said, things aren't much better for other women of colour either: black women have to contend with being denied entry to clubs, and if this shocking tale of a mixed race girl’s Tinder match telling her to bleach her skin is anything to go by, racism is alive and well online. 

I certainly didn’t have high expectations but here’s what I found when I made my first foray as a young British female muslim and woman of colour into the world of online dating.

Men will see you as a woman of colour first and foremost

Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective and preference– there wasn’t a dick pic in sight. However, putting yourself out there is tough, as most women can attest to. There’s only so much running the risk of being catfished or having to deal with douchebags like these ones that anyone can be expected to handle. Factor in being a woman of colour and it adds another layer of complexity to your interactions. Of the hundreds of conversations I’ve had so far – and all with men of wildly different ages, jobs and races – there’s not been one where my ambiguous ethnicity hasn’t been called into question. Granted, my name and skin colour obviously mark me out as not being Caucasian but when there’s fewer than one in three white people in some parts of London, is it really that much shocking enough to warrant being pointed out at every opportunity?

Clearly it is: some didn’t hang around for long after we matched, launching straight with 'so where are you from?' Or they went with my personal favourite, ‘what are you?’, these guys rarely took no for answer when I offered up 'I'm from Camden', following up with ‘no, where are you really from?’

It can get frustrating – and frankly exhausting – when your race becomes your defining feature. It doesn’t matter that I could beat you at badminton or have a knack for sitting next to the loudest person on the bus - each and every time I’m having what I think is a great conversation with someone, it somehow always switches back to my skin colour. It’s hard not to feel envious of my white BFFs when their conversations can progress much quicker – after all, they’re not trying to convince someone for what feels like 15 minutes straight that you’re not ‘Dubai-istani’ (yes, really...that's a thing apparently).

Zinzele*, a 24 year old broadcast journalist agrees: 'It would be nice if my colour wasn’t the only topic of conversation.' And that’s not to say that only women are at the receiving end of this. Ahmed*, 24, tells me: 'I’ve had comments from people who’ve called me Aladdin or who’ve generally fetishised my Indian heritage.'

But some men deliberately seek you out

I’ve always had a thing for exotic girls' was the charming opening gambit of Andrew Garfield lookalike and stockbrocker Dominic* which came in just two days into setting up my Bumble account. 'How are you finding England then?' asked Felix*, a student, not long after.

I had honed my fetish radar long before these apps even came into the mainstream so I can pretty much work out within five minutes flat if a guy is more turned on by my GSOH or my ethnicity. Once I had downloaded Tinder, Bumble, Happn et al. I couldn't help but wonder whether being able to hide behind an app had given men with pre-existing fetishes a renewed sense of confidence to try their luck. It’s not as if they’d have the guts to come up to me and tell me that they’re looking for a 'hot Asian girl who knows how to take care of her man' while I’m waiting to board the 29 bus, is it?

A quick scroll through Twitter confirms what my non-white friends and I have long suspected: some men deliberately seek us out. One unashamedly asks: 'How do I set Tinder to only show me WOC? #TinderProblems' while another reveals: 'Tinder tells me I have matches but I only like WOC. My luck the only girls who match with me are white.'

Others are even more vocal about their intentions: 'Tinder helps me meet all the gorgeous WOC I’ve missed out on for all these years'

There’s nothing wrong with having a 'type' – I’ll be the first to admit that I have a penchant for floppy haired Boris Johnson lookalikes – but when any woman that wouldn’t pass for white 'will do', things become problematic. The guys messaging me certainly weren't thinking: 'I bet she can hold her own in a dinner party full of Tory wankers' or 'I'm sure she could teach me a thing or two about how to whip up a seafood tortellini in twenty minutes flat'.

You’re especially likely to match with men of your own race

When all you have is a face to go on and your chances of finding a one night stand / FWB or more entirely depends on whether they find you ‘hot’ or not, you wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect your self-esteem. 

In my case, while I did receive a fair few more matches than I could handle, most were men of a similar race or religion to me. I assumed that this was exclusive to Bumble: but noticed that this kept happening on Tinder and Happn too. One of my matches, Mustafa, an Iraqi 26 year old trainee doctor explains his reasons for matching with girls similar to him: 'when I see an Arab girl in particular, it’s very easy for me to start a conversation. I feel more confident and often I'd start throwing out Arab jokes. There's an instant connection and often it can only go downhill from there since the conversation starts so well.'

That’s not to say that Caucasian men ignored me entirely: I was just less likely to get swiped right, have as much of a ‘meaningful’ conversation or asked out as much for drinks. It’s hard to feel too great about yourself if you’re constantly second-guessing if your skin colour was the deciding factor if they pressed left or right.

But that’s not to say that all WOC’s experiences are identical

Although WOC are all united in experiencing highly sexual and racially charged interactions at one point, that’s not to say all their experiences are in any way identical. 

For my black friends, they’re likely to be on the receiving end of what Zinzele dubs 'jungle fever' - men who specifically seek out black women. For others, it’s standard practice or their bodies to become akin to food.  'I am done with being called a piece of chocolate,' sighs another.

In contrast, for many of the women of East Asian heritage I spoke to, they’ve long had to deal with being seen as sexually subservient. It’s not uncommon for white men in particular to confess to them that they’ve 'always wanted to sleep with an Asian woman'. In fact, research from OK Cupid confirmed that Asian women were the most sought after race.

'It’s hard because you don’t know whether you’re just being paranoid. You immediately think ‘is that the only reason you’re drawn to me?' Ada Lee, a 21 year old Malaysian-Chinese law student told me. 'I’m not ashamed of being Asian, it’s empowering. But it has to be on my own terms. When someone seeks you out to unearth all their exotic fantasies, it’s no longer empowering, it’s being subject to white male voyeurism.'

It’s not surprising that dating within your own race can then seem like a more attractive option when it would ‘filter out’ these encounters. It’s certainly tempting, Ada agrees: 'There are times when I think it’d just be easier to only date Asian guys because the chances of them fetishising me are much lower.'

You’re seen as a ‘challenge’ if you’re Muslim

When identifying as Muslim is now so synonymous with terrorism, I spent the majority of the time on tenterhooks searching for the right time to ‘come out’. If my former friend was anything to go by I’d rather outright have known if someone was harbouring Islamophobic thoughts or wouldn’t entertain the idea of dating a Muslim girl before investing any time in them.

As someone who is partial to a G&T or two come Friday night, I soon realised first hand just how tough it is for Muslim women who really do abstain from alcohol. The countless times I was asked out on dates from wildly different men all seemed to revolve around one thing: shots – and lot of them.

When I wanted to test out reactions from guys I had spoken to by pretending that I didn’t drink, I expected to be met with confusion, elongated silences, strained conversation or at worst radio silence, which in some cases did happen. One guy simply couldn’t fathom that I didn’t have to deal with hangovers, going as far as to dub it 'impressive' while another was convinced I had a sneaky glass every now and again.

But there was even one surprisingly common reaction: the men I matched with seemed to take my sobriety as a challenge. Most were stumped for first date ideas or even reluctant to even go through with one if it wouldn’t involve the obligatory 'WTF happened last night?'.

But it’s even harder if you’re ‘identifiably’ Muslim

Finding love is hard enough for the average person but factor in wearing a hijab too, which I don't. Nadia, a Pakistani-Scottish 28 year old agrees, adding that she actively avoids using ‘mainstream’ dating apps: 'I feel that I’d likely get trolled or laughed at.'

It’s this that Khalil Jessa, founder of Muslim dating app Salaam Swipe, says has accounted for the rise of Muslim dating apps: 'It’s more likely that users will find someone like-minded using [Muslim dating apps] than others out there which won’t understand them as well as we do.' He adds: 'The hijab is normalised in our cultures and so you will be accepted for who you are and not judged by what you wear.'

You'll never know whether you're being paranoid

It's wasn't all negatuve. There could be many reasons why some men didn’t match with me - even my hair colour – you can’t quite brand this as 'racism'. But it’s hard to shift the doubt that the way you look and what you believe in doesn’t play a part in securing matches or even beyond that. 

No wonder there were times when I was tempted not to disclose I was Muslim – would conversations have progressed much faster if I hadn’t revealed it? And I couldn’t help but think that if I had gone through would it, I would have landed more first dates.

Granted, there were some positives: I’ve actually made some new friends on there that I really will be meeting for drinks and for the most part, many have been really understanding and open-minded. But I certainly won’t miss some of my matches not being able to see past my race. Nor will I miss the fear, suspicion and dare I say, trepidation at what would await me that has plagued the week’s experiment. One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be one hell of a relief to finally press the delete button.

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Follow Salma on Twitter @its_me_salma 

Tags: Tinder, Dating, Race