Chris Stokel-Walker, Guardian, September 29, 2018
Sinakhone Keodara reached his breaking point last July. Loading up Grindr, the gay dating app that presents users with potential mates in close geographical proximity to them, the founder of a Los Angeles-based Asian television streaming service came across the profile of an elderly white man. He struck up a conversation, and received a three-word response: “Asian, ew gross.”
He is now considering suing Grindr for racial discrimination. For black and ethnic minority singletons, dipping a toe into the water of dating apps can involve subjecting yourself to racist abuse and crass intolerance.
“Over the years I’ve had some pretty harrowing experiences,” says Keodara. “You run across these profiles that say ‘no Asians’ or ‘I’m not attracted to Asians’. Seeing that all the time is grating; it affects your self-esteem.”
Style blogger Stephanie Yeboah faces the same struggles. “It’s really, really rubbish,” she explains. She’s faced messages that use words implying she – a black woman – is aggressive, animalistic, or hypersexualised. “There’s this assumption that black women – especially if plus sized – go along the dominatrix line.”
As a result, Yeboah went through phases of deleting then reinstalling many dating apps, and now doesn’t use them any more. “I don’t see any point,” she says.
Racism is rife in society – and increasingly dating apps such as Tinder, Grindr and Bumble are key parts of our society. Where we once met people in dingy dancehalls and sticky-floored nightclubs, now millions of us look for partners on our phones. Four in 10 adults in the UK say they have used dating apps. Globally, Tinder and Grindr – the two highest-profile apps – have tens of millions of users. Now dating apps are looking to branch out beyond finding “the one” to just finding us friends or business associates (Bumble, one of the best-known apps, launched Bumble Bizz last October, a networking service using the same mechanisms as its dating software).
Glen Jankowski, a psychology lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, says: “These apps increasingly form a big part of our lives beyond dating. Just because this occurs virtually doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be subject to the same standards of real life.”
For that reason it’s important that the apps take a stand on intolerant behaviour. Bumble’s Louise Troen acknowledges the problem, saying: “The online space is complicated, and people can say things they wouldn’t say in a bar because of the potential ramifications.”
Safiya Umoja Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression, a book detailing how search engines reinforce racism, says that the way we communicate online doesn’t help, and that in person there are more social conventions over who we choose to talk to, and how we choose to talk to them: “In these kinds of applications, there’s no space for that kind of empathy or self-regulation.”
Jankowski agrees: “There are certain things some people would say on dating apps that they wouldn’t say in real life, like ‘black = block’ and ‘no gay Asians’.”
However, Troen is clear: “Whenever someone says something like that, they know there is an army of people at Bumble who will take immediate and terminal action to make sure that user doesn’t have access to the platform.”
Others are coming round to the same belief – albeit more slowly. Earlier this month, Grindr announced a “zero-tolerance” policy on racism and discrimination, threatening to ban users who use racist language. The app is also considering the removal of options that allow users to filter potential dates by race.
Racism has long been a problem on Grindr: a 2015 paper by researchers in Australia found 96% of users had viewed at least one profile that included some sort of racial discrimination, and more than half believed they’d been victims of racism. More than one in eight admitted they included text on their profile indicating they themselves discriminated on the basis of race.
We don’t accept “No blacks, no Irish” signs in real life any more, so why do we on platforms that are a major part of our dating lives, and are attempting to gain a foothold as a public forum?
“By encouraging this kind of behaviour, it reinforces the belief that this is normal,” says Keodara. “They’re normalising racism on their platform.” Transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf agrees. “The apps have the resources and should be capable of holding people accountable when they behave in a racist or discriminatory way. If they choose not to, they’re complicit in that.”
Noble is uncertain about the efficacy of drawing up a list of forbidden words. “Reducing it down in the simplest forms to a text-based curation of words that can and can’t be used, I haven’t yet seen the evidence that this will solve that problem,” she says. It’s likely that users would get around any bans by resorting to euphemisms or acronyms. “Users will always game the text,” she explains.
Of course, outlawing certain language isn’t likely to solve racism. While Bumble and Grindr deny using image recognition-based algorithms to suggest partners visually similar to ones that users have already expressed an interest in, many users suspect that some apps do. (Tinder refused requests to participate in this article, though research shows that Tinder provides potential matches based on “current location, previous swipes, and contacts”.) Barring abusive language could still allow inadvertent prejudice through the efficiency of the apps’ algorithms. “They can’t design out our worst impulses and our worst human conditions,” admits Noble.
All dating apps’ algorithms are proprietary black boxes that the companies are wary of sharing with the public or competitors. But if they include some requirement of user self-definition by race (as Grindr does), or preference for interracial relationships (as sites such as OkCupid do), then with every swipe or button press the matchmaking algorithm is learning what we like and what we don’t. Likewise, Tinder’s algorithm ranks attractiveness based on previous swipes; therefore, it promotes what is considered “traditionally” beautiful (read: white) people. Crucially, no app is likely to deliberately dumb down its algorithm to produce worse matches, even if it may help prevent racist behaviour.
Bumble hopes to change user behaviour by example. “Whether it’s subconscious or unintentional, lots of people in the world are ingrained with racist, sexist or misogynistic behaviour patterns,” says Troen, adding that “we are more than happy to ban people”. (Bumble has banned “probably a couple of thousand” users for abusive behaviour of one type or another.)
Grindr’s head of communications, Landen Zumwalt, accepts that they have been slow to take action. “We have a new suite of queer leadership who only recently joined Grindr and came in with the priority to address this,” he says. Zumwalt joined the company in June; he himself has been a Grindr user, and so has “an understanding of the level of toxicity” taking place on the app.
“I knew just how bad things had been, especially for our queer users of colour, and we have a responsibility to be a bit more aggressive in how we create a more respectful area for our users.”
Grindr’s decision has been applauded by some, but is undercut by the fact it is still possible to filter out entire ethnicities. “I’m a paying user. They need to create a level playing field,” says Keodara. “Why should I pay for my own oppression? If I’m paying $14.99 every month, why should I have to be subjected to this demeaning, degrading and undignified BS.”
Leeds Beckett University’s Jankowski agrees. “It’s facilitating and encouraging racism. There’s no reason why you’d need that.”
Zumwalt said Grindr had carefully discussed removing the ethnicity filter, but were hesitant to get rid of it. “We decided before we were ready to pull the plug on that, it was a conversation we wanted with our user base,” he says. “While I believe the ethnicity filter does promote racist behaviour in the app, other minority groups use the filter because they want to quickly find other members of their minority community.”
Bumble’s Louise Troen also refuses to rule out that its app – a women-centric dating service – would not extend its recently-introduced “badges” feature (which allows users to filter by star sign and height) to add a badge for race. “There are no plans in the works to include or add a badge to do with race, but it’s a fundamental company policy that we don’t comment on where the product will be in a year, because we just don’t know.”
There has been a backlash to Grindr’s announcement that it will be cracking down on people voicing a preference for one race over others. But to Keodara, the arguments against the decision are problematic. “A lot of people say this is preference,” he says. “But just because it’s preference, it doesn’t mean it’s right. Slavery was white people’s preference.”\