By: Natasha Dhumma
Are dating apps racist?
I’ll admit, this title is clickbait. But do dating apps, which in many ways I am indebted to for liberating me from the drudgery of feigning enthusiasm when engaging with strangers, serve as a vehicle to exoticise women of colour and further our oppression by imposing racial stereotypes onto us when we are least expecting it?
Online dating is fertile ground for microaggressions all in the name of getting to know each other. About five minutes into a conversation I was recently asked “are you desi?” by a white Australian guy. Putting aside the irritation I felt by the use of an Indian word dropped in to show off in the way a newly returned traveller might over-pronounce BarTHelona,, I was quite surprised he then continued unperturbed with “we could watch Bollywood films together”. There are many obvious, I hope, reasons why this is problematic. To reduce a woman to her (assumed) ethnicity, hijack her own culture to label her in a way she hasn’t chosen to herself and then exoticise her so much to picture yourselves in the whitest image of Indianness – watching a Hindi film. It also exposes a disappointing lack of knowledge of the very culture you are purporting to show off about. If my man was half the desiphile he thinks he is he would have said we could attend a wedding of a family friend I’ve never met together, tut at people saying “chai tea” together, eat pickle on toast together… but only caricature will suffice in his fantasy.
Then there are those instances that, even without ethnicity markers mentioned, still have an imperceptible smidge of gendered racism about them. I am no longer surprised when men send my notifications aflutter with unsolicited feedback on the content of my profile. Rest assured I am more than capable of accepting a compliment, rather I am talking about critiques on how I describe myself and suggestions on how I could have written these sections better. I have had multiple men express their disapproval that one of my pet peeves is “men who talk too much or over others in meetings”, at best advising me that it would be more correct to say “people in meetings” (as a professional campaigner on gender equality forgive me if I don’t feel the need to take your advice) and at worst condemning me to spinsterhood because I’ll never attract a man with that attitude. Clearly the irony of being men who talk too much before-even-meeting is lost on them.
This is even stranger when you consider that surely the appeal of these apps is that you don’t have to engage with people you aren’t attracted to, you just swipe left and never look back. When the average time spent on someone’s profile can’t be more than 8 seconds, it’s a relatively big effort to tell someone who probably isn’t into you that you’re not into them either. While it is hard to say for sure that such attacks are racial, when women of colour are more likely to be sexually harassed, are easier to push in front of at the bar, abuse on Twitter and, yes, talk over in meetings, it’s a logical connection to make.
There are other incidents I could share but I am sure those of you lucky enough to have been in the game will have plenty of your own. I want to focus instead on why it is so much more difficult to challenge these microaggressions online than if someone said this to my face, what is it about the impersonal nature of dating apps that leave these behaviours unchecked? It could be the likelihood of having an impact, after all who is up for schooling a stranger when there are hundreds of potential matches one tap away. Less generously it might also be that dressing downs from behind a screen are just less satisfying, is the emotional labour of telling someone that what they have said isn’t okay really worth it if you aren’t able to see how they react? For me there’s also a fear of being a feminist killjoy, a brown feminist killjoy no less. In a space all about being attractive, flirty and up for fun, establishing boundaries and expectations just makes you feel like the party pooper. Out in the real world we’re armed for these kinds of interactions, we have a steely gaze, quick wit, smirks and side-eyes in our toolkits, but on our sofa at home we’re caught unaware, most vulnerable where we feel the safest.
But enough of pointing the finger at men on dating apps, the apps themselves have to take some responsibility for forcing my ethnic identity on me too. On Hinge, in spite of me selecting “no preference” to a person’s ethnicity, over half of those presented to me as “most compatible” are Indian men. Great! Someone I can legitimately watch Bollywood films with – except that I have nothing in common with most of them. I have wanted there to be, I have studied their profiles looking for clues but curiously all I see is blazers and polo shirts, “moderate politics” and inspirational quotes – perfectly acceptable but not really my thing, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. The algorithm is supposed to use our previous likes and swipes to offer up suggestions. Given it clearly isn’t, I can only assume it is our shared Indian identities dragging us reluctantly together us. Hinge says “This is a way for us to, essentially, go on all your bad dates for you, so that we can help figure out who you’ll end up with in the end”. Forget Shaadi.com and the trope of the arranged marriage-obsessed Asian parent, if Hinge has decided on my destiny, has cleared the path by filtering out my non-Indian “bad dates” and piled more appropriate suitors to the front someone better tell them they are out of a job.