I joined Tinder a few weeks after my first heartbreak. I had always regarded online dating as romance’s modern day horror show: ego, debauchery, and desperation. But after binge-watching Californication on my ex-boyfriend’s Netflix account I decided I needed connection. I figured if I swiped cautiously I could find a respectful yet passionate boy to go to music shows with. Naive? Definitely. But I had met friends on the internet before. Social media platforms like Instagram make it surprisingly simply to filter through the masses and find people with the same absurd interests at yourself. I met my current boyfriend through our Instagram mutual “friend,” Emily, who met her boyfriend on Tinder!
My Tinder experience was not what I expected. Yes there were aggressively forward boys who made me feel uncomfortable. Yes there was a lot of awkward conversation. But much to my surprise, most conversations began with the question, “so, what are you?” Quickly followed by, “oh, you could pass for mixed.” But the idea of “passing” is insulting. It says that because my skin isn’t very tan and because my name isn’t considered “ethnic” enough, my identity as a woman of color is unqualified. In the context of dating, it conveyed I was only attractive when associated with being White. When I talked to my friends about their online dating experiences, mostly everyone expressed their race was a determining factor of attraction.
To test the relationship between race and attraction, online dating website OkCupid conducted a research study which analyzed person-person interactions. According to the statistics, Black women were penalized for their appearance more than any other race. Specifically, White men rated Black women as -18% more attractive than the average woman. Contrastingly, White women received a 10% more attractive rating than the average women. People will argue that preferring one’s race is a matter of self-identification, not racism. That it’s easier to connect with a person if you understand their culture. That “even studies on babies indicate we might be wired to prefer out ‘in groups’ to whatever we perceive as ‘out groups’” (Elise Hu).
But when Black women receive a negative rating by every race including their own, it is no longer is merely a matter of personal preference. According to lead OkCupid researcher Christian Rudder, “[the] fact that race is a sexual factor for so many individuals, and in such a consistent way—says something about race’s role in our society.” Sex and society are still divided by shades of color.
When asked about online dating as a Black woman, third year Political Science major Sydney Mathews said, “I’ve been told that I’m not like other Black girls; that I’m not loud or ghetto. But instead I’m well-spoken and reserved. People associate unappealing characteristics to Black girls and appealing ones to White girls. They use stereotypes as a navigating tool to understand another culture. But there is a lot of racism to stereotypes. And online dating has attached negative stigmas to Black women. Often times people are too scared to even talk to me because my blackness makes men feel uncomfortable. Or if they do, they feel I’m just an experiment to entertain their curiosity.”
The objectification of Black women is another pervasive issue in online dating. In addition to the discrimination we experience, women of color feel we are only wanted to fulfill perverse fantasies, usually founded on racist stereotypes.
In an online dating social experiment led by Paige Tutt, associate editor at MMR magazine, a strong link between race and sexuality was discovered (Huffington Post). Tutt created different OkCupid accounts to embody varying personas (such as “video girl” and “the professional”). To account for confounding variables, each profile contained the same bio and differed only in clothing (which was used to test sexualization). The responses revealed that when wearing revealing clothing, responses tended to fetishize her race.
“In every other persona [aside from the video girl who wore a low-cut top], people spoke about everything else. I wasn’t necessarily sexualized in the same way,” Tutt said. “As a Black woman…I really feel that I’m only allowed to occupy two boxes. One is [a] sexualized black being and the other is everything else” (Huffington Post).
Therefore, the infamous online dating message “I’ve never been with a black girl” needs to stop. It is insulting and degrading. It suggests we are regarded merely as sexual conquests. Not only is mistaking appreciation with objectification racist and sexist, but it has detrimental consequences beyond the realm of dating.
Self-images of Black women become distorted as these problematic racial and sexual scripts become internalized. In the words of poet Alessandria Rhines, “sometimes this skin aches for more. Reassurance that it’s worth something, that every inch is worth more than the spread of these hips or how it lays in a body bag. Fetishes are for the fools who can’t tell the original from the copy.” And so this goes without saying: Fetishization is not attraction. The phrase “I’ve never been with a black girl” is not a compliment. Reducing women to their body is not acceptable. We are not made to fill the sexual needs of anyone but our own. And for those who still don’t understand: black women are not the world’s guilty pleasure.