6 min

Blocked on Grindr

In the world of dating apps, race is a major factor

"Over time, I start believing these negative things. I think, I’m South Asian and it’s not a good thing." - Neil Chaudhury Credit: Adam Coish

Neil Chaudhury wants to stop doing it. But like so many other gay guys in Toronto, the recent George Brown grad desires a boyfriend, or at least the chance to meet someone new. So Chaudhury goes on Grindr, the notorious hook-up app, even though it means risking another hit to his self-esteem.

He thumbs through other guys’ profiles and sees warnings like “No Asians.” Fellow users sometimes ask him, “Do you smell like curry?” Almost always, guys ask, “Where are you from?” When he responds, “India,” the conversation often ends there.

“I feel like there is a lot of stigma attached to being a gay person of colour in Toronto,” Chaudhury says. “I start doubting my own identity. I internalize it and think maybe there’s something wrong with me. Over time, I start believing these negative things. I think, I’m South Asian and it’s not a good thing.”

Chaudhury has lived in Canada for almost three years, and, in that time, he’s never been turned down face-to-face because of his race. But the online dating world is an alternate universe where people express things they wouldn’t in real life — and it’s not just gay men.

Muna Mire, a recent University of Toronto grad, was excited when she first joined the dating website OkCupid. She advertised herself to men and women and started sending messages to both. What Mire got in response surprised her: a few curt responses saying, “Sorry, I’m not that into black girls.” Then she noticed people pointing out the same thing in their profiles, too, right next to preferences like “Must love dogs” and “No smokers, please.”

“It’s jarring that someone would write you off as a person without even getting to know you,” Mire says. “Black women look all different kinds of ways. It’s a matter of the door being closed to you as a human being based on something completely arbitrary. And I’ve experienced this from both men and queer women, so it’s not really a gendered thing.”

Jaime Woo, author of the book Meet Grindr: How One App Changed the Way We Connect, says he never realized how much race matters in the dating world until he started advertising himself online. “I never really thought of race as a first step in terms of who I am,” he says. Then he discovered that his white friends get two to three times more responses on Grindr than he does. One day, Woo switched his profile photo from a face picture to a headless torso shot (not uncommon on Grindr) and his response rate spiked. But when guys asked for a corresponding face pic and discovered Woo is Asian, he got blocked, meaning the exchange was over.

Nowadays, it’s common for apps and websites like Grindr and OkCupid to ask users to identify themselves by race — and many do. It gives the impression that race is, indeed, just another preference, like enjoying long walks on the beach. But is it? “It’s not just a matter of preference; it really isn’t,” Mire says, and for evidence, she points to statistics from OkCupid.

In a document titled “How Your Race Affects the Messages You Get,” the web company spells out what Mire refers to as “love laws.” The North American dating scene reflects wider socioeconomic patterns, with white people at the top and blacks on the bottom. For instance, when it comes to women seeking men, women of all races respond to white men the most. Meanwhile, black women put out the most messages but get the fewest in return, including from black men. “This suggests an overall desirability for white men congruent to the cultural standard of beauty,” says OkCupid. It also reflects the fact that, generally speaking, men and women prefer to partner up with people from an equal or higher social status.

A 2011 poll of nearly 2,000 Lavalife users backs up OkCupid’s information. Seventy-four percent of women said ethnicity affected their dating decisions, compared to 49 percent of men. It’s not much different for homos, either. According to OkCupid, “straights and gays share many of the same inclinations.”

Woo’s book includes a whole chapter on this phenomenon called “Race to the Bottom.” In it, he writes, “Everyone agrees who has it easiest on Grindr: fit, youthful white men. While the trendy styling of white men can change — blond and wispy for a while, more recently bearded and tattooed — their place on top of the beauty ideal and, thus, the queer hierarchy, doesn’t.”

It’s pretty clear whom most people want to date. Then why do some online users feel the need to express who they don’t want? In Meet Grindr, Woo tackles the phenomenon of men who write “No Asians” on their profiles. The figure is actually quite low (less than two percent, judging from a study by Australian researcher Damien Higgs), but on the other hand, the overall percentage of Asians online is also low (just four to eight percent on the website that Higgs studied). Since there’s such a minimal chance of being approached online by an Asian, Woo wonders why anyone feels the need to preemptively reject them, especially on an app like Grindr that allows so few words. Considering the types of stereotypes that abound about Asian men, Woo surmises that the guys who write “No Asians” are using it as code for what they really want: a white, “straight-acting,” so-called masculine dude.

It must be noted that white men aren’t the only ones who discriminate according to race on apps like Grindr — and when they do discriminate, it’s not always against other races. It’s fairly common to open up Grindr and see an Asian guy with a profile like “I prefer my men the way I like my chocolate — white” or a white guy with a profile like “Really like Latinos, blacks and Asians!!” In fact, Chaudhury and his best friend Kunal, a fellow immigrant from India, awkwardly admit that they prefer trading messages and making dates with white guys.

“We’ve internalized this oppression,” explains Kunal (who prefers not to publicize his last name). He finds it helpful when guys spin their racial preferences in a positive way by writing things like “Asians preferred.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Kunal says. But he admits that when a white guy writes, “Whites preferred” that makes him think, “That guy’s probably a racist.”

Woo also says that, even if terms like “No Asians” or “No blacks” don’t appear that often on dating profiles, it still creates a chilling effect for people of colour. “Given the attention raised on the issue by media mentions,” Woo writes in Meet Grindr, “it suggests that even when a low percentage of men use these phrases, the negative, exclusionary effect resonates loudly.”

Looking on the bright side, Woo sees the trend turning, as indicated by an upswing in interracial relationships. Since the online dating world is a reflection of the real world, he figures that, as people broaden their attitudes about the “beauty ideal,” web and app profiles will evolve with the times. In the meantime, Woo encourages people to follow the advice of most dating sites and apps and state what you like instead of what you don’t. Also, if you encounter racism, there’s usually a way to report it directly to the app and site operators. And, of course, you can always confront online bigots directly. The problem is that, on most dating sites and apps, fellow users can block you before you get very far with your complaint.

Chaudhury and Kunal have experimented with another option: stretching the truth. Kunal says that he gets blocked so often when he tells guys his country of origin that he sometimes answers the question “Where are you from?” with “Canada.” Mostly, though, Kunal says he’s taken to dealing with online racism by waiting for other guys to message him instead of making the first move. “I’m just protecting myself from rejection based on my skin colour,” he says.

Mire has found another solution: quit. “I love building community online, and I thought OkCupid would be a cool way to meet people,” she says, “but I’m not so sure anymore. I’m starting to feel like I can do better in real life. I feel like when you meet me in person and talk to me, it’s a lot harder for you to write me off in the ways you would online.”