It is common nowadays for 21st century millennials to search for partners, whether it be romantic or sexual, through dating apps. Apps such as Tinder, Grindr, Her and so forth have made pursuing partners much more convenient and accessible than it used to be. Rather than attending that local bar in your neighborhood every Thursday night in search of a partner, partners can be accessed anytime and anywhere you want — an entire dating pool available to you through your handheld device. And with that convenience comes the privilege of choice. Through dating apps, you are now able to sift through thousands of profiles in search of “the one” who fits the criteria for your partner.
But with such privilege comes a dilemma. What is most often overlooked, and arguably the most consequential feature of dating apps, is the freedom to filter people based on specific characteristics. More specifically, the freedom to filter potential partners based on race. And as we mindlessly swipe left and right on countless profiles, we often are not conscious of how our own racial biases can be reflected and mediated through our swiping choices.
In other words, dating apps could be perpetuating racism by amplifying one’s ability to choose partners based on their “racial preferences.”
I, for one, was once a culprit of having racial preferences, and didn’t notice those patterns in my dating behavior until I decided to take a real, cold hard look at who my past partners were and the types of people I would often swipe right on.
I didn’t entertain the concept dating until I entered college. Up until my senior year of high school, I was coming to terms with my queerness, and as a result I shut myself out of pursuing any form of romantic relationship. And although I finally accepted that I was queer before college started, I still didn’t feel like I was ready to fully put myself out there. So as a result, I refused to place myself in queer spaces like LGBTQ club meetings or other on-campus events catered to queer people simply because I felt exposed. However, I still wanted to explore my sexuality in a more subtle way, which is what drove me to download Tinder. Even though downloading Tinder was still a step I took toward putting myself out there and meeting other queer guys, I still had the comfort of hiding behind a screen, where I was able to set my insecurities about my sexuality aside and construct the best online representation of myself. It was Tinder through which I entered the dating scene — an app that would ultimately define my understanding of romantic pursuit and set a precedent for the racial biases that would follow.
As a queer Asian American cis man, it was, and still is, difficult for me to navigate the queer dating scene at Binghamton University. Located in the middle-of-nowhere New York where 57 percent of the student population is Caucasian, you can only imagine how small (and white) the queer male dating pool really is. It took a whole 25 minutes before I swiped through the entirety of gay Binghamton, and reached the “Sorry, there is nobody around you” page. And it’s not like I matched with that many people, either. Part of that lack can be ascribed to me not knowing how to construct a desirable representation of myself online. The other part of it can arguably be placed on my Asianness. In America, where Asian men have been historically and systemically desexualized and feminized — whether it’s through discriminatory immigration policies or racist, reductive portrayals of Asian men in mainstream Western media — the LGBTQ community has positioned Asians at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy.
So what was the product of the overwhelming whiteness and anti-Asian biases entrenched in the Binghamton gay community? Given the community I was working with, I ended up mostly matching and, therefore, dating white men. Specifically, I was dating mostly White men who fetishized me, ones who perceived me as this skinny, feminine, submissive Oriental being that they could experiment with and dominate. Additionally, it made me resent my Asianness, in that I would constantly fantasize about how much more fulfilling and exciting dating would be if I was white. Maybe if I was white, I would actually be interested in the guys I pursued. Maybe if I was white, my messages would say “Hey what’s up?” instead of “What part of Asia are you from?” Maybe if I was white, I would dislike myself a little less.
Although, thankfully, none of those romantic and sexual pursuits ever materialized into anything serious or long-term, the experience unfortunately set an unhealthy standard for the types of people I would continue swiping right on — the standard simply being “mediocre white guys who want to sleep with me.” Additionally, my internalized racism — of me despising my Asianness — was articulated through the outright dismissal of pursuing other queer Asian males. Add to that the anti-Blackness I internalized growing up in a traditional Chinese household, and you have yourself the recipe to become a “white man’s whore.” And so from that point on, my dating life was defined by an unhealthy cycle of dating strictly white men who offered me an inkling of attention, whether that attention had ulterior motives or not.
It wasn’t until years of intense self-reflection, countless therapy sessions and a commitment to constantly challenging and questioning my sexual biases when I finally started to break out of this unhealthy mindset. Meeting and befriending other queer people of color and listening to their experiences of racial discrimination also helped, in that it made me realize that the oppressions and feelings that I have internalized do not exist in a vacuum, and are valid.
Fast-forwarding to the present, I can finally say that I have a healthier relationship with dating, and with myself. Although I continue to work through my internalized racism and racial biases every single day, my eyes have finally opened up to the beauty, complexity and diversity the queer community has to offer. I have finally stopped centering mediocre white men in my dating pool, and am finally approaching relationships as a way to form deep, meaningful connections rather than dating for the sake of filling a void in my self-worth.
So what’s my point? Well, to state the obvious: that Tinder, as well as other dating apps, can be dangerous if it is your entry-point into the dating world in that it can skew your understanding of what healthy romantic pursuit looks like. More importantly, however, the reason as to why I wrote this article is to highlight how racial biases can be perpetuated through dating apps, and that it is possible to dismantle them. Conversations on “racial preferences” and whether or not it makes you racist are prevalent among queer folks. And to be quite frank, yes — having racial preferences is racist, because you’re eliminating entire ethnic groups from your dating pool based on physical characteristics arbitrarily associated with them.
However, it is important to recognize that your “racial preferences” aren’t static, objective truths that you are born with. Rather, they are an amalgamation of systemic injustices, one’s unique circumstances and one’s ignorance. So next time you are swiping on Tinder — regardless of your sexuality — try to be more conscious of your swiping choices. Are you swiping right mostly on white guys? Are you immediately swiping left on profiles that center a Black face? Are you swiping left on only Asian people because you hope to fulfill some deviant sexual desire? If so, really interrogate why you’re making those decisions, and remind yourself that those racial biases can be unlearned.