White people prefer white people on dating apps — but that could be changed, study says

A study from Cornell University found that dating apps — like Tinder and Grindr — can help reinforce the biases or “sexual racism” of users depending on its algorithm. The researchers offered ways to fight back against it.
A study from Cornell University found that dating apps — like Tinder and Grindr — can help reinforce the biases or “sexual racism” of users depending on its algorithm. The researchers offered ways to fight back against it. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Dating applications can allow users to fall into their own racial biases while searching for a partner, a new study says.

But in their study, researchers from schools like Cornell University say the “sexual racism” that plagues apps like Grindr, Tinder and Bumble can be stamped out with a few simple changes. The end goal, the study says, is to promote more diverse pairings on the dating sites.

Jevan Hutson, lead author of the study, said in a press release from Cornell University that “it’s really an unprecedented time for dating and meeting online” — which requires a more thorough look at how we can prevent discrimination on these dating apps.

“More people are using these apps, and they’re critical infrastructures that don’t get a lot of attention when it comes to bias and discrimination,” he said in the press release. “Intimacy is very private, and rightly so, but our private lives have impacts on larger socioeconomic patterns that are systemic.”

So just how does this racial bias play out for the estimated 15 percent of adults who use the dating apps?

Take the case of Sinakhone Keodara for example. He threatened to sue Grindr, a dating app for gay, bi and trans men, because of “sexual racism” he faced on the site, NBC reported. More specifically, Keodara says some users on the site had captions like “Not interested in Asians.”

Phumlani Kango, from Johannesburg, South Africa, said in an interview with NBC that the racism is prevalent in his country, too.

“What happens in Los Angeles … where you have ‘no fats, no femmes,’ it happens [in South Africa] as well,” he told NBC. “... They will say ‘no rice, no chocolate, no curry’ — which means no Asian, no black and no Indian.”

As noted by the study — which compiled data from prior research — white people are ten times more likely to receive a message from a black person on a dating app than they are to message the black user themselves. That suggests a hierarchy of attention on racial lines.

The study found other examples of inequalty in dating apps, including:

  • Asian men and black women have the lowest chance of receiving a message or a response.
  • White people of “all ages” prefer to go on dates with other white people.
  • College students are most likely to avoid going on dates with black women.

Stephanie Yeboah, a blogger, said that she has experienced racism as a black woman on online dating apps even when people are open to meeting up, according to The Independent. She said that some people ask offensive questions like if they can “get a taste of jungle fever” — and say they want to see if black women are “as aggressive in bed as they’ve heard.”

“Comments such as these are extremely dehumanizing to myself and other black women who are only looking for companionship,” she told The Independent. “It seems to suggest that black women are only good for one thing, and cites back to previous ideologies of black people being compared to primates; as primal and feral, hyper-sexualized creatures. It’s very hurtful.”

Even Christian Rudder, founder of OK Cupid, said that “when you’re looking at how two American strangers behave in a romantic context, race is the ultimate confounding factor.”

But researchers behind the Cornell University study say they have some ways to push back against the racial biases of users.

The study’s authors noted that OK Cupid itself experimented with pairing up users and saying they were “highly compatible” — even though they weren’t considered good matches — and found that the conversation between the two people often went well.

In other words, it appeared that just the mere suggestion that two people were compatible made both users more likely to give the connection a chance. The study’s authors wrote in a press release that it proves “the strong power of suggestion” that can be used to bridge the gap between people of different races.

Another potential solution could come from 9Monsters, a gay dating app from Japan, that allows people to describe themselves without explicitly revealing their race, according to the study’s authors.

The app “groups every user into one of nine categories of fictional ‘monster’ according to a process that includes both the user’s own type preference and the community’s perception of them,” the study says. “While 9Monsters may still sort users into categories along established lines like body type or weight, it’s possible that this re-categorization may also help users look past other forms of difference, such as race, ethnicity, and ability.”

Another gay dating app, called Hornet, prevents people from using their profile to mention race at all.

And a final solution might come in the form of “Kindr,” a campaign from Grindr that seeks to stamp out prejudice on its app by promoting inclusion. The study’s authors said positive writing about diversity may help promote more diverse couples on the apps.

The new guidelines from Kindr, for example, suggest that users describe “what you’re into, not what you aren’t” to avoid offending others.

“These guidelines exist to let you express yourself freely while also helping us maintain the safe, authentic, and accepting environment we strive to cultivate,” the guidelines read. “Any violation of these guidelines may result in the removal of prohibited content or a permanent ban from Grindr.”

But Landen Zumwalt, head of communications at Grindr, cautioned against hoping for a cure-all solution.

“Kindr is not going to solve racism by any means,” Zumwalt said, according to GQ. “These issues have been present in our community long before Grindr, but we hope to increase conversations around it and have a dialogue about what constitutes sexual racism.”

The study’s authors concede that sexual racism is a hard thing to conquer — but Keodara, who threatened to sue Grindr, said fixing the problem would improve the mental well-being of people of color looking for a chance at love on dating apps, according to The Guardian.

“Over the years I’ve had some pretty harrowing experiences,” Keodara told The Guardian. “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.”