How Tinder Accidentally Exposed Society's Inherent Racism
The five-year-old dating app shed light on an uncomfortable set of stereotypes.
Tinder revolutionized the dating world when it was launched five years ago. The dating app’s unique design inspired a surge of location-based “swipe” apps which collectively morphed online dating from an odd, secretive habit into an acceptable way to meet partners. The algorithm-based sites of the early 2000s now look obsolete, and for millions, dating has been boiled down to one essential question: “Is this person hot?”
But, in drastically streamlining the attraction process, and entirely by accident, Tinder became the skeleton key to unlocking data on racism in America. The app’s data proves that black women and Asian men are the demographics on which the highest number of people swipe “left,” thereby rejecting them. By distilling dates down to a profile picture and a swipe, Tinder encourages users to act on their knee-jerk reactions, and that lightning fast process lights up corners of our minds we haven’t fully grappled with as a society. Black women and Asian men make up two demographics that have been long stigmatized as not-ideal sexual and romantic partners.
It’s not that Tinder made anyone racist. It’s that the app compiles data on the quick preferences, and prejudices, of millions around the world, exposing an uncomfortable and racist reality.
Established in 2004, a whole six years prior to Tinder, the dating site OKCupid ensured its longevity when it sought help from Tinder in 2013 to implement the swipe into its own platform. It was a year later when OKCupid founder Christian Rudder published Datacylsm, a book which collects illustrated data visualizations with stats from OKC user profiles. The book offers incredible insight into topics like our habits, our political beliefs, our speech patterns — and the assumptions many people still make about entire populations. Generally, most users on OKC — and by extension, other sites — “swipe left” on black women and Asian men the most. That data matches Tinder’s data exactly.
In a 2014 TIME article reporting on Datacylsm’s findings, Jack Linshi explained OKC’s 1 to 5 scale and how different racial groups of women rated Asian men. It wasn’t high.
“While Asian women are more likely to give Asian men higher ratings, women of other races—black, Latina, white—give Asian men a rating between 1 and 2 stars less than what they usually rate men,” wrote Linshi. “Black and Latin men faced ‘similar discrimination,’ while white men had ratings “most high among women of all races.”
Meanwhile, black women were considered the “least desirable” among all races of men. “Asian, Latin and white men tend to give black women 1 to 1.5 stars less, while black men’s ratings of black women are more consistent with their ratings of all races of women,” he wrote. The most highly-rated groups of women by men were those of Asian and Latin descent, with white women not far behind.
While people are free to have their individual preferences, it is extremely telling that two unique demographics are ostracized on several different dating platforms. Basic knowledge of human history, particularly American history, reveal where and how the alienation of black women and Asian men began. (It’s important to note that these subjects are dense enough to fill whole libraries, so further reading elsewhere is encouraged.)
European colonists who orchestrated the African slave trade created caricatures, such as the Jezebel and the Sapphire, in order to further dehumanize and stereotype black women. Because of their strength and enslavement, black slaves were paradoxically fetishized by white masters who were both abhorred and allured by black women and their sexuality. It should come as no surprise then that white slave owners took in black women as sexual slaves, raping black women as they married white women.
The modern incarnation for stereotyped black women is the plainly-named “angry black woman.” Stereotyped as hot-tempered, independent narcissists in our culture, and in our popular media, this image has been damaging to the cultural collective; in 2016, Anni Ferguson wrote in the Guardian how black females are statistically diagnosed with mental illnesses more than twice as often when compared to white women. “The fact that black women face struggles with perception every day can often mean that the constant fight seems normal,” writes Ferguson. “It became clear that these women were resigned to their fate. As a black woman you are scary, inadequate, ugly or hyper-sexualized – and you just have to accept it.”
Asian men have had a vastly different cultural experience in the Americas. Although not subject to the indignities of enslavement, Asian immigrants during 19th-century westward expansion formed the basis for today’s prejudices against a cheaper-to-hire foreign working class. America’s first Asians endured discrimination from whites who felt their jobs were stolen, so their effeminate clothes, alien languages, and smaller physical features became targets. Early American media birthed the Yellow Peril, a treacherous imp who sought white women and white lands.
Throughout the 20th century, after numerous discriminatory laws (such as Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1917, the Geary Act, all anti-miscegenation, which included blacks and Native Americans) were repealed, America entered war with the Japanese, then later Communist-backed North Korea and North Vietnam, which created new stereotypes energized by the ghosts of old. When it was all over, Asian men found a new box to fill in: the model minority, over-worked math nerds who aren’t sexy enough to party with. And the model minority stereotype, as well, has left its share of psychological damage on Asian-American young people.
It’s important to note that Dataclysm focused on data uncovered by OKCupid, but it’s not unreasonable to think human beings seeking sexual and romantic partners won’t behave differently just because of the platform they’re using. A number of first-person accounts, including Michelle Ofiwe in Complex in 2016, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff in Vice in 2015, Serena Smith in Babe earlier this year, and Mahesh Sharma in Sydney Morning Herald in 2016, help illustrate that our sexual prejudices extend to Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and beyond.
It was also in 2016 when comedians Jessica Williams and Ronny Chieng explored sexual racism in a segment for The Daily Show, which (humorously) found the same data across all dating apps. As Rudder himself put it during the segment: “Everybody, collectively, is rating Asian men and black women poorly.”
Tinder found a reason to reckon with its role in society earlier this summer. In a login video exclusive to Hong Kong users, Tinder showed a user swipe left only once on the only Asian male in the commercial. The site was slammed online. Though the company said in its apology that “it was not our intention” and that “we see in retrospect how the content could be seen as insensitive,” it provided proof that the struggles of dating as a member of a marginalized group are invisible to everyone else.
Everyone has their individual preferences. Some women like people with blue eyes, some guys like girls with short hair. But some prefer people from a specific race. While the fetishizing and discrimination of entire races in the realm of dating is wrong, it’s also something an overwhelming amount of people are guilty of. Until we openly admit and own up to it, the data will speak for itself.