A man swipes his hand left over a photograph on a touchscreen, discarding a woman in the process. He's white and isn't "into mixed race girls" – although subsequently adds that he has slept with them before. The woman photographed is black, not of mixed heritage. Anyway. When Channel 4's provocatively-named Is Love Racist? aired in 2017, this confounding, yet undeniably compelling, moment in the show was taken as a given.
The show aimed to prove that racism impacts dating in the UK, by debunking the widely held idea that a racial preference is equivalent to preferring brunettes or guys with back hair. By putting ten diverse volunteers through a series of "tests", the show uncovered the participants' racial biases, and in doing so raised a fair question: what's it like to date in Britain when you don't happen to be white?
As a British-Indian woman, dating apps are a minefield. From unsolicited dick pics to the insistence I look "exotic" – come on: a piña colada with a glittering umbrella can look exotic; I, a human being with a bit of melanin in her skin, am not – there's a lot I definitely don't love about finding love, or a hookup, on them.
Last year I used these apps fairly regularly in both Birmingham and London, swiping back and forth through the metaphorical shit to find some dates using the following base criteria: not a racist; did not ask where I was "really from"; not a sexist.
Burrowed within the mess were some normal people. And, really, they were the only reason I put myself through recurring offensive comments on my race. While Is Love Racist? showed UK viewers how racial discrimination can work when dating, it didn't explore the negative impacts this has on people of colour. I have heard from friends who also feel out of place and overlooked, and until we invest in more research to unpack what this all means, the anecdotal dating experiences of people of colour will continue to be underplayed or dismissed, rather than properly understood as data.
During my time on dating apps in Birmingham, I pretty much felt invisible. I sensed I was getting fewer matches because of my skin colour, but I had no way of checking that with the people who swiped left. As anyone who has grown up brown in the UK knows, you develop a sensitivity to racism (however blunt) and how your race impacts the way people treat you. Just last week a friend told me they spoke to a guy who, brown himself, said: "I don't really like brown girls, I think they're ugly." I was 11 the first time I heard a person I fancied say this.
But, as is so often the case, these are anecdotal experiences. How ethnicity and race feed into dating and online dating in the UK seems to be an under-researched field. That makes people of colour's experiences – of implicit and more explicit racism – difficult to talk about as fact, since they're rarely reported on. You may have read about how, in 2014, OkCupid analysed racial preferences from their users in the US and found a bias against black women and Asian men from nearly all races. Similarly, Are You Interested laid bare the race preferences on their dating app: once again, black people received the fewest replies to their messages. Though this data was pulled from users in the US, you could reasonably expect to find something similar in another majority-white country like the UK.
My time on Tinder felt soul-destroying. Getting fewer matches than I might have expected bled into other areas and started to over-complicate my relationship with the apps. It gave me a massive complex about which pictures I used on my profile and whether my bio was "good enough". In hindsight, obviously no one gives a shit about anyone's bio. The result was an unfair internal assumption that most people on dating apps were racist until proven otherwise. I subconsciously developed this self-preservation tool to avoid rejection and racism.
In a piece for gal-dem, Alexandra Oti astutely points out: "If you are told on a daily basis that people who look like you are unattractive and undeserving of love, a natural reaction would be to seek out that which is being denied to you as a form of validation of self-worth." This is exactly what I did.
The minute I moved to London, my dating app game soared in comparison to my time in Birmingham. Along with this, however, came another issue: fetishisation masked as preference. On a first date, a guy told me that racial preferences were totally natural – South Asian women were his "type" – and used "science" to back it up. But ethnic groups are themselves too diverse to flatten into a "race preference" category. To say you like black women highlights a problematic assumption that all of them act, or look, the same. In a society, like any other, that perpetuates stereotypes (black women as angry or explicitly sexual, East Asian women as compliant), saying you're "into" an ethnic group can reflect those sweeping assumptions.
I was lucky in that my experience was far less aggressive than others. A friend of mine, also brown, said she once made the mistake of using an app display image of her in a sari. The subsequent reply – "I see you're going for the sari seduction… Can you teach me the Kama Sutra?" – was enough to compel her to remove said picture and hop off Tinder.
Possibly worst of all, I'd convince myself I was overthinking many of these sorts of exchanges. This hasn't come out of nowhere, either. It's the result of countless "it was just a joke!" and "why are you being so moody?" gaslighting. You're left trapped in a cycle: trying to date, encountering dodgy messages, overthinking those messages and being laughed at or scolded for doing so. The impact is a constant anxiety.
I've been lucky; my time on dating apps wasn't as traumatic as other women's. While I may have not been called racist terms, I think the treatment I got was more insidious and pervasive, as it's harder to call out. It was a pretty steep learning curve, but hitting those "block" and "unmatch" buttons worked at least temporarily. Hopefully, the next steps to addressing these issues will move the conversation beyond a casual "nah, mixed girls aren't for me" broadcast on national television.