Dating sucks for everyone, but it sucks most for minorities. Wading through obscene, degrading messages is part and parcel of the typical Tinder journey, but minorities are more likely to be on the receiving end of charming lines like, "What exactly are you?" and "Sorry, just not into gaysians."
Color Dating, a new interracial dating app, is hoping to flip the script on these racist interactions by connecting users of different ethnicities to people who are actually into them, boosting reply rates and self-esteem in the process. While this may seem like an uncomfortable commoditization of even more uncomfortable racial fetishes, so far the Tinder-esque swipe app, which asks you for your racial preferences up front, has racked up over 30,000 downloads and positive feedback from users of many backgrounds. Even more significantly, creator Vu Tran told me, users are receiving similar numbers of matches, no matter their race. "This seems to indicate that our matching algorithms are working," he said.
Straight black women and Asian men continue to be the most overlooked on dating platforms: An oft-cited 2014 poll by OK Cupid found that 82 percent of non-black men held some bias against black women, while Asian men received the fewest messages and worst ratings of any demographic on the app. "White women prefer white men to the exclusion of everyone else—and Asian and Hispanic women prefer them even more exclusively," another report, from 2009, reads.
While a dating app can't solve racism, it can facilitate a less dispiriting dating experience for people of color. Tran sees Color as a slightly more sensitive matchmaker. "We're trying to push more of a positive message around racial differences," Tran said.
Though, like any Silicon Valley entrepreneur worth his weight in Bitcoin, Tran's ultimate goal isn't to create a post-racial utopia but to increase "engagement." He points out that mainstream apps like Tinder are losing frustrated minorities to siloed dating sites like Bae (for African Americans) or East Meet East (for Asian Americans), leaving an opening for a swipe app that's more personalized and affirming (and, potentially, lucrative). "When you don't get matches, you end up leaving the platform," he said, "and then the platform becomes even more homogeneous."
Blocking people is too easy. Dating sites have an obligation to ensure they don't facilitate racial exclusion and stereotyping.
Sonu S. Bedi, a professor of political theory at Dartmouth and author of Beyond Race, Sex and Sexual Orientation: Legal Equality without Identity, thinks Color sounds promising, though he'd prefer if the app didn't allow white users to choose other white users to date. (It currently does.) "You may not be able to consciously control who you are attracted to, but that doesn't imply that the attraction is benign," he said.
Bedi believes that, just as housing and employment should be race-blind, so should dating platforms. In an essay on sexual racism in the Journal of Politics he argues that equal access to intimacy is a matter of justice. "The opportunity to be a part of a reciprocal romantic relationship is a primary social good and is important to a capability central to human dignity," he writes. In his conclusion, he calls for the banishment of all search functions that allow users to specify which race they'd like to date.
"Before the online world, you were forced to meet people at bars," he told me. "Of course, you could have racial preferences. But today, blocking people is too easy. Dating sites have an obligation to ensure they don't facilitate racial exclusion and stereotyping."
Derek Wu, a single Angeleno, told me he was initially optimistic that Color Dating would be non-racist and promote interracial dating but was disheartened to find the app description framed attraction as something that "can't be helped." He imagines he would be fetishized in a not-cool way if he joined. "I realized this is just promoting yellow fever and jungle fever and all that, so now I don't really want any part in it," Wu said.
Tran sounds blasé when I ask about people using the app to justify their own racial "preferences." He doesn't see a difference between being attracted to black men and liking twiggy model types or redheads. "If people aren't into dating short or tall people, that's cool. People have their ideals," he said. What he says he wants is to destigmatize desire. "I want to break down these taboos," he said.
Given the omnipresence of dating apps catering to every whim, Color isn't exactly revolutionary. It's also unlikely we'll be able to swipe our way towards a more perfect union. But if by connecting them to women who find them attractive, Color prevents even one Asian man from being told "Sorry, I don't do mathletes," it could be worth it. As Tran puts it, "When people are constantly rejected, it feels horrible, and it bleeds into your real life. We've heard from a lot of people that this app helped them realize there are those out there who find them attractive."