Out of the hundreds of conversations I've had on the app, about half of them have involved a man tokenizing me for my ethnicity.
"I'd love to have sex with a black girl," read the message from David, 25, who had matched with me on Tinder. "I've never been with one before. You in?"
I unmatched with David immediately. And yet, the questions kept coming. "What are you?" asked Santy, 21, a student. "You look like you have a bit of oriental in you," wrote Darren, 22, a musician. "I have a thing for black girls," said George, 28, a banker.
This is what it's like to be a mixed-race girl on Tinder. Out of the hundreds of conversations I've had on the app, about half of them have involved a man tokenizing me for my ethnicity. And if they're not harping on my race and calling me "black beauty," then I'm often expected to respond to their pretty gross sexual messages or dick pics. It's because of comments like these, along with the rampant misogyny that seems to fill the app, that despite a fair amount of matches, I have only been on two real-life Tinder dates.
I understand why people are interested in people like myself who look racially ambiguous. Race, however flawed a concept, is used as a tool for understanding people. I'm curious about people's backgrounds, too. As humans, we are always searching for a way to identify, and things like race or skin tone serve as physical reminders of our ancestry and heritage. But there are appropriate ways to talk with someone about their racial background, and then there are ways to come off like a clueless asshole.
For the record, I identify as being mixed-race. I'm black Caribbean and white—but I also identify as black, since I recognize that this is how many people view me. By the very nature of our upbringings, mixed race people are more likely suffer from mild identity crises. A study released in the UK last year said that we often struggle to develop an identity for ourselves. The constant questioning over where we are from—"No, where are you really from"—is fucking painful. Those who make guesses that I am Caribbean, Egyptian, Nigerian, or "Oriental," instead of just asking me, are just as bad.
According to statistics from dating site OkCupid, black women are the least popular demographic online. Kevin Lewis, a sociologist at the University of California San Diego who analyzed the data, said: "Most men (except black men) are unlikely to initiate contact with black women."
Lewis looked at interaction patterns of 126,134 users on the site, and although there aren't comparable figures for Tinder, he concluded that "racial bias in assortative mating is a robust and ubiquitous social phenomenon, and one that is difficult to surmount even with small steps in the right direction. We still have a long way to go." In other words, being a black girl in the online dating world really sucks.
Another study using the Facebook dating app Are You Interested reached a similar conclusion: black women have the lowest rate of response.
These stats don't make a distinction between black and mixed-race women, but they probably do apply in a world where most people still adhere, if unconsciously, to the one drop rule—the concept that any person who have "one drop" of black blood flowing through their veins is considered to be black.
On Tinder, I seem to be far more likely to be "matched" with black men, and less likely to match with white guys, which corroborates Lewis's figures. However, the comments about my race—"I'd love to sleep with a black girl" or "Do you have (insert race here) in you... Would you like some?"—come almost uniquely from white men. The danger of being fetishized is amplified in digital dating.
When I get a message on Tinder, one of the first thoughts I have is whether or not this person simply has a strange preference for black or mixed-race women. And when people ask me where I'm from, as they do in almost every single conversation I have, I know that chances are it's going to end badly. I don't want to fulfill anyone's racial fantasy of getting with a big-assed black girl or feel like I should thank them because, you know, they actually find black women attractive.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. I recently took part in an academic focus group of mixed-race students, and amid our conversations about growing up in mixed-race households and racially "choosing sides," the topic of Tinder invariably came up.
One girl, 23, said that initially she didn't mind the questions or "focus" on her ethnicity on Tinder, but then it became too much. "I realized it was such a prevalent focus for a lot of people. Especially when they opened with lines like, 'Ooh you're exotic.' Like, I'm not a fruit," she said.
Another girl, 20, explained that she didn't use dating sites because she already had a "billion tales about dating and being fetishized."
"I dated a guy once who basically made it clear from the start that he found me attractive because I was mixed-race," she said. "This led to me developing an insane jealousy towards other mixed-race girls and feeling extremely self-conscious about myself. Dating sites, to me, just seem to make that kind of behavior even more commonplace, and the thought of being approached by someone with a mentality like that makes me feel ill."
I understand her outlook. I don't want to be reduced to a coarse stereotype of my race or made to feel like the only reason why I am being considered as a potential partner is because they have watched a lot of "ebony" porn and would love to get a taste of the unusual "other," but sometimes it seems an inevitable part of dating.
When, last week, a guy on Tinder told me I had nice features and subsequently asked if I was mixed race, I instantly became defensive.
"Yes I am," I said, as petulantly as Tinder allows, "but you can be of any race and still have nice features." To his credit, this man turned out to be an exception to the rule.
"I meant you have nice features as an individual," he retorted. I felt bad for the assumption, but I couldn't help it. Earlier that week, a guy on Tinder had called me "caramel cutie," and these things have a way of staying with you.
Obviously on Tinder, we are all reduced to a smudge of ourselves—a tiny profile picture, a few lines of a bio—and there's only so much interesting conversation to be had. But I really would love it if men would stop asking me about my ethnicity before questions about my profession, my studies, or my interests. There's a lot more to me than the color of my skin.
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Thumbnail photo via Flickr user Andy Rennie