Is Tinder Racist?

A late adopter ventures onto Tinder. Is it progress?

My favourite teacher arrived in the fifth grade, Ms Faber. Our class resided in a suburb of Seattle, in a diverse school with many first and second-generation immigrants, myself included, and as might be expected in such a setting, Ms Faber was fairly left-leaning. She would refer to her husband as not her husband but her partner, without explanation, and none of us ever bothered asking why. Her favourite book To Kill A Mockingbird formed a central part of her curriculum, and she posed questions about race that others might have deemed beyond a group of nine and ten-year-olds. After hearing us use the word ‘fag’ during recess once, she sat us all down and explained how vulgar it was, the fine lines on her face that usually expressed compassion changed to express sincere concern. Regretfully, I was among the larger abusers of the slur and I remember feeling like I had genuinely let her down.

Ms Faber not only taught us book smarts, she also played a material role in teaching us how to be decent people. And as any good teacher would do, she gave us useful ways to remember how to be decent, in the form of expressions. Practice Random Acts of Kindness. A Native American proverb, Never Judge a Person until you’ve Walked a Mile in their Moccasins. Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder. This last one held particular significance as it was emblazoned on a green sticker we all graciously received and affixed to our desk name tags.

One afternoon during lunch, while the stickers lay dark and dormant inside our classroom, brunette besties Kristen and Renee began openly assessing boys in our school on their cuteness. My buddy Jeff and I listened in with fascination. (Jeff was a fellow Korean kid who became my friend largely by bribing me with various snacks from his packed lunch.)

Loosely remembered, the girls’ conversation essentially consisted of several iterations of the following:

Kristen: Boy A, cute?

Renee: No way!

Kristen: Yeah, no way! *Giggle*

Renee: Boy B, cute?

Kristen: No duh!

Renee: Yeah, he’s cute! *Giggle*

At some point Jeff handed me some potato chips and as I was eating them the joker caught me off guard and offered my name up to the girls. Kristen, the tease, hesitated briefly, then answered with a frank ‘yes’, to which Renee perfunctorily agreed.

I was stunned. Almost overnight, I viewed myself no longer as a sexless kid but as someone capable of having a girlfriend. As I tried for the rest of the fifth grade to make Kristen that girlfriend, mostly through forlorn stares across the classroom and a series of almost conversations, she eventually became the first in a long list of failed loves. Loves which, over the many years, I took to a number of different avenues to express: notes across the classroom, hints to friends, AOL instant messages, notes in lockers, phone calls, texts, notes under doors, Facebook messages, eye contact across the bar, email, embarassing dance moves, Whatsapp messages, and finally, twenty-three years later, the swipe.

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Four pints in, I started tindering in the pub. A pivotal football match rattled overhead but my attentions preferred to rest on a recently lacklustre love life. I was vulnerable. A younger friend in particular had been pressuring me for months to join the tinder bandwagon, and until that afternoon, I resisted. I was of course at least aware of tinder by that time but my hesitance admittedly reflected a degree of curmudgeonliness. For one, Facebook annoyed me and I refused to use my profile to create a tinder account. No longer did I have the wherewithal to log in and peek into old friends’ lives and subject myself to the passage of time… a marriage here, a newborn there… let alone take the effort to defile my own wall with the first update in ages.. some stupid smiling picture uploaded to digitally lure girls with a mobile dating app, clearly no girlfriend, no wife, no baby? No thanks. I preferred the newly old school notion of meeting someone in real life, IRL as it’s now been honoured with acronym. Call it romantic but whatever happened to a little gumption and meeting someone in person, nothing to hide behind? And possibly the most fogeyish sentiment, just who exactly was I going to meet on this hook-up device? For whatever reason, my vision of digitally-enabled casual sex took the form of meeting a girl behind a random gas station and catching a case of the crabs. Clearly not very appealing.

But as I mentioned, the past few real life encounters hadn’t gone very well. So I caved. And once I did, and I guess as curmudgeons are wont to do, I kicked myself for not having done so sooner.

Among tinder’s many well-documented appeals is that it functions like a video game. Level one is creating a character. This required coming to terms with the idea of myself as attractive to the opposite sex, as I once did in the fifth grade. This time however, I was faced with the task of expressing it with six images. I sipped my pint while I ummed and ahhed over the photos at my disposal, considering in agonising detail what each one could convey about me and whether this was something I wanted. I did indeed choose a stupid smiling picture. I also chose a more considered, serious one. A running picture, to suggest there was some semblance of physical ability. An honest, no-holds-barred selfie in the middle of the pub, which in my social media ineptitude, I accidentally uploaded to my Facebook wall three times.

Onto level two, the swipe stage. Once more Ms Faber’s class came to mind, that age-old game of ‘hot or not’ first encountered in the lunchroom now wrapped up into an elegant movement and made portable. A bright image presented itself to me on my smartphone screen, a happy, bubbly looking girl a few years my junior. She looked fun. I was leaning towards swiping right.

Just as a quick aside, and to touch briefly on that recently lacklustre love life, a description of that old school, IRL way:

Begin in some dark corner of the pub/bar/club, ploughing myself with alcohol in that effort to grow a pair and go talk to an attractive woman. A wingman and I would invariably stare and strategise, and again, expressions were important here. Simple confidence builders, like ‘it’s a numbers game’, or the well worn, ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’. After a number of mini pep talks, there remained a dance of excuses to be made, and depending on the hotness of the girl and the degree of drunkenness, stalling tactics employed. Another swig, a trip to the loo, another drink. Often times the opportunity might be lost, the available lady already taken up by a suitor, smiling now, laughing, clearly open to having a good time. Bumbling wingman and I become lost in lamentation, previously nervous but nonetheless hopeful with the prospect of a successful approach, now clearly a case of shoulda coulda woulda on our hands, and the expressions we relied on but failed to follow through with gained more strength in their validity. Still staring, this would be followed by a scathing review of the dickhead who beat us to the punch, then a scathing review of the reciprocating lady, cognitive dissonance rearing its ugly head, a gorgeous girl reduced to a dimple on her chin, a slight underbite, or worst, her perceived promiscuity. Eventually we would get over it, spot another target, and then start the cycle all over again, albeit this time with reduced alcohol capacity, fewer approachable girls, and the closing time of the bar ever nearer.

In the new school swipe way, it’s far more efficient. And apparently, it still is all just a numbers game.

My friend grabbed my phone from me and swiped the bubbly girl to the right, along with the next girl, and the next girl, and the next girl. I finished my beer while he continued to indiscriminately swipe yes in rapid succession on my account, the mug shots of London’s single ladies flying right and stacking up into digital space as if they were playing cards. His rationale: why not say yes to everyone and see what your options are later? It made sense. Tons of girls digitally approached in seconds, and I need only wait for them to ping me back. There were definitely a few hotties, and even if they said no, I would never know. My ego would remain unscathed. I eventually got my phone back and I closed the app down for the weekend. I looked forward to seeing my results.

In my anticipation however, I also allowed an unsettling thought creep into the back of my mind: I too was being judged by the masses. Since I said yes to everyone, all those that I matched up with would be all of the girls that said yes to me. This made me halfway convinced that my tinder was gonna tell me something about my own attractiveness. Jokingly, but slightly nervously, I imagined opening the app up on Monday, looking at all of my matches and thinking: ‘Alright, so here’s what the world deems acceptable for me…’

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The matches started trickling in. This at least was a good sign; someone said yes. Over the weekend my smartphone buzzed periodically with tinder notifications, but each time it did I ignored it. I’m not sure what possessed me to hold off, maybe it was similar to opening a present, an effort to savour the moment, or maybe it was something more practical. If indeed my matches were going to be a representation of my own eligibility, then I wanted a large enough subset to gauge it. Ego self preservation, let’s call it. After eight matches though, I couldn’t wait any longer. I opened tinder up, and sure enough I instantly noticed a trend, though not along the lines of attractiveness as I originally suspected. All of my matches were Asian.

I texted this result to a buddy and he accused me of being cheap and not stumping up for the pay version of tinder. The pay version allows you to be matched up with white women. This of course was a joke. Besides, match number nine turned out to be blonde, thereby disproving my friend’s assertion. When I flipped through her pictures though, it turned out all of her mates were Asian.

Intrigued and somewhat surprised, I forged ahead.

Level three, the chat. The implications of scale with tinder become a disadvantage here, as simply saying ‘hi!’ along with billions of other men will get you nowhere, as I soon found out. Like anything else, soliciting a response required some practice. Proof that you had half a brain, and could glean something, anything, out of a small set of photos. A pithy remark about a tattoo, glasses, or a dog. I’ll skip the embarrassment and omit the ones I used, but I did begin to gain some traction.

As I started learning more about my matches, the theme persisted. If they weren’t Asian, they almost certainly had an obvious pre-existing link with Asia. A French girl whose best friend was from Vietnam. A German girl who was doing her masters in Korean. A Peruvian girl who went to a Japanese high school.

It was fascinating. My own dating history, without delving into mundane detail, has been racially diverse. My first girlfriend and my most serious girlfriend were both Asian, but I’ve also dated outside my own race. I’d like to think that race, by itself, doesn’t play a huge factor in my own propensity to date someone. And for the record, I didn’t have a problem with my results. I enjoyed chatting to my matches. I also understood the results to some extent. I’m Asian, and I’m likely to get more Asian matches than other races. What struck me was the severity of the trend. If I scrolled down my list of matches, there was one glaring theme: Asia. Was my tinder racist? Should I only be dating within my own race, or people who, for varied reasons, just really really like Asia? Once more that foreboding thought came to mind: ‘Alright, so here’s what the world deems acceptable for me… ‘

Clearly, it’s not fair to attribute the phenomenon I noticed to tinder. My tinder is not racist. It’s the rise of digital dating and all of its observable data that might suggest broader societal tendencies. At the very least, my results aren’t out of the ordinary. As I found out, there are plenty of accounts out there that confirm a racial bias in digital dating, most notably from OkCupid’s founder who documents it both in his book Dataclysm and on the OkCupid blog. Certainly such evidence is not ideal, but to what extent is this worrying, or racist?

In the past, I haven’t given the relationship between dating and race much thought. Again, I refer to Ms Faber’s class here, her curriculum the first time I’ve thought seriously about race. Since then, I’ve experienced and identified bouts of racism in various forms, but far less frequently in recent years, and I chalked that up to progress. When it came to romance, occasionally I’d be prodded by extended family to date Korean, but usually I’d shake this off as the usual familial banter, and concerns about the race of my partner occupied little time in my relationships. Funny that now, through the use of an innovation I was belatedly accepting as a product of technological progress, I was questioning that which I had long since taken for granted as societal progress.

There’s actually a character in To Kill a Mockingbird who pretends to be an alcoholic in order to excuse his choice of marrying a black woman. Without belittling the larger civil rights context of the book by comparing it to my tinder experience, are my results indicating that since that historical setting the stigma against interracial pairings hasn’t really changed? I didn’t have the answer, I only knew that I was more self-aware of my own race than before, and I was now perceiving things with a racially-tinted lens. As I progressed further in the tinder game, I tried to gain whatever insight I could anecdotally.

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My first tinder date, and first foray into level four, was with the Peruvian girl. We agreed on drinks in Covent Garden, and while street performers tried to impress wandering tourists, equally, we began by trying to impress with our foreign backgrounds. She started off with Machu Pichu and Alberto Fujimori and I followed with suburbian America and an often-told kimchi story. (Again, to avoid embarrassment, I’ll refrain from retelling this here. It’s worth mentioning though that kimchi is a surprise hit. That smelly, spicy fermented cabbage condiment of my childhood has gone primetime. You put kimchi into anything these days and it’s eaten up, including lame stories and trendy dishes. Kimchi fritters, kimchi burritos, kimchi ketchup, you name it. I think someone blogged that it might even be a superfood. For some weird reason, I feel really proud of this.)

Conversation flowed from there and it wasn’t long before I convinced myself the date was going well. It helped that the drinks were flowing too. There seemed to be mutual interest, or at least, we seemed to be interested in each other’s stories, many of which were related to our racial differences. I decided to roll with the theme and suggested dinner at a Korean restaurant nearby.

Looking back, this was probably a misstep, only because I had history with the Korean matriarch that ran the place. As a student I discovered the restaurant when it first opened and it wound up being a favourite haunt with some friends of mine. My first couple of visits I assumed the role of ordering for the table, and both times the matriarch asked for our order in Korean and both times I switched to English due to a regrettably poor grasp of the Korean language. This caused visible disapproval and while she tilted her head and looked down at me over the top of her loosely-fitting glasses she decided that my inability to order in Korean meant that I also couldn’t pick the correct dishes. At her urging, I weakly acquiesced to adjusting my orders and getting a bunch of things I didn’t want. Following those first two encounters I made a stand and ordered only the stuff that I liked, and consequently we never really hit it off since then.

I explained this all to my date before we sat down and fortunately she got a kick out of it. Predictably, the woman came around and took our order, but instead of being combative, she looked disinterested. The place was popular now and I assumed she was too busy to recognise me. As a result, ordering went smoothly. When my date asked for a fork however, that familiar look reappeared. She looked down over the top of her glasses, paused for a little bit as if she were noticing my date for the first time, then replied with a curt ‘sure’, in a thick Korean accent. She immediately turned away and headed to another table.

That was the last I saw of the matriarch that night but as a parting shot one of her minions came by and gave us two forks. Presumably one was for me. We ate everything in sight, and in protest, I used only chopsticks. I was drunk by the end of the meal so when my date suggested we move to a Latin club to try my feet at salsa dancing I agreed. It seemed fair. First Korean, now Latin. I also figured since it was a Tuesday there likely wouldn’t be many people around to see me embarrass myself.

Music blared from the club as we walked up. There was a line too. I remained unfazed, convinced that both the music and line were a sham to try and trick people into thinking the club was full, a common ploy for quiet nights. When we walked down the stairs and into a massive ballroom I realised that I was very wrong. The dance floor was heaving and there were what I imagined to be representatives from every single Central and South American country, each it seemed perfectly in sync with the music.

Slightly nervous now, I unoriginally ordered a pair of mojitos at the bar and while being prepared a tall swarthy man in white attempted to get my date to dance with him. Thankfully she resisted, and after a couple of tries he looked at me, smiled, and conceded. I proceeded to drink my mojito swiftly and while I half-heartedly listened to an education about different genres of Latin music I became entranced by a tandem in front of us that looked like they had just walked off the set of Dancing with the Stars. The man in particular caught my attention, and I watched as he and his partner spun this way and that way and back again, a plain, please, I-can-do-this-in-my-sleep expression on his face that I resented for its cockiness. I quickly regret my decision to try the whole salsa thing out but in the interest of not coming across as a chicken I decided to give it a go anyway.

We hit the dance floor and I executed the first couple moves passably, no doubt some liquid confidence granting me a little bit of rhythm. This deteriorated quickly however, as each time I spun to face one wall, I noticed a long line of men against it, in some places two deep, their eyes surveying the entire landscape but mostly, it felt, settling upon me and my date. Self consciousness set in, and though I tried my best to harness the rum and lingering soju to invoke a Latin-inspired version of Psy, I stiffened up and lost any promise I might have had. I thought of the man at the bar and wondered if the men along the wall were angling to cut in and showcase vastly superior moves, or more simply, were just observing the unusual pairing we made. My date did her best to ignore the obvious scrutiny, but after a few quashed toes we both agreed to put an end to my salsa career, and not long after, we decided to call it a night.

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Nothing came of us after that. In sober hindsight, maybe we didn’t start off as strongly as I thought. Or maybe the matriarch got in my head a little bit. Or maybe I just couldn’t handle the heat from the Latin lovers.

Whatever the case, I managed to find at least one takeaway from the experience: our date was impacted by the scrutiny of strangers. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, this sounds like something I should have seen coming. We made a more uncommon couple and were going to draw some attention, especially in the environments we found ourselves in.

A more subtle detail was that the attention lacked overt judgement. Our Korean waitress could have disapproved of us but I couldn’t read her mind, nor did I have any insight into what the salsa dancers were thinking. I only saw the stares and peculiar looks.

So, granting the benefit of doubt, our interracial date was not necessarily affected by stigma, but at the very least, a spotlight of sorts. I’m not saying that this attention derailed the date, as I was more than capable of derailing the date on my own, but it was unwanted attention that a more racially ‘normal’ couple might not receive. Why not just stay in your own lane, if that’s the case?

It’s probably a stretch to take this idea and infer that it plays much of a role on tinder. Sure, attention from others can hinder normal behaviour, but a fear of scrutiny on potential dates doesn’t likely factor when deciding to swipe left. There could however be a common thread at work.

The older Korean immigrant may have just found it strange to see a white person and a Korean person on a date. Racially, Korea is a fairly homogenous country. Likewise, the Latin expats probably hadn’t seen an Asian dude trying to dance the salsa before, in their home countries or in London. If I had to speculate, the looks we received were probably more a function of what was familiar than anything else, like outright disapproval or racism.

Similarly, on tinder then, there might be people who swipe other races left not because they’re racist but because they haven’t had much exposure to other races. This would do well to explain why most of the non-Asian matches I received just happened to “really love Asian culture” or be really into Muay Thai boxing. They were already familiar with Asia in some way or another.

Captain obvious you’re probably thinking now. I didn’t need to go on a tinder date to identify that a familiarity with Asia or Asian people might be a reason for my skewed results. I’m also in danger of oversimplification; to substitute racism wholly with unfamiliarity would be pretty naive, and also ignore the wide range of individual preferences that can play a role.

But the idea that racial preference in a partner can be a matter of circumstance and not necessarily judgement helps address the question posed earlier: do my tinder results suggest a worrying societal take on interracial dating? In the aggregate, yes the results are surprising and almost certainly reflect unwanted prejudice, but given the lack of transparency and difficulty in accusing the individual, it seems more appropriate to ask how much. Should we be worried about a racial bias in dating to the extent that we get up in arms about it, or do we understand it more as a current societal condition, that we’re not yet as racially integrated as we hoped we were?

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I should admit that I haven’t been the best at defending myself against racism in my life. Like most others, I’ve encountered it in concrete forms. I’ve also endured stereotypes, ignorant comments, and jokes in half jest. When I was younger I remember usually walking away, ignoring things, and later feeling bad about myself. More recently, my best form of defence has been the spectre of racism itself, at least to people I know, often accusing, in half jest, the person of being ignorant (“Not all Asians are the same dude!”, or something to that effect). Usually this works, the perpetrator suddenly morbidly afraid of being labelled a racist, but occasionally it doesn’t really, the tone of my response rendering it useless.

Sometimes I feel like I should stand up for myself more, and for good reason. But I don’t think my reactions are unnatural. There’s an element of self-preservation involved, the tendency to take something mostly harmless and default it to just harmless, to avoid confrontation and potential mental wear. I’ve also been known to go the other extreme and embrace stereotypes or mistaken Asian identities. On the playground I would feign kung fu to make friends and fend off older bullies. The same whenever someone called me Bruce Lee or (the less desirable) Jackie Chan. As an adult I have done impersonations of various Asian pop culture figures after being mistaken for them, usually in less diverse locales. These include Psy and his horse dance, Harold smoking a doobie, even Mr Chang and his nut grab.

Should I also feel bad about this? For the sake of personally ingratiating myself to mostly strangers, it could be argued that I’m hurting the greater good by affirming lazy Asian stereotypes or perceptions. But it could also be argued that I’m making impressions. I’m using an Asian link, making friends, and increasing familiarity.

I guess it’s a fine line. Being unfamiliar is also ignorance, and ignorance can lead to racism. Unfamiliar is also a state before becoming familiar. If we accept becoming a post-racial society as a process, then aren’t mistakes allowed as part of the learning?

I should clarify here and define such mistakes as the honest ones. Certainly if there’s malice in a stereotype or mistaken identity then there is a problem. And unfortunately there’s no shortage of racist crimes that are committed. These require obvious action, like the recent epidemic of police brutality in the US. Having lived abroad for sometime now, it befuddles me to try and understand why the US is so racially progressive in some ways and in others seems so far behind, and I won’t try and hypothesise here. But just to be clear, by no means am I suggesting racism be condoned, obviously. In some cases though, in the everyday interactions that might occur in a multiracial population, there may be situations where the response isn’t so obvious.

I was dining in my new favourite Korean hole in the wall recently, a busy street food joint in Shoreditch. A passerby bloated with beer peered in through the open doorway, surveyed the scene until something clicked, then saluted us with a ‘Ni Hao!’ before stumbling on his way. The other diners were oblivious. I felt slighted. It was a lazy remark that only I heard, and I did nothing. What would have been the correct move? Should I have gotten up and tracked him down to tell him off? Should I have told the others and incited a man hunt? Or maybe I should have just educated him and said, “actually, it’s Anyong”? At least he got the continent right. It’s an anecdotal example, but things like that must happen all the time, all over the place. I remember visiting Seoul a few years ago after a fifteen year hiatus, and I was amazed at how many more Western cafes and restaurants there were than before. I’m sure near one of those restaurants right now there’s someone who’s adverse to change and lathered up with soju, poking fun at the place by mimicking a dumb character from a Hollywood movie or something. I’m sure there’s also someone with similar reservations actually dining in the restaurant, giving it a go, because, well, it’s there. Someone like the Korean matriarch before emigrating to London, if the change had arrived fifteen years prior.

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Since my first tinder date, I’ve taken several straw polls amongst friends to see why they might be more attracted to particular races, and answers varied. Physical preferences, like the tendency for blue eyes, or cultural preferences, like an attraction to strong family values, happened to be the most popular. There were also more nuanced reasons. The desire to try something unknown, for example, or the adherence to the adage that opposites attract. Strangely, aversion to family played a role for some, like a Pakistani friend who didn’t want to date someone like his mother or a Danish friend who didn’t like blondes because they reminded him of his sisters. Maybe more strangely, a friend cited challenge as a factor for his interracial dating, the desire to break societal convention combined with that human tendency to want what we can’t get.

These are all valid reasons, or at least, not racially prejudiced. We’re allowed to have preferences. We like who we like, or in other words, Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

Modern dating data however seems disproportionately skewed. This suggests a contradiction. Were I to present the data back in time to the fifth grade, Ms Faber might have had a tough time reconciling it with that other tenet of her class, racial equality.

The problem, as discussed, lies in the aggregate. The Beholder might choose culturally. Another might go with what’s familiar. Still others, unfortunately, might choose according to incorrect attitudes. In a perfect world, identifying individuals and their intentions would be easy and we could look to inform where necessary. Given the data alone, it’s not possible.

Russell Peters has a great joke that claims interracial mating is inevitable due to population growth in India and China, and sooner or later we’ll all be beige. It’s a funny prediction, but maybe he has a point too: to some extent, it’s a matter of time. It takes time for a post-racial society to diffuse, just like innovations do. This is not to suggest we take a passive attitude toward ridding ourselves of racism, only that it is a process that should improve, aided by time just as it is by correction and education. I realise I risk further misinterpretation by comparing something so socially important to something relatively less so, but in some ways it’s apt that the proliferation of something like tinder is highlighting our current state. Like it or not, digital dating platforms are here to stay, a direct result of technological advancement. And rather than overpopulation, the adoption of technology seems like the better path to making the world a smaller place, where information and accessibility speed up the diffusion process. Then, hopefully, racism will erode, unfamiliarity will erode, and we’ll be left with pure preference and not prejudice.

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