My experience reflected this trend. It became glaringly obvious that I was getting far fewer matches and messages while online dating than my non-black friends.
The people who design and create these sites and tools are working to address this disparity in user experience, but their attempts and failures show just how deeply ingrained racism is in our society.
For instance, in 2013, OkCupid removed users’ profile photos for one day, dubbing it “Love is Blind Day.” People couldn’t tell who was, well, what. They complained bitterly, as OKCupid co-founder and president Christian Rudder chronicled in his book, “Dataclysm.”
When the profile pictures returned, many conversations and interactions that had budded in the photos’ absence — and which OkCupid found to be qualitatively better than usual — fizzled.
Newer sites have had similar experiences with racial bias. Dating Ring, the matchmaking company followed in the second season of the “StartUp” podcast, tried to improve the dating experience for minorities, but their users often pushed back.
In a chilling account discussed on the podcast, a Dating Ring user, upon receiving the name and phone number of a match, was said to have replied: “I hope that’s a typo, because that name doesn’t sound white to me.”
Whenever someone tells me that discussing online dating is a waste of time, I refer to that anecdote and two sad truths about the online dating industry that Dating Ring’s founders discovered: First, giving people the tools to act on racial bias is profitable; and second, it is not fair to users who are discriminated against to be matched with people who are biased against their racial group and, as a result, will dismiss them as potential matches.
So Dating Ring moved away from its original design. It allowed users to select the racial groups with which they did not want to be matched.
Listening to that podcast heavily influenced my decision to quit online dating. Did I really want to contribute to businesses that felt they had no choice but to cater to people’s racial biases to stay afloat?
The answer was simple: No. I’ve logged off from the handful of sites and apps I had been using. But I have not lost hope in the online-dating industry.
A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that individuals were more likely to respond to a romantic message sent by someone of a different race than they were to initiate contact with someone of a different race. And once a user had received a cross-race message, he or she was more likely to initiate new interracial exchanges in the short-term future. So, there are certain circumstances, as this study found, that may temporarily reduce racial bias.
When I wrote to Dating Ring to inquire as to how the site was doing now, one of its founders, Lauren Kay, responded: “We’ve … had a lot of users who have come in, said they listened to the episode on race, and now are dropping their ethnicity filters. So that’s been a great response.”
“Overall, I’m not sure how much online dating can do to ‘fix’ dating,” Kay added. “Online dating is simply a technological layer that helps to remove some friction in the space, and makes it easier for people to meet other people that they were already more or less looking to meet. But so far, it hasn’t proven to be the greatest force for social change, other than by making data about trends more easily accessible, and opening up dialogues on important issues like these.”
That last part has stuck with me. The publication of data on users’ behavior could be the first step to reducing racism and bias in online dating — and the cultivation of greater empathy may be key to reaching a solution. Just as there is an empathy gap between the wealthy and the poor, I believe there is an empathy gap in online dating.
Research shows that building empathetic connections between and among people across lines of difference and that lead to changes in behavior is incredibly difficult. My time as the editor-in-residence and a lecturer at the Stanford University d.school has taught me that, while it may be difficult to build these connections and design for these behavior changes, it is not impossible.
At times, online dating as a black woman has been extraordinarily painful. I have desperately wished my friends and peers would more actively and deeply explore how profoundly this disparity in opportunity affects my life and those of millions of others — not to mention how it holds us all back from more equitable and enjoyable dating experiences.
What if online dating sites called on all users to consider what it means to be a black woman or an Asian man while swiping and messaging? How would behaviors change if people were forced to recognize that you are consistently being rejected, not because of who you are but because of your race?
I haven’t been able to find this dating site that prompts users to engage in greater empathy. I fear it doesn’t exist — yet. The responsibility, however, does not merely rest with the creators of online dating tools or podcast producers. It rests with users as well.
Much like my attempt to quit Facebook, this latest digital abandonment might not stick. I will gladly return if and when dating sites improve the experience. Until then, I will meet people in person to find those who can appreciate me for who — not what — I am.