Dating While Black
What I learned about racism from my online quest for love
I’ve never been one for casual relationships. Following a romance in my early twenties with an older man who, I eventually accepted, was simply at a different stage of life, I went through a series of short relationships of varying significance. I met lovely men—many of whom remain my friends—but by my mid-thirties, I still hadn’t met anyone with whom I felt that same degree of connection and passion I had known with my first love. I was searching for a committed relationship with a supportive partner, someone I could love deeply and who shared my values and goals.
Like many singles, I had created an online dating profile. But I rarely logged in. Now I decided to take it more seriously—these days, I seem to hear fewer and fewer stories of real life meet-cutes. Meanwhile, online, I could decide between sites with free memberships, such as Plenty of Fish; paid sites with an older, more earnest clientele, such as eHarmony; niche sites such as JDATE and Gluten-Free Singles; and many others, all slightly differentiated by price, demographics, and objectives. I signed up for Tinder and Bumble—two apps with simple interfaces that invite users to swipe on pictures of people they find attractive—as well as OkCupid. The last includes more substantial personal profiles. Through a series of questions, the company’s website and app invite you to describe what you are doing with your life and to list your favourite music, books, and TV shows. Theoretically, the online world offers greater odds of finding a partner than does a chance meeting at a party. Being online is like going to a party without encountering all the people who trap you in boring conversations. It made me feel that I was more likely to find someone with whom I actually connected—not just another pretty face.
I uploaded pictures and filled out my profile with basic demographic information—height, body type, religion, and education. Over the following months, I would play with this slightly: I variously described myself as a dreamer, book lover, learner, educator, and writer, someone who views the world with a glass half-full of optimism and a dash of sarcasm. I noted that my friends describe me as “sincere and hilarious,” “fun to do things with,” and “a great trivia partner.” I peppered my profile with jokes and references to climbing, yoga, learning, eating all of the things, and drinking all of the drinks. I mentioned my penchant for ’60s soul, ’90s hip hop, indie rock, and the writing of Kurt Vonnegut—and alluded to my fondness for the board game Settlers of Catan to attract hot nerds. That first night, after crafting what I thought was a suitably witty, cool, and interesting profile, I let the site’s algorithms work their magic.
I liked the concept of OkCupid’s “match percentages.” The site projects the compatibility of its users, assessing it on a scale from 1 to 100. I was a high match with a seemingly large number of men—quite a few of them were in the 99 percent range. The most mathematically promising one—at 99.5 percent—turned out to be one of my existing friends from law school. But almost immediately, I began to notice peculiarities about my experience. Among my single friends, and even in the conversations I overheard between strangers in coffee shops, women using dating sites described being “overwhelmed” and “flooded” with communication. On the day I completed my profile, I received one message; four more appeared over the next two days. This trickle continued for the next year and two months, averaging two messages a day. I didn’t just wait to be noticed: I also actively messaged others. I would take the time to read a guy’s profile and then mention common interests or things I found interesting, posing an easy question for him at the end—but I still received few responses.
Of the messages that did make it to my inbox, many were from men who were not a good match for me. My filter settings are pretty generous—if you have a compatibility rating of higher than 70 percent, are of at least “average” attractiveness, and send more than a three-word message—“Hey” and “Yo girl” are not acceptable—your message will make it to me. (Filters are common—especially for women, who often receive a high number of lewd or casual messages from spam profiles, and generic messages from men who send the same note to a swath of profiles.) Of the 708 messages I received over the next fourteen months, 530 ended up in the filtered inbox, which left me with about one message of decent-or-above quality a day.
A message from a prospective mate every day may sound like a lot. But given the extremely low probability that any given message will lead to a serious relationship, it’s not. Even when you decide to answer, many users will not respond, having lost interest or been tempted by one of the site’s many other profiles. Some people disappear after a few exchanges—sometimes even after you’ve made plans to meet. You may also start talking to someone only to realize that you are no longer interested in getting to know them better. It can take many exchanges to get to a real live date.
Some of my friends pegged my situation to an intimidation factor. I’m a lawyer working toward a PhD in management, and I am a serious athlete, competing internationally for Canada in Ultimate Frisbee. I’m also a musician (some of my work is available on iTunes); a dancer; and a volunteer with various sports organizations. At first glance, my resumé and accomplishments may loom large, but I had thought that my well-roundedness would be an asset, or at least of interest, to the sort of man I was seeking.
I took active steps to try to increase my odds. I posted a link to my profile on Bunz Dating Zone, a Toronto Facebook group, asking for honest feedback. On the whole, users said they liked my profile and my pictures. One man called the post “incredible,” noting that he was himself a former “serial online dater [who] really longed for this kind of vulnerability, authenticity and depth.” At the time, he was in a relationship, but he also commented, “You sound like you’re intelligent, fun and genuinely have your shit together.” Nonetheless, I hired a professional photographer and tried out different variations on my profile text. Nothing seemed to help—the slow pace of messages continued.
There was, however, one factor that I couldn’t change, one that sets me apart from most of my single friends and acquaintances: my race. I am, according to society’s lens, a black woman. While I am multiracial, born of a Caribbean and white father and a Caribbean and East Indian mother, I am black to the outside world. Certainly, I am black to the white world. And as someone who travels in personal and professional environments that are predominantly white—the legal profession, Ultimate Frisbee, graduate school—the majority of my friends, including my single girlfriends, are white. Race has always had an impact on my identity, but I had been loath to admit the role that it might play in my ability to be loved. We are talking about one of the most elemental of human impulses. I’ve broken through so many of society’s barriers through my own determination. But force of will can’t set me up with someone who has set his online dating filters to exclude black women. If I made it past the filters, I still might be ruled out as a potential partner because of the colour of my skin. The situation made me wonder: What would my experience be like on OkCupid if I were white?
OkCupid has devoted a considerable amount of research to the interactions and experiences of its users. In his acclaimed 2014 book, Dataclysm, Christian Rudder, one of the site’s founders, notes that black women are disproportionately rated “below average” in attractiveness by Asian, black, Latino, and white men alike. In the United States, black women receive the fewest messages and fewer responses to their sent messages—75 percent of the communication received by their white counterparts, a pattern that seems common to online dating as a whole. In Canada, the number is higher—90 percent. But while black women in Canada may receive 90 percent of the messages that white women do, many report receiving more sexualized messages, and fewer messages from men they would actually like to date. In my case, perhaps my fancy pantsuit, plaid shirt and toque, PhD, and failure to conform to stereotype warded off those seeking to obtain their “black belt”—a dating term for a sexual conquest—and leading to fewer overall messages for me.
As a Torontonian, I optimistically thought race wouldn’t matter much. One of the defining principles of our culture is, after all, multiculturalism. There is a widespread perception that the tensions and cultural politics of race are milder in Canada than in the US—we represent a “mosaic” rather than a melting pot—with an openness to experiences that all that implies, including interracial dating. I observe the reinvigoration of the KKK, remember the demagogic, racist words of Donald Trump during his campaign, read about yet another shooting of an unarmed black man in America, and thank my lucky stars that I decided to stay in Canada for law school, instead of going to a place where my sass could get me shot if my tail light went out and I were asked to pull over. Here I am, a multicultural woman in the world’s most multicultural city in one of the most multicultural of countries.
I’ve never felt the contrast between the two countries more strongly than when I was applying to law school. After being accepted by several Canadian and Ivy League law schools, I visited Columbia University. At the orientation for successful applicants, I was soon beset by three women from the Black Law Students’ Association. They proceeded to tell me that their association was so much better than Harvard’s and that I would “definitely” get a first-year summer job because I was black. They had their own separate events as part of student orientation, and I got a troubling sense of 1950s-era segregation.
When I visited the University of Toronto, on the other hand, no one seemed to care what colour I was, at least on the surface. I mingled easily with other students and became fast friends with a man named Randy. Together, we drank the free wine and headed off to a bar with some second- and third-year students. The experience felt like an extension of my undergraduate days at McGill, so I picked the University of Toronto then and there. Canada, I concluded, was the place for me.
In the US, the roots of racism lie in slavery. Canada’s biggest racial burden is, currently, the institutionalized racism experienced by Indigenous people. In Canada, I fit into several categories that afford me significant privilege. I am highly educated, identify with the gender I was given at birth, am straight, thin, and, when working as a lawyer, upper-middle class. My friends see these things and assume that I pass through life largely as they do. Even to strangers, in Canada, I get the sense that I am seen as the “safe” kind of black. I’m a sultry, higher-voiced version of Colin Powell, who can use words such as “forsaken” and “evidently” in conversation with aplomb. When I am on the subway and I open my mouth to speak, I can see other people relax—I am one of them, less like an Other. I am calm and measured, which reassures people that I am not one of those “angry black women.” I am that black friend that white people cite to show that they are “woke,” the one who gets asked questions about black people (that thing you were “just curious about”). Once, at a party, a white friend told me that I wasn’t “really black.” In response, I told him my skin colour can’t come off, and asked what had made him think this—the way I speak, dress, my tastes and interests? He tried, poorly, to rationalize his words, but it was clear that, ultimately, I didn’t meet his stereotype of a black woman. I didn’t sound, act, or think as he thought someone “black” did or, perhaps, should.
The ability to navigate white spaces—what gives someone like me a non-threatening quality to outsiders—is a learned behaviour. Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale, has noted: “While white people usually avoid black space, black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.” I’m not sure exactly where and how I, the child of immigrant Caribbean parents, learned to navigate so well. Perhaps I accumulated knowledge in the form of aggregated lessons from TV, media, and my mostly white environments—lessons reinforced by reactions from others about what was “right.” Much of the time, this fluidity affords me at least the perception of relatively better treatment as compared to straight-up, overt racism and classism.
So when I first started online dating, I was optimistic that my blackness and multiracial identity would have a minimal impact on my success. I didn’t seem to get as many of the fetishizing messages reported by some black women. The giveaway terms “black,” “white,” “Nubian,” “goddess,” and “queen” showed up in only seven of the messages I received. No dick pics were sent my way. My relative lack of single black female friends meant that I didn’t hear very much about others’ experiences. If anything, I was suffering from a small sample size. Given the promise of online dating, I thought that here, in multicultural Toronto, someone might read my profile, note our high level of compatibility, and be interested in me as a living, breathing, human person.
I chatted with men and went on some dates, ultimately seeing a few different prospects for a month or two over the next fourteen months. Race rarely seemed to be a factor for any of the men I went out with, but the majority of them were white (OkCupid states that its user demographics “reflect the general Internet-using public”). When I was on dates with these men, the issue of race would come up in that it forms a part of my experience, and it would come up if I brought it up, but it was rarely mentioned by them.
Online dating reminded me of the experience of otherness that had long been running through me and that I had decided to put aside. At the party where my friend said I’m not really black, I remember answering, “Do you mean because I have an education and sound like you, and like Radiohead?” I have been called an Oreo in such circumstances before, when projecting my natural self is considered to be “acting white.” I have been told that because I am educated and have non-stereotypical interests, I am not black enough— that to be black should be equivalent to being poor, poorly spoken, or downtrodden. I have been made to feel that I am an exception to my race, rather than an example of it.
After I had been thinking for a while about the slow message count, my instincts as an academic kicked in. I decided that an objective test would be the best way to assess the impact of my brown skin on my dating prospects. After all, such strategizing is one of the oldest playing-field levellers in the dating world: people routinely lie up front about their height, weight, age, and income level. I had also heard of others trying on different racial personas before. As I sat in a coffee shop with my friend Jessica, I hatched a plan to see how well a white Hadiya might do. Jessica, who is of similar height, weight, and attractiveness, agreed to let me create a new profile that used my existing profile information, but her image. We staged a photo shoot where she dressed in my clothing, and we did our best to recreate some of my pictures. She noted that the pictures looked like her channelling me, and not just like her.
I expected Jessica to receive more messages than I did—perhaps twice as many. In fact, in her first three days, White Hadiya received nine times more messages—forty-seven messages to the five I had received in a comparable time frame. By the end of this experiment, which lasted approximately seven weeks, White Hadiya was on track to receive more than 2,000 messages in the same amount of time that I had received 708 (with allowance for the spike in views a new user typically receives in their first days online).
This difference in message rate occurred even though I got the impression that White Hadiya and I were receiving a similar number of views. The same number of men that looked at her seemed to be willing to look at me—they just weren’t willing to engage.
Perhaps what was most shocking and disappointing was that my white persona seemed to receive messages of greater length and higher quality. (I have changed user names to protect the privacy of those who may still be active online, but the handles are typical.) From my black profile:
Farmerboy_27: Omg you must be hiding from STRONG black men if you’re indeed single
Hans_some: greetings how are you today pretty Woman? Hans
As Black Hadiya, I also received some racially toned messages:
a_man_for_you: I see the black…I see the brown…not so much the white though?
There were messages in both streams from men who expressed interest and who had taken the time to read my profile. But the messages White Hadiya received were from users I would be more likely to go out with.
Ploughman: Congrats! That is the single greatest profile in the history of okcupid! Im going to print it out and put it up on my fridge you adorable little nerd you! Haha im just teasing. You caught my eye though… im a retired pro hockey player finally back in Canada full time. Looking to meet new people and preferably the type that are not hoping to get cast on the next season of hockey wives on tv. There is lots more to know about me but that requires an investment of time and effort on your part to find out! Id like to take you out for drinks. If you’re up for it then ill hear back from you.
Samsamsam: awesome profile! have you read any good (or really awful) books recently?
Anchorman: Hey, how’s life treating you? So…. first message eh, what do you think we should talk about? You know there is a lot of pressure in a first message…. trying to sound all witty, while at the same time trying to seem cool, funny, and awesome….. it’s challenging ;)
Well I have to say, I think I’m pretty rad and you seem pretty rad as well… guess that’s why I’m messaging you. I’m also a glass half full kind of person, and I’ve defiantly got a dash of smart-assess to me too.
Anyway, in the crazy world of online dating I find random questions with no real point are the best way to get the ball rolling, hope you are a fan….
What’s the best thing you did last month? What’s your favourite curse word? And just for fun, what’s the one thing you know for sure?
Well I’m going to jet, but drop me a line if you want to chat
It wasn’t just the pictures and it wasn’t just the messages they sent, but the total package they presented. More of the guys who responded to White Hadiya’s profile were guys I would have wanted to date. They were smart, they were engaged, they were cute. In order to find the kind of guy I wanted—to be seen by him—it seemed that the ultimate message was: I needed to be white.
I admitted to myself that there were non-racial differences that could have contributed to the message rate. Perhaps people found Jessica more attractive, her features more enticing or approachable, her smile more endearing. There is no purely scientific way of measuring these factors. But it is difficult, impossible in fact, to conclude that race did not play some significant role in the message discrepancy between the two profiles.
It’s often said that there is simply no accounting for taste, in physical attraction as with everything else. But dating is supposed to be exploratory and unpredictable (how many liberal-conservative couples have said, “We never thought we could be attracted to each other?”). Moreover, it is short-sighted and dismissive to claim not to be attracted to an entire group of people without first seeing what the members of that group have to offer. It is one thing to say that you have a preference for brunettes or have tended to date brunettes. But to say that you are not attracted to blonds is very different from saying that you haven’t yet dated a blond, or haven’t ever met a blond that you were attracted to. Such categorical exclusions are significantly more often directed toward people of colour. For example, “No rice, no spice” is a common phrase on gay dating sites used to indicate that users do not want messages from Asian or Latino men; others will be more blunt and simply write “No Blacks or Asians.” I have yet to hear a white individual say that they are not attracted to white people.
The elevation of white beauty is not limited to white people. Growing up as a black girl with natural hair, I had few examples of beautiful celebrities who shared my features—no dark skin, no textured hair, no fuller lips. Even Beyoncé, in all her glory, has light skin and blond, wavy hair. In the black community, mixed hair, or hair closer to a Caucasian’s, is seen as “good” hair. Some black women have been penalized in the workplace for wearing their hair the way that it grows naturally out of their heads. Lighter skin is prized. I have had several white boyfriends, and it is routine for people to tell me how beautiful our kids would be. They don’t realize that what they are communicating to me is that they think my child would be more beautiful if they were biracial than if they had two black parents. Even I am guilty of perpetuating these messages. The words “mixed kids are the cutest” have, sadly, popped out of my mouth on more than one occasion.
My sister is significantly lighter in skin tone than me, has a more Caucasian nose, and appears biracial to outsiders. Growing up, I remember being so envious of her lighter skin and straighter hair, calling her the pretty one and myself the smart one. I internalized this messaging, often thinking that if I had just gotten the gene for light skin, or the gene for the long, wavy Indian hair of my mother, I would be considered more conventionally attractive. As noted by Rudder in an OkCupid blog post, “You can actually look at people who’ve combined ‘white’ with another racial description. Adding ‘whiteness’ always helps your rating! In fact it goes a long way toward undoing any bias against you.” It’s no surprise that I had instinctively known to include my whiteness in my profile, despite its making up only one-eighth of my background.
Some professional matchmakers in the US have discovered that people of all races prefer white matches. A recent study of online dating among queer men in Australia found that the preference for particular races as a basis for romantic attraction correlated with general racism and that those who expressed sexual racism were more likely to agree with statements associated with bigotry. Given that logic, it makes sense to me that more exposure to unfamiliar types could help us “get used” to them and that so-called dating preferences could change if bigotry, racism, and bias were reduced.
Research by Kevin Lewis, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego, has demonstrated that cross-race messages in online dating are comparatively rare—individuals disproportionately message others of the same race. However, the users he studied were more likely to cross race lines if they first received a message from a user of another race. They were then more likely to initiate interracial exchanges in the near future. These findings support the idea that there is more nurture to attraction than nature. They also suggest that the lack of initial contact-making may, instead of being grounded in antipathy or lack of attraction, stem from an expectation that the other person won’t be interested—what the researchers called “pre-emptive discrimination.” This theory may explain the fact that white male daters would look at my profile, but not contact me.
After another awkward, boring date with a guy who had seemed extremely interesting on paper—a date that had taken weeks to arrange—I decided I couldn’t take playing the game any more as it was. I decided on a third strategy: putting up pictures of myself as a white person. This would help to address the ineffable idea of attraction: What if someone just liked my friend Jessica’s pictures better? With the help of another friend, I tinted the colour of my skin and eyes in Photoshop and posed in a long blond wig. My features remained the same. I was left with pictures that really did look like me, except for the colouring. I used the text that had been up on my most recent profile and launched this blond, blue-eyed version of myself. Though Photoshop made me look more mixed than white, I described myself as white on my profile.
The first White Hadiya, created with the help of a body double, had been popular. The new version was even more so, receiving sixty-four messages in her first three days online. In the course of a week, she received messages from ninety-three users, some of them the same people I had messaged from my black profile and never heard back from. My black profile had gone up around New Year’s, a time when online dating usage traditionally spikes; even so, the new version of Hadiya was outpacing her by a ratio of six to one. Here was more evidence, to my mind, that my features were not the problem; rather, it was the colour of my skin.
In a Facebook community group whose members are Indigenous, black, and people of colour, I learned that my online dating difficulties are not unique. I asked some black women who are members of the group about their experiences. Joy Henderson, a thirty-eight-year-old Torontonian, joined OkCupid for a month, creating what she thought was a witty profile. She found herself subject to stereotypes and fetishization; few messages came in that weren’t about casual sex. Tacha Wilks, a twenty-seven-year-old biracial woman of white and Jamaican descent, describes her online dating experience—on OkCupid in particular—as having been very negative. One white man submitted a long, detailed passage about what he wanted to do to her “on the hood of a car.” Black men who wrote would want to know more about what “kind” of biracial woman she was.
What has this overall experience taught me? First, it caused me to abandon online dating. I just didn’t feel good when I logged in. It is one thing to be passed over on a dating site because of a hairstyle, or braces, or acne—or for a postgraduate degree or an addiction to Tim Hortons coffee. Race is different: there’s a reason we have institutionalized protections in our human rights code and have preached anti-discrimination principles for decades. Our supposedly post-racial society is meant to have left this behind, to acknowledge that race is a social construct and that we are all just human beings. I realized that in order to overcome bias, people needed to interact with me in person, to see the person free from the stereotype and its underlying assumptions. Online dating dehumanizes me and other people of colour.
On the other hand, maybe online dating dehumanizes everyone. It promises objectivity, and yet it also asks us to make snap decisions based on a photograph or a conversation spanning the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. I am a multilayered human, and it takes time for me to be able to break through stereotypes or stereotypical expectations associated with blackness; I expect to have greater success when someone gets to know me and sees me as me, not as Random Black Girl #2.
I was lucky enough to find someone. My boyfriend and I met through our mutual love of Radiohead after he posted on a Facebook group, looking for bandmates. After a few exchanges, and after getting confirmation from a mutual friend that he was not an axe murderer, I found myself spending time with this handsome man. He was keen to learn about my thoughts, my interests, and my passions—and I his. What started out as a series of cover-song jam sessions has blossomed into a romance filled with laughter, cheese puffs, music, and conversation. We both dream of a life of simple pleasures, enduring friendships, and occasional escapes to a cabin in the woods.
I attribute this success to meeting face to face: he saw me as a person, not a stereotype. Now more than ever, I believe in the magic of a real-life encounter—not just for black women, but for everyone.
This appeared in the March 2017 issue.