Ignored, Attacked Or Fetishised: The Many Frustrations Of Dating Apps For Women Of Colour

The following is an extract from Mixed Feelings: Exploring The Emotional Impact Of Our Digital Habits by Naomi Shimada & Sarah Raphael

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My parents only met once, about a month before they got married. After the wedding, my father came back to the UK where he was a student and my mother completed her internship in Sri Lanka. The next time they saw each other was two years later when my mother moved to the UK. Even by 1980s standards in Sri Lanka this was considered somewhat archaic. Legally they are still married, which puts them in the category of one of the many arranged marriage "success" stories, except that unsurprisingly, they found they had little in common and their decades long union was incompatible with their respective happiness. They finally separated two years ago. Despite being the breadwinner of the family, my mother, I expect still shackled by her culture and generation, was and still is reluctant to get divorced. Ironically, one of the main reasons given by my parents for their reluctance to separate over the years was that it would have implications on my own future marriage prospects should I end up looking to settle with a partner from the same background. By "the same background" I assume they meant someone who was also ethnically Tamil. Now that I’m older, this seems far too simplistic a definition of my background. I identify much more with the cliché of the Second Generation Immigrant; growing up constantly navigating between two cultures, uncertain as to where exactly I fit in.

Perhaps being the product of a fairly unromantic, contrived union puts me in good stead to embrace the formulaic modern day equivalent of an arranged meeting. There are parallels between internet dating and the traditional arranged proposal. First you are presented with a portfolio of potential suitors and a few key demographics – age, name, location plus some details of higher education and current job title – then comes a perusal of a carefully curated selection of photos. Mutual matches exchange contact details, engage in some initial awkward chat as a means to an end – a meeting or date. Ironically, I always vowed I would never go through the arranged process and yet it feels as though this has become the norm whether through an online Tamil dating "broker" or Match.com. My experiences of both the former and latter route have been equally disheartening. 

I should mention that my parents are fairly liberal by South Asian standards and would not object to my settling down with someone of a different ethnicity. Having said that, I suspect there is a part of them which would be relieved if I introduced them to a Tamil partner. I myself am beginning to understand this too as I continue to discover all the components of who I am and how I see myself. There is an undeniable ease to being with someone who understands exactly what your experience is and that "otherness" a person of colour falls into growing up in 80s/90s Britain. This sense of otherness continues to make itself felt when I use online dating sites or apps. 

I don’t get all that many matches. While I suspect this is partly down to my own narrow set of criteria I can’t help but feel that it’s more to do with not fulfilling Eurocentric ideals of physical attractiveness. As online dating is mostly based on an objective selection process swiping photos, I don’t think this is an unreasonable thing to think. Despite living in cosmopolitan London, I feel that most men, irrespective of their own ethnicity, probably desire a partner who looks Caucasian. Growing up, it was rare to see people who looked like me on TV, billboards or in the cinema. Is it surprising that in a society where it has been normal for the universal experience to be white for most of the century even in the context of mass immigration, there remains a very narrow pool of what is deemed physically desirable? Unlike an accent, religion or specific sexual orientation, my otherness is always visible, juxtaposed against the invisibility of under-representation I felt growing up.

This might all sound like I have an unfounded chip on my shoulder but a 2018 study by Cornell University found that online dating apps that allow users to filter their searches by race or rely on algorithms that pair users with others of the same race reinforce racial divisions and biases. Its research revealed that racial inequities in online dating are widespread – for example, black men and women are 10 times more likely to message white people than white people are likely to message black people.

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Colourism, often attributed as a post-Imperialist sequela of the notion that "lighter is righter" has actually existed amongst many cultures prior to the arrival of European colonialists and still exists amongst non-white communities today. One of the questions on the South Asian dating website Shaadi.com pertains to describing your complexion – "Fair/Wheatish/Dark". Having a "fair" complexion has equated increased desirability for generations amongst Tamils and I have had someone comment disdainfully that I appeared "much brighter" in my dating profile photos. Exposure to this antiquated form of internalised bias amongst people of the same skin colour is pretty soul destroying. That those with a lighter skin tone should benefit from a comparable privilege, through an approximation of whiteness, within their own ethnicity, has always baffled me. It is during these encounters through the Tamil online dating route where I have felt I have very little in common with the person I am meeting other than my skin colour and mother tongue. There was a guy who had a problem with me drinking alcohol, a guy who had an issue with my working hours and whose mother said "how is she going to be able to cook for my son and look after children if her job is this busy" and a guy who I couldn’t even meet because his family said there was no point as our Hindu horoscopes "were incompatible". My reactions to these scenarios were pretty reflective of my being born and brought up in the UK: "Do these people really give a fuck about this bud bud ding ding voodoo chart nonsense?!" I exclaimed in disbelief to my mother, my own internalised prejudice about my culture coming to the fore (as they sing in Avenue Q – "Everyone’s a little bit racist").

Conversely, on the standard sites and dating apps, I can feel fetishised because of my skin colour. The first thing someone on Tinder messaged me once was "I love the colour of your skin lol". Terms such as copper/caramel/chocolate coloured clumsily used in attempts to compliment me I just find horribly derogatory and prompt me to immediately unmatch myself from the perpetrator.

It often becomes apparent that most of the Caucasian men I match with just want a casual hook up and I wonder if that’s all I am in this modern internet era of instant gratification – Deliveroo to satiate your craving for Chinese food, and Bumble to deliver you an "exotic" shag for the night. This cynicism on my part has meant most of the men I have dated have been non-white. Of course, I don’t want to generalise and say most men aren’t interested in settling down with a woman of colour – this is obviously unfair and I have plenty of male friends and colleagues in relationships with women of a different background. On the other hand, am I being totally unfair in brandishing the term fetishism in this context? People can’t help what they’re attracted to right? After I politely rebuffed previously mentioned Tinder guy whose opening line about my skin colour made me feel uneasy he wouldn’t take no for an answer, becoming increasingly irate and finishing with "Ur a snake. Stupid Asian cunt. U all need putting down. N b4 u chat more crap to me about being busy. Or shall I translate that into curry… I have never met an Asian with a good character". As well as displaying poor syntax, his reaction was paradoxical but it brought to mind an anecdote from the comedian Hasan Minhaj about when he worked for The Daily Show in New York. He would see Fox News broadcasters across from his building – notorious for their xenophobic tirades against immigrants on air – leave their building at lunch time and line up for halal chicken and rice. "Racist Randy wants that red sauce! Your brain can be racist but your body will just betray you." Like I said, people can’t help what they’re physically attracted to.

I think the anonymity of internet dating facilitates more overt racism. At least via the arranged introduction there is some accountability because people’s families are aware of the match and for the most part, basic codes of social etiquette are adhered to and "ghosting" isn’t possible.

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I’m not sure which method suits me the best. I often feel too "westernised" for the traditional route yet I’m not sure how suited my demographics are to sites and apps in terms of dating with a view to a long term relationship. I’m not entirely convinced current algorithms and matching methods best serve people of colour but remain hopeful things will evolve to better reflect and represent our multicultural society.

I feel I can’t write about my experience of online dating without a mention of the "dick pic" phenomena. I was having a pleasant WhatsApp chat with someone I matched with online and suddenly there it was – an image downloading in the conversation. "Here we go" I thought, somewhat resigned. It was actually far worse than I had imagined – a photo of his bathroom refurb. The only thing more offensive than a dick pic is the assumption that I would be remotely interested in someone’s home refurbishment. It’s bad enough feigning interest in this type of thing when you actually know the person IRL. What a time to be alive.

Mixed Feelings: Exploring The Emotional Impact Of Our Digital Habits by Naomi Shimada & Sarah Raphael is out now, published by Quadrille

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