How Internalized Racism Shapes The Black Dating Experience

Racist norms are hard to escape when dating online, even in seemingly safe communities and platforms. (Credit: Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash)

by Apryl Williams

Dating while Black can be a fraught experience — especially online. Black daters — particularly Black women — have to navigate apps and algorithms rife with racial bias and sexual racism.

Is it any surprise, then, that dating apps like BLK and BlackPeopleMeet have found an audience? Black daters turn to these apps because the mainstream alternatives, such as  Tinder and Bumble, so often fail them. These community-focused apps allow users like myself to seek romance without having to grapple with sexual racism, harassment, or racial fetishization quite as often as we do on mainstream dating apps. 

Community-focused apps reduce some of these issues — but not all.

Despite Match Group owning multiple platforms that cater to diverse communities, such as Hawaya (Muslim dating), Chispa (Latinx daters), and BLK (for Black daters), they often use the same technology created for other mainstream platforms, like Tinder.

Through my experience on Tinder, I know firsthand what it’s like to be Black on one of these mainstream dating apps. Amongst an abundance of matches and swipes and all of the things to discuss in the universe, people were overly interested in talking about my race. It was, at times, a deeply uncomfortable experience.

Colorism, Racial Bias on Black-Focused Apps

You might think this dynamic disappears on Black dating apps, but that’s not actually the case. These apps are still built on the biased algorithms that power most consumer technology these days. And they’re definitely not free from the racism that pervades Western society. As I wrote in my recent book about racism and online dating, “Not My Type”: “Unfortunately, people of color also internalize the ethos of sexual racism, including the stereotypes and cultural biases it produces, contributing to the automating of sexual racism. This can cause racial or ethnic conflict between non-White daters.”

So, what does this look like in practice? Well, the insidious norms that are widespread on mainstream dating apps are present on Black-focused ones, too. The cultural belief that lighter skin is more desirable simply gets ported to a new context. In “Not My Type,” I explore how lighter skin — no matter the specific app or context — is linked to racial status hierarchies and colorism. “Having a lighter skin tone implies that one’s bloodline is intermingled with European ancestry and that those with darker skin are less civilized and truer to their “colored” roots.” This notion of assimilation — rooted in European beauty aesthetics and anti-Blackness — can exist across all dating apps.

Of course, this is nothing new to Black daters. Internalized racism has always been a part of the dating experience. However, these apps further codify it.

Challenging Bias and Building Data Awareness

It’s not all gloomy news, however. We can push back against these trends. In the final chapter of my book, “All You Need is Love (and Transparency, Trust, and Safety),” I use these three values to explain how dating experiences for Black people can be improved.

Transparency is key for trust to be earned, and dating apps don’t have a great track record there. A study by Mozilla and Consumers International from 2022 found that Tinder used discriminatory pricing measures for their subscriptions, quoting up to 31 unique prices for different users for Tinder Plus.  In other countries, users are charged up to five times more for the exact same service. Tinder and other dating apps also collect volumes of personal data, from photos, videos, private messages, and location to make inferences about you.. 

The algorithms powering these platforms are mysterious and opaque, but that isn’t an unchangeable fact. Black daters on these apps are consumers, and consumers have power. For starters, you can ask dating companies for your data. Seeing the data Tinder had stored on me provided a chilling reminder that dating apps and social media that collect our data are omnipresent and seemingly all-powerful. Still, it is worthwhile to investigate what your favorite apps know about you via your data. 

The process of accessing this data might not be convenient, but I hope it spurs users to think critically about what they ‘’privately” share on dating apps. We also have the power to step outside our dating boxes. By swiping against the default, mainstream matches of what dating apps think you might like, you are disrupting a biased ranking system.

And lastly, we also have the power to completely swipe left on dating apps and leave platforms that do not safeguard our safety, though many are reluctant to do so. Others find comfort in returning to traditional ways of dating and meeting potential partners. In either case, daters should know that they are not powerless and, ultimately, that they control how much data they share with dating companies. 

Dr. Apryl Williams is a jointly appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan in the Department of Communication & Media and the Digital Studies Institute. She is also a Senior Fellow in Trustworthy AI at the Mozilla Foundation 2024 and a Faculty Associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.