Exclusion and Exotification on Grindr: What Racial Preferences Mean and Do

By Brianna Suslovic

Modified from a version originally published on Medium.com as part of a project for AfAm 108x: Exploring Race and Technology in the Digital World.

On its homepage, Grindr describes itself as “the largest and most popular all-male location-based social network out there,” functioning as a site of interaction for men seeking sex with men. As an intersectional feminist, I was curious about what sorts of interactions happen on dating sites and apps, particularly within marginalized communities (such as men who have sex with men, or MSMs). In this research project, I wanted to understand the interactions that occur on Grindr through the lens of racial analysis, focusing on the ways that race influences self-presentation and messaging on the app.

Are racial preferences on Grindr racist? That’s a hard question to answer when definitions of race and racism are individualized and difficult to define in the first place. However, it is possible to explore the interactions of Grindr using the assumption that some of these interactions are, in fact, racist. With this in mind, I asked: “How are racialized interactions on Grindr racist? In what ways are ‘Grindr racism’ different than the racism enacted offline within the gay male community?”

There’s plenty of existing research on race, Grindr, cruising, and racialized interactions on online dating platforms. I conducted interviews with five Harvard students who are former or current Grindr users to contextualize real experiences within the existing research, eliminating their names and identifying characteristics from my data. All names used in this article are pseudonyms.

My project is coming from the perspective of a queer woman of color, and thus, I recognize my limited understanding of Grindr and the interactions occurring on the app. I am not a gay man, and I felt that, for ethical reasons, making my own account would compromise the academic and ethical integrity of my project. My understandings are based in my own experiences with race and gender, my trust in interview subjects’ narratives, and my own biased understanding of online dating/hook-up platforms. I felt that this project was important to pursue because it fits into my definition of intersectional feminism, challenging the different power dynamics that present themselves, even in the marginalized communities that I’m a part of. In order to actively combat racism in the queer community, I have to confront it when I see it.

A PBS digital project shows that racial identification is complicated, especially when we try to identify others. Race is an arbitrary series of categorizations: evolutionary scientists have argued since the 1940s that “definitions of race were imprecise, arbitrary, derived from customs, had many exceptions and gradations and that the number of races observed varied according to the culture examined.”

Yet despite the arbitrary nature of race, it plays a large role in both the day-to-day interactions of individuals and the broad-scale, locationally-contingent categorization of populations. Especially in visually-dependent platforms such as Grindr, categorization based on perceived race plays a large role in the prevalence and nature of interactions between users.

Grindr is a particularly notorious platform for these visually-based, sexually-driven interactions. In “The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide,” Max Fox writes that it “automates the work that once made a subversive and politically potent world.”

One of my interview respondents agreed: “Tech efficiates and reifies superficial hookups,” Gerardo said.

Another respondent, Manuel, described entering the virtual space of Grindr as “like a sensory overload, almost. It was really nerve-wracking because [hooking up on Grindr] almost seemed too easy, at first.” In the extremely visual interface that apps like Grindr and Tinder rely on, how can we check ourselves to prevent unconscious (or conscious) preference for certain races––or perceived races?

Data about race’s influence in the online dating/hook-up world ––specifically on OkCupid, a dating site for gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight users––is available, but not for Grindr. OkCupid has published a blog post that specifically addresses racial biases in message response rates for users of all sexualities. An interesting graphic can be made with this data, charting response rates among white gay male OkCupid users:

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 12.24.07 PM

As evidenced by this chart, white gay males respond less frequently to messages from other races, especially when these messages come from Asian, Indian, and black males. The data on OkCupid’s blog shows that black males get fewer responses overall — in fact, black gay men get over 20 percent fewer responses than non-black gay men. Despite the lack of responses to their initiations, black gay men are more likely to respond to messages than white gay men. Black males, Indian males, and Asian males respond more frequently to all races.

Kevin Lewis, a sociologist at UC San Diego, has done extensive research on straight OkCupid users and their racial preferences in presentation and/or practice on the site. Lewis suggests that perhaps OkCupid users are engaging in “preemptive discrimination.” This is to say that perhaps “part of the reason site users, and especially minority site users, do not express interest in individuals from a different racial background is because they anticipate — based on a lifetime of experiences with racism — that individuals from a different background will not be interested in them.”

One of the co-founders of OkCupid has written a book called Dataclysm about the amount of big data that sites like OkCupid can analyze about individual dating preferences and behaviors on online dating platforms. While the book covers a broad range of topics, there are noticeable gaps in his examination of data for gay, lesbian and bisexual OkCupid users. In a note at the back of his book, he describes this challenge: “to include same-sex relationships would’ve meant repeating each graph or table in triplicate…. Male-female relationships allowed for the least repetition and widest resonance per unit of space, so I made the choice to focus on them.” This systematic exclusion of queer people is a problem––eliminating queer people from data analysis seemingly acquits them of racist behavior that they are also responsible for engaging in.

But with only numbers, it’s impossible to know the nature of the messages exchanged between individuals; for example, the messages sent by white men in response to Middle Eastern men could have been racist in some way, either exotifying/fetishizing them or rejecting them on the basis of race.

Denton Callander, Martin Holt, and Christy E. Newman have done research on racialized language on a dating and sex-seeking website called Manhunt.net, focusing specifically on the Australian context. This research analyzed content within Manhunt profiles to code the “who/what, why and how” of the race-related phrases on these profiles. Callander et al. found that profiles often explicitly articulated forms of negative discrimination (i.e. exclusion based on perceived race) and positive discrimination (i.e. exotification or fetishization based on perceived race) were prevalent on Manhunt. Additionally, these racial preferences were articulated in several modes. One mode was “defensive,” choosing to apologetically articulate a discriminatory racial preference within a profile. Another mode was “normalised,” where a discriminatory racial preference was articulated without any argument, defense, or justification whatsoever.

Does this behavior also exist in the same ways offline? John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University, argues that “online, some people self-disclose or act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person,” labeling this the online disinhibition effect. He refers to the toxic disinhibition that can occur when individuals express anger and hatred that they would not express offline. He attributes some of this to the idea of dissociative anonymity, where the semi-anonymous nature of most online interactions contributes to individuals’ experiences of disinhibition. The self-presentation of individuals in different technological contexts is also key to understanding the semi-anonymous interactions and articulations of identity that occur on Grindr.

My interview subjects racially identified as Latino (3), black (1), and white (1). One of my Latino respondents explained that he believes he is often read as South Asian on Grindr. Another Latino respondent explained that he believes he is often read as white on Grindr, and so he actively and proudly articulates his Chicano identity (and his Spanish fluency) on his profile.

This relates back to the PBS activity that asks users to code people by race based on photos of their faces. This activity proves how difficult it can be to categorize someone racially solely based on a photo. While Grindr also allows users to list their racial identities on their profiles, the visual nature of its homepage may contribute to the facilitation of preference for/exclusion of a certain skin tone or racialized feature while browsing other users’ photos.

Additionally, if we consider online dating/hookup landscape as a sort of marketplace of potential partners, the landscape is comparable to Airbnb.com, a website for individuals interested in renting to or renting from strangers for a short amount of time. Harvard Business School researchers studied the racialized user experience on Airbnb, estimating price gaps between users who were read as black based on their profile photos on the site. Controlling for a variety of extra profile factors, “non-black hosts earn roughly 12% more for a similar apartment with similar ratings and photos relative to black hosts.”

John, an interview subject, commented on the difficulties of visual race readings in my interview with him: “I would ask my friends why I wasn’t getting as many messages and they would say, ‘Oh, your smile’s off,’ or ‘Your picture needs to be sexier,’ or ‘You need to change your about description,’ and I would go through a whole bunch of profiles, and I would never get any more responses.”

He explained that he was interested in exploring whether his Grindr profile picture, where he believed he was viewed as a black man, had a tangible influence on the messages that he received.

To test this question, he changed his Grindr picture to a white man. “I used a picture of a guy who was white…we were similar in every respect, except he was white and I was black. I also tried to choose someone who was either less attractive than me or about the same level of attractiveness as me with this picture. And so I switched the picture, and as soon as I switched, I got so many new messages—just message after message after message after message, and like, they never ever really stopped.”

John was surprised, but on some level, he began to understand that this wasn’t a problem with him. Rather, it was a problem with racism on Grindr. “It came together that there wasn’t anything wrong with me that was causing people to either not talk to me at all, or if they did talk to me, to not be invested in the conversation at all, whatsoever.” Despite the recognition that he was not the problem, John was surprised at the reactions he got when he told people about his actual race. “When I told people that I was actually black, a lot of people were actually sympathetic. Like, ‘Oh, it’s terrible that you go through that on Grindr, like, people here are terrible.’ [This was coming from] the people who had ignored me as the black guy.” He expressed frustration at the people who recognized that Grindr’s racism was harmful, yet didn’t recognize their own roles in perpetuating the racism.

One informant, Alejandro, said that it was common to see articulations of racial preference in private messages, but that he had also seen “some profiles that say, like, ‘no blacks,’ ‘no Asians,’ ‘white only,’ so it’s obvious that this treatment exists.” I call this an explicit racial preference, one that is verbally articulated through a message response or a profile description.

Manuel described Grindr as a site of very clear, desire-based hierarchy: “I think in terms of desirability, white men are at the top…and then at the bottom of this very apparent hierarchy are people who just are further away from these very proto-European-looking qualities.”

Another respondent, Sam, commented on this hierarchy of attraction as well: “You can see on some people’s profiles that it’ll explicitly state…usually it’s like ‘White people only.’ I always find it kind of gross. I’m aware that we’re all kind of socially conditioned to think that white people are the most attractive, but even if you are unable to get over that, don’t explicitly state it. Just don’t message people you aren’t interested in. I don’t understand why you have to be so explicit in that. I also don’t believe it’s like, a legitimate preference.” As a white user, Sam felt that his experience with this racism was quite limited: “I can only imagine how awful it must be to be a queer person of color and to see those messages every time you go on.”

In addition to this explicit preference, however, there are implicit forms of racial preference that are enacted in Grindr as well. Similar to John’s characterization of his experiences with visual racial readings, Sam also described his overall experiences on Grindr as different from non-white experiences: “I think as a Black person you don’t get nearly as many people looking at your profile or messaging you…so that’s kind of negative.” I label this kind of behavior as implicit racial preference, where a preference is articulated through actions rather through a verbal articulation, forcing people of color to recognize the racism that is being enacted through receiving a lower volume of messages than their white peers, for example.

Racial preference in Grindr interactions fell most frequently into two categories: racial exclusion and racial exotification. Racial exclusion, as one would expect, refers to the process of excluding certain races in favor of other races. Most of this is enacted through visual racial readings on Grindr.

Alejandro expressed frustration at this exclusionary preferential treatment, often directed at people of color on Grindr: “It’s saying that your race is not attractive to me because your race is not attractive in general.”

“I’ll never gain what [white men] gain when they use it, you know what I mean?” concluded Alejandro, commenting on the different experiences for white men versus men of color on Grindr, specifically in terms of access to sexual partners and, more simply, access to positive interactions in messages and replies.

“[Listing racial preferences] reminds me of, like 1950s or 1960s ‘whites only here’…. That’s what Grindr kind of looks like sometimes,” said John, reflecting on the archaic-sounding, explicitly exclusionary preferences being articulated in this online space.

In addition to the racial exclusion happening on Grindr, there is also a high level of racial exotification, where users receive messages that essentialize them, reducing them to an often-stereotyped view of their race.

UCLA’s Jose Gallegos wrote about Grindr’s fetishizing tendencies in a piece for UCLA’s “Journal of Cinema and Media Studies”:

“The user is reduced to his basic information, while the small blurb is primarily used to describe what the user finds attractive in others…. Interactions on Grindr become an automated game that requires a user to find the best way in which to warrant a reaction from another user, often reducing users to fetishized automatons. Grindr not only endorses fetishization, it relies on it. The app creates a fraction, rather than a replication, of a person, and users are able to project their fantasies and desires onto these one-dimensional avatars.”

In a “Medium” article, San Diego State University student Anthony Berteaux calls Grindr “a full course meal in racism.” He describes the essentializing and flattening language employed on the app, explaining that on Grindr, some men “reduce certain ethnicities to derogative terms such as rice and curry, to express their racial preferences” using words like “curry, chocolate and finally rice.”

In its reduction of users to visual representations and brief descriptors, is Grindr in some way facilitating racial exotification? This question would require further research, but it is an interesting one, considering the prevalence of this behavioral trend on the app.

Individuals feel comfortable justifying racial preferences on Grindr by likening them to sexual orientation: “You know, chemistry. It’s as simple as that. I’m not attracted to black guys in the same way that I don’t like girls. It’s all a question of preference,” writes one anonymous user of “Thought Catalog,” a blogging platform. Racial preference, however, is not comparable to sexual orientation. Gender and race are two completely different kinds of social constructs. This writer continues: “listing personal preferences isn’t about being racist as it is a way to weed people out and get the fast fix you’re seeking.” Grindr’s flattening of individuals to sexualized profiles may be part of this equation—in a market designed to enable hook-ups, users have no problem being direct about what they desire, even if their desires are offensive, harmful, or problematic.

Recognizing problematic language is only the beginning of the research potential within this topic. It is also imperative that research is done on the potentially damaging effects that this sort of racism can have on people of color on Grindr. What does it mean, as a person of color, to be told multiple times (implicitly and explicitly) that white, masculine men are more attractive or preferable than you?

While sexuality and psychology researchers Brian Zamboni and Isiaah Crawford recognize that causal conclusions cannot be drawn from their research data on black gay men, they do infer that “perceived experiences with discrimination based on race/ethnicity and sexual orientation create stress as evidenced by psychiatric symptoms which, in turn, adversely affect sexual functioning.”

Similarly, a 2012 study of Latino gay men’s experiences of racism published in the Journal of Latina/o Psychology found that “more than half of the men in this study reported that in sexual relationships other men paid more attention to their race. Future research should determine exactly how this objectification may change the dynamics of a sexual encounter for Latino gay men, as well as the appraisal and coping mechanisms used by Latino MSM [men who have sex with men] in response to racism.”

A third study by Middlebury College social scientist Chong-Suk Han focuses on Asian/Pacific Islander gay men’s experiences of racism, confirming these conclusions and suggesting that racist ideals of attractiveness pervade into communities of color: “the differential value placed on white men and API men within the larger gay community leads many gay API men to view having a white male partner as a source of self-affirmation.”

It is clear that this research is limited in this realm, but that there is potential for real harm — and possibly real change—on Grindr. Are sexual racists aware that they’re racists? Are they willing to change? How can Grindr become less enabling of racism on profiles and in messages? These questions are every Grindr user’s responsibility. Eliminating racist behavior on these kinds of apps must be driven by the users themselves, as they wake up to the visual discrimination being enacted with each swipe and message.

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