Just like the rest of their peers ages 18 to 34, black millennials have embraced online dating services like OkCupid and mobile applications such as Tinder, where users can simply “swipe right to like or left to pass” as they sift through their dating and, yes, hookup options.
Matchmaker and dating coach Paul Carrick Brunson predicts that by 2017, blacks’ per capita usage of mobile dating applications will be higher than that of any other ethnic group. Young black Americans—enthusiastic adopters of mobile technology and drivers of the social media force that is “black Twitter”—will no doubt lead that charge.
Some might guess that this generation’s progressive outlook could merge with its embrace of technology to create a unique environment in which concerns about race take a backseat, making their search for love, if not colorblind, at least not color-defined. After all, according to a 2010 Pew Research survey, millennials are very accepting of interracial marriage, with 93 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreeing with the statement, “I think it is all right for blacks and whites to date each other.” In addition, 72 percent say that their generation believes in racial equality more than older people do.
But those views don’t turn down the volume on the inner dialogue about race when it comes to dating. At least not for black millennials. That’s because unless they’re using a service like Meld—a brand-new app meant “exclusively for the African-American professional”—the numbers for black users of online dating tools are relatively low compared with those of other groups. So an awareness of minority status and all its trappings can dominate their thoughts, even in their digital rummaging for romantic and sexual connections.
In recent years, studies based on dating sites Are You Interested? and OkCupid have suggested that it’s not just their impressions but their actual experiences that are different from those of their nonblack peers. University of California, San Diego professor and sociologist Kevin Lewis found that users of online dating sites are more likely to contact others who share their racial background. Another study concluded that blacks of all ages were 10 times more likely to initiate contact with whites on online dating sites than whites were to initiate contact with blacks. OkCupid’s study “How Race Affects the Messages You Get” found that black users received fewer responses to their overtures overall.
But even black Americans who want to date other black Americans, and are thus unconcerned with the potential low responses from other races, have issues to grapple with. Brunson adds that millennials of all backgrounds confront rampant dishonesty in online dating: His agency found that 51 percent of users are already in a relationship. But here’s where it gets tougher for black users: Those negative realizations can feel magnified when users already see their pool of potential suitors as limited.
Some young black women say they face unique challenges in their pursuit of love in online spaces. Take Arielle Newton, 22, editor-and-chief of blog Black Millennial Musings, who crafted her profile highlighting 10 quirky personal facts (e.g., she never matches her socks; she sleeps with her eyes open), accompanied by photos of herself with impeccable hair and makeup. “Most of my responses … I think 95 percent of them came from young white men,” she says.
At first the flurry of contact was fun and exciting and gave Newton an ego boost, but she says that in the bulk of the messages she received, “there was this level of fetishizing the black body that I was extremely uncomfortable with: ‘I’ve never seen a black girl like you before’; ‘I’ve never dated a black girl before.’”
She admits that race was on her mind, too, in a way that didn’t ease the search for a connection. She found herself unexpectedly hesitant to meet black men online because of her perception that, even among people in their early 20s, “culturally, there’s a sense that black people don’t do that. They don’t do online dating.”
A few months ago she decided to log off of online dating for good.
Edwin Dei, a New York City-based event coordinator and video game enthusiast, turned to Tinder—which he describes as “the modern version of the bar scene”—and OkCupid because he felt these tools stripped away a layer of mysteriousness from the dating process and enabled him to filter potential matches based on his interests and values.
But they didn’t strip away the work of making a first impression that was strong enough to compensate for being a member of an underrepresented group. Specifically, Dei, 26, says that as a straight black man—using a site where studies show that whites receive a lion’s share of messages—he has to compensate by expending extra energy tailoring messages, enhanced with gifs and YouTube videos, for a truncated group of romantic prospects.
Why? He doesn’t believe he can get away with “copy and paste,” the practice of blasting the same message to several girls, the way he’s heard white men who dominate the site’s share of male users can.
Dei adds that initiating contact is accompanied by what he perceives as added pressure to “represent all black people” to the women he approaches, since he may be one of a relatively small number of black men they encounter.
The technology offers black millennials little to no escape from nagging questions about how their racial identity informs their interactions and desirability. In fact, it might even bring these questions to the surface for members of a generation in which colorblindess is oftentimes considered an ideal.
Brunson urges black millennials to reject the heightened sense of racial sensitivity that can come with depressing online-dating studies and the universally experienced discouragement—or, as he calls it, “hope killing”—associated with seeking “the one” digitally. How? By focusing on self-love, remaining hopeful, surrounding themselves with positive people in positive relationships, and developing a strong sense of personal identity. In other words, timeless dating basics for which neither youth nor technology is a substitute.
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Root’s Young, Black, and Viral Weekend. Read more about it here.
Erin C.J. Robertson is a summer intern at The Root.