STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Millions of people have tried online dating or at least thought about it. Almost one third of Americans who have never been married have gone on dating apps or dating sites, according to the Pew Research Center. And a recent study based on data from the National Academy of Sciences found the rise in digital dating coincides with a rise in interracial marriages. One possibility here is that online users are exposed to people they normally might not meet in person in our segregated lives, including people of different races and ethnicities. But there's also some data here suggesting that race and ethnicity play into online dating in a more complicated way.
CHRISTIAN RUDDER: On these sites, black users especially, there's a bias against them. Every kind of way you can measure their success on a site - how people rate them, how often they reply to their messages, how many messages they get - that's all reduced.
INSKEEP: Christian Rudder is the co-founder of OKCupid, a major dating site, who looked at data from his site and other sites back in 2014. It turns out that online dating reflects something that many people have perceived in the offline world for generations, black women and Asian men are rejected more often than other people. NPR's Ashley Brown talked with some dating app users about whether the numbers reflect their reality.
ASHLEY BROWN, BYLINE: I met Jason on a balmy winter afternoon in Los Angeles. He was about to take his puppy on a walk. He'd just gotten home from his internship. He works with men and women with mental health needs. And we're not using his last name, to protect his privacy and his clients' privacy.
JASON: You got to take care of yourself. Our professors say that all the time. Self-care this, self-care that. But it's true.
BROWN: Self-care ended up playing a big role in Jason's personal life, too. He started using dating apps and websites about seven years ago, and he told me things got ugly.
JASON: The messages were saying, I don't date Asians, sorry not sorry, you're cute for an Asian. Like, it was really disheartening.
BROWN: Jason is gay and Filipino. He says some of the rejections he got were overtly racist.
JASON: It was like, like, I usually like bears, but no panda bears. I'm like, yikes. It really hurt my self-esteem.
BROWN: So Jason says he wasn't surprised to see some of the numbers from OKCupid making headlines back in 2014. The dating site's blog said Asian men and black women were rated the least attractive compared to other races and genders. Even though the numbers focused on straight users, Jason says he could definitely relate.
JASON: It was like an unfulfilled validation. Like, yeah, I was right, but it feels like [expletive] that I was right.
BROWN: I also talked to Ari Curtis. She says she feels the same way. She even started a blog about her experience dating as a black woman. Here's a little bit of one of her blog entries.
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ARI CURTIS: For black women like me, this is life. The data are mere tiny representations of a messy existence. And while I'm a big fan of big data, the good stuff begins where the data ends.
BROWN: Her blog is called Least Desirable. One of her posts talks about an OKCupid date she had at a bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
CURTIS: This is it. Yup.
BROWN: Ari took me to that bar, and she told me what the date told her over drinks.
CURTIS: He had recently gone home, and he was like, yeah, my family would never approve of you. (Laughter) And I was just like, OK (laughter).
BROWN: Because she's black.
CURTIS: Yeah. Because I'm black.
BROWN: That interaction left Ari feeling confused, really uncomfortable. And, it wasn't a new feeling. She also shared this account of a date with another white man she met on Tinder.
CURTIS: He was like, so we have to bring the hood out of you, bring the ghetto out of you. And I was like, I'm sorry, what? (Laughter). It made me feel like I wasn't enough, that who I am wasn't what he expected and that he wanted me to be somebody else based on my race (laughter).
BROWN: OKCupid told me the site is definitely paying attention to all of this. I talked to their chief marketing officer Melissa Hobley, and she said they've changed a lot about the app over the years. They want to encourage users to focus less on looks alone and more on what she called psychographics.
MELISSA HOBLEY: Things like what you're interested in, what moves you, what your passions are.
BROWN: Hobley said OKCupid's also talked to social scientists about why people's dating preferences come off as racist.
HOBLEY: I think that what OKCupid was seeing in the data was reflective of what happens IRL, in real life. And people tend to be often attracted to the people that they are familiar with. And in a segregated society, that can be harder in certain areas than in others.
BROWN: Ari told me she understands that. She's had to come to term with her own biases. She grew up in the mostly white town of Fort Collins, Colo., and says she was only dating white guys until she moved to New York.
Do you think that people expressing a racial preference on a dating app is just like expressing a preference for any other physical attribute, or is there something different about race?
CURTIS: I feel like there is room, honestly, to say I have a preference for somebody who looks like this, and if that person happens to be of a certain race - it's hard. It's hard to blame somebody for that. It really is. But on the other hand, you have to wonder if racism weren't so ingrained in our culture if they would have those preferences.
BROWN: She says she's still conflicted about her own preferences and conflicted about whether she'll even keep using dating apps, but for now she says her strategy is just to keep a casual attitude about all of it.
CURTIS: If I don't take it seriously then I don't have to be disappointed when it doesn't go well because I wasn't taking it seriously anyway.
BROWN: Jason's out of the dating game entirely now. That's because he ended up finding his current partner, a white man, on an app a couple of years ago. He credits part of his success to making bold statements about his values and his profile.
JASON: Yeah. I said something, like, really obnoxious looking back on it now. I think one of the first lines I said was, like, social justice warriors to the front of the line, please.
BROWN: He says weeding through those racist messages was really hard, but for him, worth it in the end.
JASON: Everyone deserves love and kindness and support. And pushing through and holding that close to yourself is, I think, actually also what kept me in this online dating realm, just knowing that I deserve this. And if I'm lucky enough, it'll happen. And it did.
BROWN: Ashley Brown, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: Hey. That story is part of What Makes Us Click, MORNING EDITION's series on online dating.
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