‘You’re spicy’: POC students on the racism and fetishisation they face on dating apps

‘The fixation on my race and ethnicity feels dehumanising’

For many students, joining a dating app such as Tinder or Bumble is a normal experience. It’s even considered a rite of passage upon joining uni. But for POC students, putting themselves out there on a dating app not only invites potential partners but also harassment in the form of racism and acts of fetishisation.

These range from strange comments about their background to slurs and other outright offensive remarks about their appearance. But POC students have been going through this since dating apps began, and even in 2021 it is still happening and it’s exhausting.
So, what exactly is the best way to deal with it? The Tab spoke to three POC students about their experiences handling racism and fetishisation on dating apps.

*Serena, 21, King’s College London


Could you tell us a bit about your experience with racist or fetishised comments on dating apps?

“In the short amount of time I’ve been on Hinge, I’ve experienced odd comments on my race and ethnicity (I’m half European, half East-Asian),” said Serena*, a student at King’s College London. “I’ve received multiple messages assuming my knowledge of East-Asian culture, asking how much I love K-pop, what my favourite K-drama is, or even whether I know any BTS members. These messages appear out of nowhere, without even a conversation about where I’m from.”

“I’ve had messages expressing shock at my ability to carry conversations because it’s ‘surprising that I’m not more shy or timid,’ or conform to other racist stereotypes about Asian women. More often than not, these messages come from white men whose profiles blatantly conform to the stereotype of someone only interested in dating based on fetishised preferences,” she said.

She added, “I’ve also gotten messages from men who think they’re more woke by saying stuff like, ‘Don’t worry, I don’t fetishise Asian women, you’re the first I’ve been with,’ as if that’s a compliment. Even then, I count myself lucky that I haven’t received worse comments.”

“The fixation on my race and ethnicity feels dehumanising as if I’m not a person, but an accessory used to gain proximity to a different culture,” she said. “I’m on dating apps to vibe and have fun, not to teach these men to unlearn their racial biases.”

How have your experiences changed the way you use dating apps?

Serena said that she now has a process to filter out men who may fetishise her, saying: “If their profile indicates that they’re clearly someone who is only interested in me because of my race, I try and avoid any interaction with them. A lot of these profiles will have pictures of them travelling through Asia, wearing traditionally Asian clothes and/or prompts exclaiming how much they love aspects of East-Asian culture such as boba, Studio Ghibli, K-dramas, K-pop, K-bbq, sushi. I have to be vigilant.”

“If they make racist comments in a conversation, I absolutely call them out on it or explain why what they’ve said is wrong. It’s exhausting. But I guess there’s a silver lining– now weird comments have become red flags I look out for. They act as a guide for me to know who to avoid on dating apps.”

Do you feel like dating apps have provisions to keep POC students safe from racist harassment?

“From my experience with Hinge, I’m not really sure if there’s anything the app has done to make it any safer to protect POC from racism or fetishisation. I think you can put racial ‘preferences’ to dictate the type of people who appear on your feed, but I wonder to what extent an algorithm could actually help prevent fetishising POC,” she added.

“Where do we draw the line between racial/sexual preferences and fetishisation? Even then, to what extent are these “preferences” healthy? Because uncomfortable comments are often implicit rather than explicit, reporting someone for something they’ve said may feel dramatic or may not be taken seriously,” Serena said.

*Priya, 20, University of Warwick


Could you tell us a bit about your experience with racist or fetishised comments on dating apps?

“Having a South-Asian name and looking ethnically ambiguous has been a nightmare combination for me on Tinder,” said Priya. “Often, the first message sent over to me is a wild guess at my race or ethnicity. My skin tone, the language I speak, and aspects of my culture in general are not material that can be used for racist pick-up lines.”

How do you handle these comments?

“I try my best to call out every single racist message I receive. It’s time-consuming, but it makes me feel as if I’m not giving in to these negative experiences. Someone needs to stand up to these men and let them know that their comments do not go unnoticed,” she said.

“I usually explain the issue with their comment and sternly ask them to educate themselves and then block or report their profile. Sometimes calling them out feels empowering, but other times, it’s just tiring. While I’m incredibly proud of my race and ethnicity, I can’t help but feel that they hinder me from having a normal dating app experience due to racist harassment,” Priya said.

*Isabelle, 20, King’s College London

What’s your strategy for dealing with racist or fetishised comments?

Isabelle believes that ignoring messages is the best option for her. “I just ignore racist messages. I leave them all on read. I believe that there are only so many battles you can fight, and I don’t want to damage my peace of mind,” she said.

“There are only two options when responding to racist or fetishised comments,” she added. “Either you can ignore the comments and block the individual, or have a discussion to educate them. However, the level of tolerance for these comments varies from person to person and is based on their experiences. I also think someone’s insecurities factor into how they deal with these kinds of situations.”

She added, “I personally am not insecure about my appearance, so if someone makes comments about my skin tone, facial features, or my culture, I will most likely be unaffected. But I know and understand that this isn’t the case for everyone.”

What can dating apps do better to protect POC students?

“While ignoring messages may be an effective strategy in the short-term, in the long run, every individual on a dating app must be mindful of their words and correct racist behaviour. Additionally, there are no provisions to protect POC students from harassment beyond blocking, and harassment can follow on to other apps such as Instagram. Dating apps should have a more comprehensive complaint system where students can report racist messages and actually see action being taken,” Isabelle said

*Names changed for anonymity

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