Jemima Adams is 26, and like many women in their mid-twenties, she’s starting to think about settling down.
But she has a very clear idea about the colour of her future partner’s skin. He’ll be black. That, she says, is non-negotiable – “maybe mixed race, but definitely not white.”
When she goes on dating apps, she screens out anyone from another race.
She’s not alone. The explosion in the popularity of dating apps – four in 10 adults in the UK say they have used them – has exposed some uncomfortable truths about what we want from our potential partners, particularly when it comes to the colour of their skin.
An exclusive Comres poll for HuffPost UK and BBC Radio 5 Live found that one in six (17%) 20- 29-year-olds had rejected someone romantically online or on a dating app because of their race. One in 10 respondents (9%) who had dated someone from another race said they would not have one again.
But when does a preference tip over into racism? And what should apps be doing to help combat prejudice on their platforms?
For TJ Williams, 27, a black man from London who only wants to date black women, it’s all about cultural compatibility. He argues that while there are non-black people who accept his values, it’s not common.
“For me, two people seeing each other have to be committed to accepting and understanding each other’s cultural heritage – that’s so important to me,” he told HuffPost UK.
“And too many times I’ve seen black people, even among my own family and friends, forced to change their image, their voice, mute their personalities, in order to assimilate and fit in with their non-black partner.
“It works both ways; for example, I’ve seen white people change their behaviour in order to be accepted by their partner who wants to present them as a certain way to their families.”
In 2009, the dating site OKCupid published data from their millions of users that they said showed “the basics of race and attraction” on their site. Non-black men were less likely to start conversations with black women, they found, while all women preferred men of their own race. At the time the data was described as “shocking” and prompted a conversation around sexual racism and discrimination within dating.
In the decade since, there has been a well-documented problem with racism in online dating. Black and Asian singles have described feeling ostracised. On some apps the landscape has become so toxic the companies have been forced to introduce inclusivity campaigns – most recently in Grindr’s launch of #KindrGrindr, which is designed to promote diversity.
Last year, Tinder also took a stand against racism with their Interracial Couple Emoji Project to fight for “emoji equality”. The company said it wanted to ensure that couples of all races and ethnicities have a place on smartphone keyboards.
But it’s unclear if these initiatives have helped. Aaron Kingsley, 26, from Nottingham, is a regular user of Grindr and said the app’s campaign for inclusivity has not made a big difference. “Instead of profiles stating racial preferences, people will just block me as soon as I send a picture,” he told HuffPost UK.
“And a lot of white men who approach me immediately ask questions or make statements that suggest I am being exoticised because of my race – such as ‘do you have a big black cock?’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to try a black man’. That doesn’t leave me feeling so good, either. It’s dehumanising, as if I am just something to sample or try.”
As the main apps struggle to ensure racism is kept off their platforms, there has been a sharp rise in the number of race and religion-specific apps – from Muzmatch, Salaam Swipe and Muslim Marriage, to Date Black Singles and BlackCupid, to name a few.
Muzmatch CEO, Shazhad Younas, quit his job and decided to start the app in 2016 after being dissatisfied with the options for Muslims who were serious about settling down.
Younas says the app’s goal is creating a safe space of serious Muslims with the intent of marriage and providing them with a reliable platform to carry out their search.
According to HuffPost UK and 5 Live’s poll results, one quarter of 20-29 year olds say they think their parents would judge them if they dated someone of a different race.
Preference, or racism?
In her quest to find love, Jemima has used a number of dating apps including Plenty of Fish and Tinder. She’s looking for a black partner exclusively, and said she is clear this is not racist.
“Racism is when your racial prejudice impacts upon my life in a negative way – me wanting to date someone who looks like me is not impacting someone’s life in a negative way.”
Sally Mitchell, 28, is a white administrative assistant from south London who has never dated outside of her ethnicity, agrees. “Race is absolutely a deal breaker when it comes to dating,” she says.
This is because she feels she will have “more in common” with white men. “Spending your life with someone is so deep and profound – having a preference with who you do that with is entirely your prerogative. Why is it such a big deal? Why does someone care that people would want to be with someone who looks like them?”
However, blogger and activist Stephanie Yeboah believes that ruling people out because of their ethnicity is racism.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, she said: “Beauty is very subjective, but one thing that we can all agree on (and should near enough be fact) is that beauty is apparent in everyone, regardless of race. When you denounce and reject an entire race based on preferences, you’re racist.
“The casual framing of racism as a ‘preference’ ignores the greater impact it has on the lives and self-esteem of racial minorities who are already portrayed as being less desirable in the mainstream media and society at large.”
For one day HuffPost UK is joining forces with BBC Radio 5 Live to put people aged 20-29 at the forefront of the news agenda in a Twenties Takeover on Thursday 16 May.
Every 5 Live News programme will be co-presented by some of the most exciting new voices in the UK today, and HuffPost UK journalists will be reporting on issues that cut across the lives of young people – from the precarity of housing and work, to sexual health, the realities of modern dating and the pressure to keep up appearances on social media.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.