The Racists of OkCupid Don’t Usually Carry Tiki Torches

How will banning vocal white supremacists really make dating sites safer?

Hey girl.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

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In the heat of the violence of this month’s white-supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer published a promise to the men carrying tiki torches while chanting Nazi catchphrases. After the marches, the site said, “random girls will want to have sex with you. Because you’re the bad boys. The ultimate enemy of the state. Every girl on the planet wants your dick now.”

By the end of the following week, one of the most popular dating sites had made it a little harder for those KKK enthusiasts to find the love they were promised. OkCupid announced on Aug. 17 that it had banned Christopher Cantwell, a white nationalist who found fame in a Vice documentary about the Charlottesville protests, from the platform for life after a user pointed out his profile to site administrators. “There is no room for hate in a place where you’re looking for love,” OkCupid tweeted in its statement, urging users to report other hate-group members who kept profiles on the site.

In the days before white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Bumble had already been in the process of strengthening its anti-racism efforts, partly in response to an attack the Daily Stormer had waged on the company, encouraging its readers to harass the staff of Bumble in order to protest the company’s public support of women’s empowerment. (Only women, not men, can make the first move on the app.) “At that point, we realized that there’s a larger conversation to be had here about not wanting these people in our app,” said Alex Williamson el-Effendi, Bumble’s vice president of brand content. Bumble bans any user who disrespects their customer service team, figuring that a guy who harasses women who work for Bumble would probably harass women who use Bumble. After the neo-Nazi attack, Bumble contacted the Anti-Defamation League for help identifying hate symbols and rooting out users who include them in their Bumble profiles. Now, the employees who respond to user reports have the ADL’s glossary of hate symbols as a guide to telltale signs of hate-group membership, and any profile with language from the glossary will get flagged as potentially problematic. The platform has also added the Confederate flag to its list of prohibited images.

Racial slurs, sexual harassment, and promotion of racial violence are easy to identify as bannable offenses on dating apps. And it’s not hard to see why publicly banning white supremacists might be an irresistible public relations opportunity for a dating site. But what about users who keep it friendly on the app, then post racist memes on 4chan or Twitter? Both Bumble and OkCupid say they employ moderators who evaluate user reports on a case-by-case basis; el-Effendi said Bumble would probably “take action” against a user who was posting content that could make Bumble users feel unsafe, even if that content was on a different platform. Still, the line between a white supremacist and a white person who tells OkCupid they think there’s a correlation between race and intelligence is quite blurry.

“Some decisions are easy: White supremacists and Nazis are not welcome here,” OkCupid CEO Elie Seidman told me via email. “Others are hard. Our goal is member safety and the removal of hateful content from our platform.” Seidman wrote that the company has a zero-tolerance policy toward harassers, and “any clear connection between one of our members and [a hate group] is an indication to us that they do not subscribe to our mission to create a welcoming, inviting place.” Surely there are plenty of white supremacists who don’t have a clear connection to a recognized hate group but who tell OkCupid in their user questionnaires that they use racial slurs and would happily date a vocal racist. (Seidman did not answer my questions about the site’s race-related queries that let racists out themselves.)

OkCupid, in particular, has been helping people broadcast their hateful views on the site for years. The platform’s match algorithm depends on a series of questions that users can answer and rate by importance—and several of them all but encourage users to out themselves as racists. “Would you consider dating someone who has vocalized a strong negative bias toward a certain race of people?” “Is interracial marriage a bad idea?” “Do you use racial slurs when you are around friends or family whom you trust?” “Do you believe that there exists a statistical correlation between race and intelligence?” It’s not hard to find white people in OkCupid’s database who answered “yes” to these questions. They have chosen to make their racist views public and a factor in their search for a mate. OkCupid helps them seek each other out.

Crucially, though, it also helps others keep white supremacists out of their feeds. “Those questions are helpful flags that tell me who to avoid,” said Farrah Skeiky, a 27-year-old woman of Lebanese descent. Users can answer “no” to the race questions and weight them heavily, helping screen out some of the proudest racists; according to OkCupid data, this is a common strategy. In fact, Tanisha Humphrey, also 27, likes OkCupid specifically because it asks blunt questions about racist attitudes. “I’ve ended up talking to a guy and then saw that he had marked that he thought you could tell someone’s intelligence based on their race,” she said. “I knew immediately that I needed to stop talking to him.”

Racism on dating sites usually manifests in more insidious ways, though. If you’ve ever read or listened to any personal account of online dating from a woman of color, Humphrey and Skeiky’s will sound familiar to you. There are the men who insist on qualifying every compliment with “for a black girl.” The men who say they like Asian or Muslim women because they let their boyfriends dominate them. The men who cannot describe a woman of color without invoking foodstuffs—“spicy” and “chocolate” are their favorite flavors. There are men who get angry if they don’t get an immediate response to a message, then resort to flinging racial slurs at the women they were trying to woo mere hours before. (Both Skeiky and Humphrey have been called variations on the N-word for this reason.) Some sites also have a diversity problem—and when most of the available matches are white, a platform can start to feel like a hostile dating environment. “As a black woman, each time I log onto Hinge feels a lot like going to an IRL event with a room full of WASP-y men and being the only black person in the room,” said Holly Bass, a 46-year-old woman who once found a literal Winklevoss twin on her feed despite asking for matches of any race but white. “These sites need to go beyond eliminating the most egregious examples of bigotry and work toward creating actual diverse spaces.”

Though racist users can make dating platforms treacherous ground for people of color, many of the women I talked to have had good experiences with existing reporting mechanisms on the dating sites they use. “I’ve reported users for racist behavior before, and OKCupid followed up pretty quickly. It was obvious that the profile was deleted,” Skeiky said. Humphrey uses OkCupid’s content filter to keep some of the most blatantly racist messages out of her inbox. “I feel a lot more comfortable using a site where I know that they will take action if I report harassment for any reason, including race-based comments,” she said. “I think that’s a much more direct, and, for me, as a user of the app, meaningful way of combating racism rather than saying you’re going to kick out one or two super vocal, super-visible racists.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dating sites taking a hard-line stance against vocal white supremacists. At the same time, if sites are already letting users out themselves as racists and banning those who use hate speech, the chances of a person of color accidentally matching with a white supremacist are slim. Their chances of facing racist remarks from people who don’t self-identify as such are much greater, and this is the kind of thing that’s nearly impossible for a dating site to moderate. One OkCupid user, Fabiana Cabral, recalled the time an older white woman repeatedly insisted on telling her she looked Colombian even after Cabral said she was Venezuelan. “It does make OkCupid look good to ban a now well-known white supremacist,” said Cabral. “It also reinforces the idea that a ‘racist’ is someone who attends a rally like the one in Charlottesville and carries a flaming torch and not someone who thinks all Latina women must look the same and feels OK telling me so to my face.”