Traci reached out to How To! with a common complaint: frustration with online dating. But it’s especially hard out there for her as a black woman—research suggests that black women are less likely to be contacted on dating apps like OkCupid and Tinder. In this special crossover episode of How To!, host Charles Duhigg called on fellow Slate podcasters Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins of Thirst Aid Kit. Bim and Nichole aren’t just experts on modern desire; they know all too well what it’s like to swipe through men who just want to work through a “jungle fever fantasy,” as Nichole put it. This excerpt of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: What do you think that Traci should be thinking about that’s a little bit different because she is a woman of color?
Bim Adewunmi: Honestly, it seems to me that walking into something with the knowledge that something is different for you is half the battle. I think so many of my wonderful nonblack friends will say, “I can’t believe you’re single. How can it be? You’re amazing.” And I’m like, “This is not news to me. I am great.” And I say, “Hey, when you say that, do you understand there is a whole system that I cannot overcome, however wonderful I am?” And that knowledge helps me breathe through some of the nonsense I encounter. I think genuinely, honestly, a lot of the time what I’m looking for is someone to acknowledge alongside with me that this thing is weird and a little bit messed up.
Traci: Exactly—and not think that you’re crazy. I don’t think they quite understand the difficulty that I’m having because they’re not black. They don’t get it. They’re blondes, or they’re like, “Well, what about your standards? Are they too high?” They think I’m either making it up or exaggerating, because we are so close that we don’t see color when we see each other. I just see my best friends. They just don’t understand what I’m going through.
Bim: You’re just expressing what you know to be truth. You’ve lived it, you understand it, you have the language for it, you know exactly what it is. I think that also helps me understand when I’m on one of the apps, or both, or three, or whatever, that being single is not, first of all, it’s not a curse. The second thing is sometimes it’s out of my control, and there’s an urge to beat yourself up. What am I doing wrong? What am I messing up? Sometimes it’s outside of you, and that’s OK. It’s important to think about that and to not carry this weight as though you have failed at dating. Sometimes it’s more difficult. That’s just the way it is.
Traci: That’s just the way it is.
Charles: Nichole, you had mentioned this ever-present thing, which I’ve heard from other women who are friends of mine saying, like, “I don’t want to be the project.” What are the things that make you think, “This guy is in it for the wrong reasons”?
Nichole Perkins: Honestly, I have gotten to a point where I just straight-out ask, “Have you ever dated a black woman before?” Sometimes they’ll say yes, and then they’ll ask me have I ever dated a white man or an Asian man or whatever before. I’ll say yes, and then we go from there. I pay attention to their language. You know when you know. If they don’t tell you very explicitly, “I’ve never been with a black woman before, and I’ve always wanted to.”
Traci: Yeah, that’s a sign—run!
Charles: How quickly does that happen? Someone actually saying something that blatant.
Bim: Every cycle I’m on the apps. All the time.
Bim: Yeah, all the time.
Nichole: I would say on a monthly basis.
Charles: This is exhausting, to keep all this stuff going on in your brain. There’s so many subtexts and—
Bim: Imagine how tired we are, Charles.
Charles: Well, let me ask you this, do you worry that one of the effects of this is to make you too cynical? Traci, do you feel that’s something that you’ve experienced?
Traci: Well, I’ve experienced it, but I try to be open-minded. I try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, because I can be a little critical. If somebody works at an auto body shop or something, and he comes, and he’s got on his auto body shirt with his name Hank on it or whatever his name is, or if his nails are dirty, or if his car is a piece of crap—I shouldn’t be that way. And I’ve changed that, because my car was a piece of crap.
Charles: How do you guys think that Traci should calibrate this? How does she stay open-minded and not cynical but, at the same time, have lines in the sand?
Nichole: I think her boundaries about first dates and looking like you’re well-groomed and that you at least put some effort in is important. Because if he’s not putting forth any effort, that’s going to be indicative of the rest of the effort he gives.
Traci: Because women go through a lot to get ready for a date.
Nichole: Exactly. Something like dirty nails, which I completely understand, because that is a health issue.
Bim: Keep them short and keep them clean, come on. But on the other hand—
Charles: Now I’m looking at my nails. You guys have me all paranoid about my nails now.
Bim: Everyone should be looking at their nails.
Charles: Let me ask you, if you’re talking to, right now, to the men of this world, what advice would you give to men listening to this about how to be better on dating websites and dating in general?
Nichole: I would tell men to stop holding on to the fantasy woman that they formed when they were 12. Whatever fantasy idea that they have, whether it’s a willowy redhead, whether it is this bodacious blonde, whether it is a very fair-skinned black woman. Whatever fantasy that they had that they’re like, “This is what I deserve, because I’m a dude, and I want the best of the best.” The best of the best comes in all different shapes and sizes and colors and job professions and all this kind of stuff.
Charles: Traci, what about you? If there’s one thing you could tell men listening, what would you tell them?
Traci: I would probably tell them to take a chance and step out. If somebody seems interesting on paper, then take a chance, have a cup of coffee, it’s just coffee, and see what happens. You won’t know until you step out on faith and see what happens.
Charles: Let me ask one question that this raises for me. If we didn’t have online dating, if this was all happening like it did 30 years ago for our parents, where you meet someone in a bar or you meet them because you have friends in common, would it be better? Is the world a worse place because we have online dating?
Traci: Yes. Absolutely. I can feel who’s attracted to me if I’m talking to them face to face. There’s a lot of nonblack men who find me attractive because they’re talking to me.
Bim: I will say with online dating, and Nichole touched on something I thought was very interesting, was the gamification of it. It takes away stakes, and I think it also reduces you to very binary choices. You have a specific age group, you have this race, you have this agenda, you have this religion, political leaning, whatever. There is a tyranny of choice, and so I’m clicking endlessly. On the one hand, yeah, shoutout to technology, progress, great. On the other it’s like, “I’d probably be married with four kids.” It’s just one of those things. The world changes. The world is different. I try not to lament it either way.
Nichole: I don’t know. For me, I feel like the last two relationships, or situation-ships, or whatever you want to call them that I’ve had, have been from online dating. They were mostly really good experiences. I think what helps is that I do take breaks. I will deactivate my account for a little bit and then come back to it. Because when I find myself getting very frustrated and very short with men on the apps, that’s when I’m like, “OK, this has been too much. It’s no longer pleasurable. It’s not fun. Let me take a break, and then I’ll come back to it.” That helps—a little reset.