Following a romance in my early twenties with an older man who, I eventually accepted, was simply at a different stage of life, I went through a series of short relationships of varying significance.
I was searching for a committed relationship with a supportive partner, someone I could love deeply and who shared my values and goals. Like many singles, I had created an online dating profile. But I rarely logged in. Now I decided to take it more seriously—these days, I seem to hear fewer and fewer stories of real life meet-cutes. Meanwhile, online, I could decide between sites with free memberships, such as Plenty of Fish; paid sites with an older, more earnest clientele, such as eHarmony; niche sites such as JDATE and Gluten-Free Singles; and many others, all slightly differentiated by price, demographics, and objectives.
I signed up for Tinder and Bumble—two apps with simple interfaces that invite users to swipe on pictures of people they find attractive—as well as OkCupid. The last includes more substantial personal profiles. Theoretically, the online world offers greater odds of finding a partner than does a chance meeting at a party. Being online is like going to a party without encountering all the people who trap you in boring conversations. It made me feel that I was more likely to find someone with whom I actually connected—not just another pretty face.
I uploaded pictures and filled out my profile with basic demographic information—height, body type, religion, and education. Over the following months, I would play with this slightly: I variously described myself as a dreamer, book lover, learner, educator, and writer, someone who views the world with a glass half-full of optimism and a dash of sarcasm.
I was a high match with a seemingly large number of men—quite a few of them were in the 99 percent range. The most mathematically promising one—at But almost immediately, I began to notice peculiarities about my experience. On the day I completed my profile, I received one message; four more appeared over the next two days.
This trickle continued for the next year and two months, averaging two messages a day. I also actively messaged others. Of the messages that did make it to my inbox, many were from men who were not a good match for me. Filters are common—especially for women, who often receive a high number of lewd or casual messages from spam profiles, and generic messages from men who send the same note to a swath of profiles.
Of the messages I received over the next fourteen months, ended up in the filtered inbox, which left me with about one message of decent-or-above quality a day. A message from a prospective mate every day may sound like a lot. You may also start talking to someone only to realize that you are no longer interested in getting to know them better.
It can take many exchanges to get to a real live date. Some of my friends pegged my situation to an intimidation factor. I took active steps to try to increase my odds. I posted a link to my profile on Bunz Dating Zone, a Toronto Facebook group, asking for honest feedback. On the whole, users said they liked my profile and my pictures. Nothing seemed to help—the slow pace of messages continued. From left to right: While I am multiracial, born of a Caribbean and white father and a Caribbean and East Indian mother, I am black to the outside world.
Certainly, I am black to the white world. And as someone who travels in personal and professional environments that are predominantly white—the legal profession, Ultimate Frisbee, graduate school—the majority of my friends, including my single girlfriends, are white. Race has always had an impact on my identity, but I had been loath to admit the role that it might play in my ability to be loved.
We are talking about one of the most elemental of human impulses. If I made it past the filters, I still might be ruled out as a potential partner because of the colour of my skin. The situation made me wonder: What would my experience be like on OkCupid if I were white?
OkCupid has devoted a considerable amount of research to the interactions and experiences of its users. In the United States, black women receive the fewest messages and fewer responses to their sent messages—75 percent of the communication received by their white counterparts, a pattern that seems common to online dating as a whole. In Canada, the number is higher—90 percent. But while black women in Canada may receive 90 percent of the messages that white women do, many report receiving more sexualized messages, and fewer messages from men they would actually like to date.
One of the defining principles of our culture is, after all, multiculturalism. I observe the reinvigoration of the KKK, remember the demagogic, racist words of Donald Trump during his campaign, read about yet another shooting of an unarmed black man in America, and thank my lucky stars that I decided to stay in Canada for law school, instead of going to a place where my sass could get me shot if my tail light went out and I were asked to pull over. They had their own separate events as part of student orientation, and I got a troubling sense of s-era segregation.
When I visited the University of Toronto, on the other hand, no one seemed to care what colour I was, at least on the surface. I mingled easily with other students and became fast friends with a man named Randy. Together, we drank the free wine and headed off to a bar with some second- and third-year students. The experience felt like an extension of my undergraduate days at McGill, so I picked the University of Toronto then and there. Canada, I concluded, was the place for me. In the US, the roots of racism lie in slavery.
In Canada, I fit into several categories that afford me significant privilege. I am highly educated, identify with the gender I was given at birth, am straight, thin, and, when working as a lawyer, upper-middle class. My friends see these things and assume that I pass through life largely as they do. When I am on the subway and I open my mouth to speak, I can see other people relax—I am one of them, less like an Other.
The ability to navigate white spaces—what gives someone like me a non-threatening quality to outsiders—is a learned behaviour. Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale, has noted: So when I first started online dating, I was optimistic that my blackness and multiracial identity would have a minimal impact on my success.
No dick pics were sent my way. If anything, I was suffering from a small sample size. Given the promise of online dating, I thought that here, in multicultural Toronto, someone might read my profile, note our high level of compatibility, and be interested in me as a living, breathing, human person. I chatted with men and went on some dates, ultimately seeing a few different prospects for a month or two over the next fourteen months.
When I was on dates with these men, the issue of race would come up in that it forms a part of my experience, and it would come up if I brought it up, but it was rarely mentioned by them. Online dating reminded me of the experience of otherness that had long been running through me and that I had decided to put aside. I have been made to feel that I am an exception to my race, rather than an example of it.
After I had been thinking for a while about the slow message count, my instincts as an academic kicked in. I decided that an objective test would be the best way to assess the impact of my brown skin on my dating prospects. After all, such strategizing is one of the oldest playing-field levellers in the dating world: I had also heard of others trying on different racial personas before.
As I sat in a coffee shop with my friend Jessica, I hatched a plan to see how well a white Hadiya might do. Jessica, who is of similar height, weight, and attractiveness, agreed to let me create a new profile that used my existing profile information, but her image.
We staged a photo shoot where she dressed in my clothing, and we did our best to recreate some of my pictures. She noted that the pictures looked like her channelling me, and not just like her.
I expected Jessica to receive more messages than I did—perhaps twice as many. In fact, in her first three days, White Hadiya received nine times more messages—forty-seven messages to the five I had received in a comparable time frame. By the end of this experiment, which lasted approximately seven weeks, White Hadiya was on track to receive more than 2, messages in the same amount of time that I had received with allowance for the spike in views a new user typically receives in their first days online.
This difference in message rate occurred even though I got the impression that White Hadiya and I were receiving a similar number of views. Perhaps what was most shocking and disappointing was that my white persona seemed to receive messages of greater length and higher quality. I have changed user names to protect the privacy of those who may still be active online, but the handles are typical.
From my black profile: Hans As Black Hadiya, I also received some racially toned messages: I see the black…I see the brown…not so much the white though? There were messages in both streams from men who expressed interest and who had taken the time to read my profile.
But the messages White Hadiya received were from users I would be more likely to go out with. That is the single greatest profile in the history of okcupid! Im going to print it out and put it up on my fridge you adorable little nerd you! Haha im just teasing. You caught my eye though… im a retired pro hockey player finally back in Canada full time. Looking to meet new people and preferably the type that are not hoping to get cast on the next season of hockey wives on tv.
There is lots more to know about me but that requires an investment of time and effort on your part to find out! Id like to take you out for drinks. You know there is a lot of pressure in a first message….
Anyway, in the crazy world of online dating I find random questions with no real point are the best way to get the ball rolling, hope you are a fan…. They were smart, they were engaged, they were cute. In order to find the kind of guy I wanted—to be seen by him—it seemed that the ultimate message was: I needed to be white.
I admitted to myself that there were non-racial differences that could have contributed to the message rate.