Last month, in the thick of the September Scramble—that anxiety-ridden part of the year when singles desperately seek a winter boo to hunker down with—the makers of the dating app Bae took their product on a tour.
Bae, which stands for Before Anyone Else, is aimed at black singles, and so the tour hit the campuses of historically black colleges like Morehouse and Spelman. “With what’s been going on with black folks in the country right now,” said the app’s 26-year-old CEO Brian Gerrard, referring to what he sees as black Americans being portrayed poorly in the media, his cohort needs a safe space to find dates.
Bae isn't the only dating app for black singles, but with over 100,000 downloads since April, according to Gerrard, it may be the biggest. A competitor, Meld, intended for more serious-minded black professionals, doesn’t disclose its user base, but says it has matched 3,000 couples since its debut last year and recently produced its first engaged couple. There’s also Soul Swipe and The League, two more black dating apps, for those of you interested in variety.
But despite these new options—and years of data that shows racial prejudice is alive and well on mainstream dating networks—none has gained enough traction to threaten robbing Tinder of users. Why self-select by race, anyway? There are apps for Jews and Christians, for older folks and divorced folks, for people who believe in ghosts and people who make $200,000 a year. Black people can join any number of these.
Do black singles really need our own dating app? And will Bae be the one? I decided to take a tour of my own to find out.
I’m not a dating app gal. I work a room, not a screen, and tbh I don’t photograph particularly well. Also, I’m not technically single. But for the purposes of this piece, I downloaded Bae and Meld, and also Tinder—as, like, a control.
First stop: Bae. Gerrard, the CEO, said part of its inspiration was the lamenting of an attractive young professional friend. “He’d gotten like five matches on Tinder,” Gerrard said. “It didn’t make any sense.”
Gerrard’s friend isn’t alone. According to an experiment by Anne Helen Petersen at Buzzfeed last year, the “more” black a user registers as, the less likely he or she will get a right swipe. Signifiers of education and wealth help, Petersen found, but users of color still appear to be at a disadvantage.
Another major mainstream network, OkCupid, has found clear evidence of racial prejudice. OkCupid has been tracking race since 2009 and has found that people gravitate “toward people who look like themselves.” In fact, the site found that racial bias went up between 2009 and 2014. The site also found that "82 percent of non-black men on OkCupid showed some bias against black women." That’s high.
OkCupid’s user base is a representative sample of the general internet-using population, according to the company, so its numbers urges us to think about how ingrained our romantic and sexual preferences are, and in what kind of spaces we feel most comfortable exposing ourselves. Racial preference and discrimination aren’t unique in America. Their affect, segregation, is felt in everyday life: in schools, jobs, and neighborhoods.
“I want the dating apps I look at to be tailored not only for options but as a safe space,” says Judnick Maynard, 29, a freelance writer and nightlife queen. (She throws the best parties in New York.)
“As if other people aren’t racist enough,” she said.
But Mayard, admittedly, hadn’t used any of the available black dating apps. “It was summer,” she told me, and she was out meeting people in the flesh—maybe once the frost sets in she’d give it a whirl. Five other pals I spoke with hadn’t either. I asked a few of them to ask their friends. Their friends hadn’t tried them either, which suggests that the recent crop of black dating apps hasn't yet found traction among its demo.
“I’ve heard of all of them. I haven’t used any of them” said Tahir Jetter, a 28-year-old filmmaker in Brooklyn who just finished shooting a feature film called Occasionally Dating Black Women. Jetter, who is open to dating outside his race, said he found the concept limiting.
Besides, he said, do they really offer something different? “I love dating black women,” Jetter said. “What would prompt them to use [black dating apps] as opposed to OkCupid or something?”
The first time I scrolled through Bae, I was in Boston, and there wasn’t much to choose from. As in, there weren’t many people on it. Surprisingly, what few faces I did see were white. I went back to Bae a couple weeks later in New York City and was pleasantly surprised: black men! Cute ones, too. But even though the app is free, I was limited to 30 swipes and notified I had to wait eight more hours to recommence swiping. (Gerrard, who tells me Bae has a special algorithm for matching users, says the swipe limit is meant to “create quality matches, not quantity. This is actually about dating, not about matching.”)
Bae looks nice and is pretty easy to use. And I thought the men on Bae looked nice too, for the most part. I was pretty selective but still managed to match with four guys, two of them who messaged me. And they weren't creepy suggestive messages, but chill ass 'what's up's and 'hello's.
Meld was a little different. I could only look at 10 profiles before I was prompted to pay for more.
Over the course of a week on Meld, I received messages that men were interested in me, but when I tried to check them out, their faces were blurred—I had to pay if I wanted to know who was into me. The app felt difficult to traverse, like I was dodging a paywall at every turn. Another problem with Meld: I couldn’t choose to look at the profiles of men and women—it was one or the other, hardly reasonable for any woman with fluid sexual preferences in 2015.
“We wanted to put a paywall up because we wanted serious-minded daters,” Wale Ayeni, the founder, said. “With Tinder and Hinge, you can come back after two weeks or forget about it. We’re targeting a segment of market that is more focused on serious dating.”
And then there was Tinder. I spent my days on Tinder idly swiping mostly to the left, naying 90 percent of those who entered my screen. When I felt like I was being too harsh, to the right I went. (Maybe, like me, they’re better IRL).
I swiped right for about as many black dudes as I did white ones—maybe a few more white ones, if I’m being honest. Over the course of 7 days I got about 60 matches, and only a handful of them were men of color. I reached out to Tinder to find out if they keep track of the race and racial preferences of users, but didn’t hear back by the time of publication.
It’s important to note here that I’m a fair-skinned black woman, and Petersen’s Buzzfeed experiment suggested that light-skinned or racially ambiguous black women are in fact quite swipeable. Light-skinned black women carry different racial baggage than dark-skinned women. Since slavery, the desirability of light-skinned black women was attached to their having “white blood,” both symbols of beauty and status. Clearly, America has not grown out of its prejudice.
So, prohibitive costs stopped me from using Meld. Bae had a weak selection and a frustrating swipe limit. And defying all logic, mostly white dudes liked me on Tinder. But through it all, I realized, yes, there is a point in having dating apps for the single black American. Certainly. Because, options. More importantly, as Gerrard alluded to, it’s as much a necessity as it is an act of empowerment. Whiteness in America is something to be coveted and desired; black dating apps are creating agency for black singles.
As a teen, whenever I’d kick my mom out of my room she’d say with a grin, “I’ve been kicked out of better places than this.” Bae and Meld might have some kinks to work out, but I felt comfortable on them. Much more so than I did on Tinder, where I was always wondering if the white men who picked me were doing so because they found me exotic. Eternity Martis, writing for Vice, found that men on Tinder expected her to be oversexed, a jezebel (a popular and ingrained racist trope about black women’s sexuality.) One of Martis’ Tinder matches actually messaged her: “I love black women. They are fire in bed.”
Still, the people I talked to won’t be glued to their screens looking for a date this fall.
“Making that movie about how black men and women relate on a heteronormative level makes me wish that we had more spaces that people could meet and talk without a whole lot of pretension,” Jetter, the filmmaker, said. He said he'd prefer quieter bar gatherings where a connection between two people can be made through actual human discussion. Lucille Songhai, who lives in New York and considers herself a black professional, agreed. “More offline gatherings need to be happening. Just because there exists a dating site or app, there needs to be corresponding regular activities where people are meeting offline.”
Like them, I think I’d rather just meet IRL. Then: Netflix and chill.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.