Gay men increasingly defend their sexual racism as “preference,” but it’s no different than outright discrimination.

“I’m not racist. It’s just a preference.”

Unfortunately, this is one of the most common refrains on gay dating apps. From Grindr to Scruff, some users defend internalized ideas of racial desirability as a simple matter of choice, and innocently balk at the suggestion that it betrays a deeper, unexamined racism. Research shows, however, that these “preferences” come from the same place as general racism, and are informed by the biases our culture reifies regarding minorities. In a community that aims to celebrate difference, it’s important to understand this phenomenon, discuss how it can be fixed, and know what to do if you’re the target of it.

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What Causes This Behavior?

Photo via Douchebags of Grindr

In the past, those of us in the gay community might have patronized local bars and mutually acknowledged cruising zones when looking for sex, romance, or friendship. Some may even have even turned to the classified sections of publications like the Advocate. But while these old school gay spaces were certainly not exempt to the strains of racism, dating and hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff have drastically changed how gay men seek out and find intimacy — and in turn, vocalize their preferences.

While these apps have created an important new space for many users to celebrate and explore their sexuality, they also allow for unprecedented, sometimes malicious exclusion masquerading as personal preference. Filters on Grindr and Scruff that sort by race, age, height, and body type can organize sexual choices to reflect the internal biases of users, giving the illusion of a gay community that isn’t representative of its actual diversity. And while other users may not use filters to sort out people of color, they’ll treat users from minority communities as unwelcome and create profiles that explicitly say people of certain races shouldn’t contact, broadcasting discriminatory catch phrases like “no fats, no femmes, no Asians,” etc.

Experts say this in part due to the “disinhibition effect,” a phenomenon that encourages otherwise unacceptable social behavior (i.e., outright racism) because of the physical separation smartphones provide. Without having to engage face-to-face, some people indulge inappropriate urges and voice otherwise unacceptable opinions, simply because they’re not forced to deal with the in-person aftermath of their actions. It would be considered outrageously rude, hateful, and discriminatory to walk up to a minority group and say, “I find you unattractive and don’t wish to see or interact with you romantically or sexually.” But on apps, that kind of behavior has become commonplace, and been rebranded as a simple expression of sexual preference.

“It’s just a preference”

Photo via Douchebags of Grindr

While some users with racially exclusive disclaimers in their profiles are likely aware that what they’re doing is discriminatory (and simply don’t care), others seem to believe that broadcasting these sexual preferences has nothing to do with deeper biases. But research says otherwise. Studies have shown that among gay men, those who are tolerant of sexual racism — defined as the sexual rejection of a racial minority — exhibit tolerance of general racism, which challenges the idea of racial attraction as solely a matter of personal preference. In other words, sexual racism and general racism come from the same place. Fed by the same biases and stereotypes as outright discrimination, sexual racism doesn’t deserve qualification as a misunderstood preference.

“Sexual racism is a form of racism because, quite simply, it is the use of racial stereotypes to include or exclude groups of people,” the study’s author Denton Callander told VICE. He said he’s caught a lot of heat for this theory because people view it as an “attack” on their sexual freedom.

“The reality is that our desires—like all of our thoughts and behaviours—are as susceptible to broader social and political trends. At the end of the day, we live in a world rife with racial inequality, so it is not at all surprising that racism should permeate our desires as well.”

The experience of seeing words like “No Asians” or “No hispanics” in a space meant to celebrate and connect the queer community can be exclusionary and dehumanizing, leading to users of color feeling less valued within the LGBTQ community and having fewer romantic and sexual prospects. This isn’t just a matter of moral opinion — statistics back it up. For every 100 messages sent on these apps, white men receive approximately 45 responses; black men get about 36. This may be because white users deliberately filter out minorities, or because users choose not to respond or reach out because of skin color.

Read More: A Therapist’s Guide to Better Care for Queer Patients of Color

Fetishisation and Exoticism

Photo via Douchebags of Grindr

On the other end of the discrimination spectrum is fetishisation, or sexual interest in someone exclusively because of their skin color. Researchers classify these fetishes as another pernicious form of sexual racism, one that reifies racial hierarchies under the cover of — once again — personal preference. Expressing sexual interest in a person because you consider their race to be “exotic” is just as othering as denying interest because of race in the first place. To value someone simply because they belong to a minority community to which you ascribe certain sexual qualities isn’t to value that person at all. On the contrary, it’s demeaning.

Read More: A Therapist’s Guide to Working With Patients Who Are Not Out

What We Can Do About It

Photo via Douchebags of Grindr

It’s disappointing that, after coming to terms with our sexuality in the face of an intolerant and homophobic culture, gay men must deal with race-based discrimination from each other. As a community comprised of individuals who’ve likely experienced the trauma that microaggressions or outright discrimination can inflict, we need to celebrate and affirm our differences — not alienate each other because of them.

If you find yourself consistently avoiding or filtering out users of certain races, it’s time to honestly examine your own internalized biases. Don’t let the disinhibition effect fool you — what you consider a simple “preference” may be a manifestation of something deeper. Whenever you find yourself ignoring someone on apps, ask yourself: Is this person, as an individual, not my type? Or am I allowing culturally reified stereotypes to cloud my judgment?

This doesn’t mean you need to put yourself in sexual situations that aren’t for you. It just means that you should consider the possibility that your desires are connected to ingrained biases that are worth examining. It’s important to remember that we all have these biases based on our upbringing and socialization process. Usually, they’re deeply held and unconscious, and they affect our daily decisions without us realizing it — decisions like who we want to date or hook up with. It’s our responsibility as adults to understand our biases and challenge them; that way, we won’t discriminate against others and unknowingly propagate the unjust system we were born into.

If you experience racism or harassment on dating apps, you can and should take advantage of in-app reporting options that bring discriminatory profiles to admins’ attention. If you have the time, consider writing to Grindr or Scruff urging them to remove racial filters. It’s also important to check in with yourself about how app usage is impacting your mental health. For some users, that could mean placing limits on the time you spend on each app. For others, that could mean finding a safe space to process microaggressions and rejection, whether on your own, with friends, or with a mental health professional. Whatever you decide, just make sure you’re taking care of yourself.

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