Op-ed: The Far-Reaching Consequences of Dating App Racism
Despite claiming that he disclosed his HIV-positive status to all six of his accusers, black gay college wrestler Michael Johnson, more widely known as Tiger Mandingo, faces 30 years in prison for "recklessly infecting" a white male partner with HIV after meeting him on a gay dating app.
Since following the case, I’ve felt a great sadness. It is a sadness that’s rooted in the fact that this case is not about a villainous man with criminal intent, but more about a perhaps naive black gay man who lives in a world full of ignorance around HIV, sexual health, racism, and homophobia. Furthermore, this case shows us that racism among LGBT people, particularly when using gay dating apps, is not just a matter of preference but has real implications in a country where black folks are still chanting #BlackLivesMatter.
That racism exists among users of gay dating apps is undeniable. Early on, my perusal of apps like Grindr returned messages like "not into Blacks or Asians," promptly reminding me that this app would be another forum for racist hostility. Because of that, along with the fact that Grindr was predominantly populated by white men, I decided to turn to other apps, like Jackd.
Jackd features more men of color than Grindr and therefore more dating prospects for a man like me. My experience isn’t unique but rather part of a larger trend. Studies from dating sites like OkCupid reveal that white men are the least likely to respond to messages from other races, despite being the most likely to get a response from members outside their own race.
This is just one aspect of the racism black gay men experience on these sites. While we are denigrated or seen as romantically undesirable, we continue to be objectified sexually — largely because of the myth of the "big black cock." Rooted in the idea of the black male as a hypersexual aggressor, this myth lies at the root of antiblack violence and murder since America’s conception. As a result, black gay men are simultaneously feared, ignored, and desired.
However, the chief problem surrounding the discussion about racial dating bias is that it gets reduced to "personal preference." Many of the white men on these apps will often try to excuse their racism by stating "it’s just a preference."
But what Michael Johnson’s conviction shows us is that racially biased dating preferences are buttressed by a system of institutional racism that begets more tangible harm. As Steven Thrasher uncovers in his BuzzFeed investigation, Johnson was accused by a white partner who reportedly wanted to have sex with him because he was "well-endowed," "huge," and "only his third black guy."
Tiger Mandingo’s screen name itself alludes to a historically inaccurate notion of strong black slaves who were sent to fight each other for their masters, which has since become a colloquialism about the hypersexual black man.
The words of Johnson's accuser indicate that the man desired him largely because of the accuser's investment in the myths about black men. But this is the same accuser who, upon finding out that he might have contracted HIV, quickly turned to the (racist) criminal justice system to assuage his resentment toward Johnson. In essence, what many white men attempt to easily dismiss as a "preference" quickly became a vehicle for the criminalization and incarceration of another black man.
What frightens me most about this case is that Johnson’s accuser was able to use the prison system to effectively retaliate, despite having sex with Johnson again, even after believing he had contracted HIV from Johnson. His accuser took advantage of a system that disproportionately criminalizes and convicts HIV-positive people of color. A recent study by the organization ProPublica looked at more than 500 records of people convicted on HIV-related charges. Of the 322 records where race was recorded, roughly two-thirds of defendants were identified as black or African-American. This follows a general trend of HIV criminalization across the country, with studies in both Michigan and Tennessee concluding that black Americans are more likely to be convicted on HIV-related charges than are white people.
It appears that Johnson’s accuser made the swift cognitive switch between two prominent stereotypes of black men in this country — from hypersexual aggressor to deviant criminal. If Johnson did in fact infect this particular partner with HIV, it is curious that he was assumed to have done so with malice, rather than perhaps making an irresponsible sexual decision, which many of us in this country are guilty of doing. The presumed malice of Johnson or almost any black man is a foregone conclusion in this country. A recent study from the American Psychological Association indicated that young black men are less likely to be presumed innocent by white jurors. Had Johnson been white, I wager that his accusers would have been less likely to assume that he intended to do them direct harm in this consensual sexual encounter.
It boils down to this uncomfortable truth: If Michael Johnson were not black, he would have been less likely to have been accused in the first place and less likely to be convicted.
So in a world where perceptions can affect whether a black man will end up in prison, we should be skeptical of claims that white gay America's perception of people of color on hookup apps is really just a matter of "preference."
Obviously, those who claim such a "preference" on a gay app cannot be equated with violent, willful racists, nor with a discriminatory justice system. But racism is a system that magnifies and intensifies the petty prejudices held within the hearts and minds of many Americans. We may have moved past the days of separate water fountains, but we still live in a country where "no Blacks, no Asians" is an acceptable stipulation to one's carnal pursuits. Meanwhile, the continued fetishization of black men's bodies has resulted in one more black body behind bars.