On being brown: Why “personal preference” in dating is problematic
By Hoe I Yune, Jul 13, 2020
In the midst of the international Black Lives Matter movement resurgence, we scrutinise the state of racial equality in multiracial Singapore.
In part 2 of our “Black Lives Matter in Singapore: Is our allyship performative?” series, we inspect why it can be problematic if we are uncomfortable dating outside of our own race.
A 23-year-old university student, Veena co-founded @/minorityvoices on Instagram with her fellow Singaporean friend Sharvesh. Dedicated to uplifting the marginalised, Minority Voices has attracted more than 6,000 followers since it was formed in May 2020. On it, Singaporean minorities share everyday racist encounters – from being told that they’re pretty for their ethnicity to how they have been asked on dating apps if they smelled like Indians.
We speak with Veena and explore how explicitly expressing disinterest in an entire ethnic group can perpetuate racial prejudice.
When I was 14, I developed an interest in boys and in hindsight, I possessed a sense of internalised racism. If I had a crush on an Indian guy, I suppressed my feelings. I was afraid that if I dated another Indian, I would continue to be looked down upon.
Back in school, it was common for two brown people to hear “jokes” such as “If both of you are in a room with the lights off, how do you see each other?” I thought dating a Chinese person would be a chance to get away from the hurtful jabs and to be seen as equal to my fairer skin peers.
I thought that to have a Chinese boyfriend would be the ultimate form of validation, beyond having Chinese friends, and being accepted by the Chinese crowd.
Eventually I met my first boyfriend who was quite popular in school. For the first time, I didn’t shy away from liking him because he was Singaporean Chinese. He made remarks like “I don’t normally go for Indian girls. You’re lucky I went for you”, but it was always said in jest and in a tone that seems to suggest flattery. In reality, it made me feel small.
He would criticise my appearance, finding fault in my curly hair and asking me to straighten it so that I look “less Indian”.
Eventually, I got my hair rebonded. I applied sunscreen thrice a day because he would say that I was “black enough” and should avoid the sun.
I felt incredibly conflicted because here was someone telling me that he loved me yet he didn’t accept me as I am. I convinced myself to stay in the relationship on the account that he said he loved me and told myself that he meant well. His friends would also make fun of the fact that he was dating an Indian. I made excuses for him and tried my best to fit in.
After two years of dating, I saw the relationship for what it was — toxic. The catalyst was when a friend pointed out how unhappy I was. “Yes, he loves you but what is the point of it if he is making you change all these things about yourself and it is only bringing you sadness?” It made me realise how flawed my thinking was. I thought I could gain public validation just by dating a Chinese but reality proved otherwise.
I know that his behaviour and that of his friends does not speak for all Singaporean Chinese but their words and definition of beauty were examples I was ostracised because of my race.
Dating is one instance when people use the word “preference” and “racism” interchangeably — be it to disguise racism or because they don’t know that it’s racism.
The problem with this is that it neglects to acknowledge that insidious discrimination exists.
Sharvesh came out as gay at 16 and since, he has encountered racism on the dating app Grindr.
On dating profiles, it’s not unheard of for people to explicitly state which races they don’t wish to meet. It would usually be accompanied by the phrase “not racist, just a preference”, but when you outright state that you’re not attracted to an entire ethnic group, there’s a form of insidious bias there.
Sharvesh once matched with someone who asked if he “smelled like an Indian”. It’s the 21st century, why do people still think that it is okay to talk like this? Another Indian friend feels compelled to ask if the other person is okay with his race before carrying on a conversation every time he matches with someone new. He has gotten so used to being snubbed after his race is revealed. It is so sad that a person is apologising for something that is out of his control.
People are especially vocal about their personal preferences on dating apps because the design allows you to choose from a large pool of people. When you’re spoiled for choice, you become more selective, and this isn’t exclusive to online dating. A 2017 study* which polled 2,020 people found that when it comes to dating outside of our ethnic group, most Singaporeans prefer their children and grandchildren to date Chinese and Caucasians. The youngest respondents were in their 20s so it’s not a mentality solely belonging to older generations.
While it’s natural to have preferences when it comes to personal style, values and interests, when someone is inflexible about dating someone on the grounds of race, it begs the question of why.
It’s not saying that to prove that one is not racist, one must date a minority. The point is that when you close yourself off to an entire race and say you don’t think an entire race is attractive, then that’s racist.
Dating is such a personal experience that I think our preferences — be it to date people of a certain race, a certain height or a certain education background tend to reveal our personal biases. When someone expresses a lack of attraction towards one race, it tends to be a preference informed by stereotypes.
Sharvesh and I think that the trouble is almost all stereotypes surrounding brown people are negative. Because of this, people who are not part of our race will think of us negatively, and why would anyone want to be with someone perceived as negative?
To possess preference means possessing a greater desirability, which creates a power dynamic among the one choosing, the one chosen, and the one left behind. Personal choices are not shielded from the politics of discrimination. In fact, most discrimination stems from personal choice.
When someone has a racial preference, they’re doing three things: assuming that all people of a certain race are a certain way (not true), creating barriers of entry based on race alone, and going against equal opportunity.
While I don’t think I’ve personally felt that I wasn’t beautiful, Sharvesh and I have talked about how mainstream beauty in Singapore is skewed towards being Eurocentric or Chinese-centric because of who’s portrayed as beautiful in the media. It builds upon this idea that straight hair, petite bodies, and fair skin are attractive, and inadvertently devalues brown beauty.
When you’re not shown as beautiful and a singular definition of beauty is engrained in heads, why would anyone think that you are?
We are still learning ourselves and it took time before we grew comfortable in our own skin. Before my first breakup, I chose to date someone whom I thought would help me assimilate with the majority. For the same reason, Sharvesh learned to speak with a particular accent and refused to watch Bollywood movies or listen to Indian music. After facing rejection on dating apps just because of his race, he selectively entered a relationship with a white man. He thought that would be a way to be seen as socially respectable. Only after he was cheated on and his self-worth took a hit that he realised that validation couldn’t come from being with a race.
We had subscribed to the model minority myth in that we thought we had to distance ourselves from other Indians and other marginalised groups in order to increase our own chances of acceptance and success.
From our experience, many people know what Chinese cultures are like because most minorities will have at least one Chinese friend but when it’s the other way around, not much about minority culture gets discussed. We hope that with Minority Voices, we can bridge the gap between the hurt that marginalised individuals go through and help people understand that certain jokes and behaviours are not okay. Racism can hurt someone, whether or not it is intentional.
Growing up, my parents always told me to keep my head down and work hard. I am a Singaporean citizen, but my parents are originally from India. I was raised with the mindset that I am lucky to be here and because I wasn’t born locally, I don’t get to complain – at least life’s better than it would’ve been if my parents stayed in India. I was taught to be quiet and thankful.
But what is the point of staying quiet? Sharvesh and I want to do something to change local mindsets to be more inclusive and overcome ignorance.
We get that whether you’re in Singapore or elsewhere in the world, sameness breeds comfort and it often feels easier to surround ourselves with people who look and think the same. But to build a more inclusive society, it’s important to have conversations about how we can be better allies to one another.
When the Black Lives Matter resurgence began in June, we noticed people asking on social media why minorities in Singapore complain about racism when we clearly don’t have it as bad as in America. We think it’s important to understand that racism in Singapore and the Black Lives Matter movement are not mutually exclusive. The racism that we face on homeground might not be physically violent but it shouldn’t have to reach that stage before people listen and take action.
We are grateful that police brutality is not an issue in our country but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss how insidious racism can affect one’s mental health. What we have here is the opportunity to resolve problems before they fester and escalate.
As co-founders of Minority Voices, we try to look beyond our social circle when promoting diversity. Coming from different socio-economic backgrounds and having different skin tones, not all of us share the same monolithic identity or uniform struggle.
Having minorities in the spotlight is a gateway towards social acceptance. If you grow familiar with diversity, you’re not going to just attach a stereotype to an individual, and that can surely lead to social acceptance eventually.
It is a conscious decision to not only feature fair or dark skin Indians on Minority Voices. We also actively search for Malay representations and when featuring members of the LGBTQIA+ community, we make sure to include people of different gender and sexual orientations.
When it comes to representation, even within the minority community, you need fractions of the population represented. A lone Malay or Indian cannot be expected to represent all minorities every time because we would have different lived experiences.
As everyday Singaporeans, we want to do more so that marginalised individuals never feel like they don’t belong.
*The 2017 Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and Channel News Asia polled Singaporeans between ages 21 and 65.
Photo was provided by Veena and Sharvesh. Find out more about them and Minority Voices at @minorityvoices on Instagram and minorityvoices.net.
Part one of our “Black Lives Matter in Singapore: Is our allyship performative?” series can be read here. Check in on Wednesday (July 15) to read the third and final part on “Being a Chinese parent: Why I believe we shouldn't be colour-blind to race”
My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about normalising conversations about mental health, dating, and reading more widely on social issues.
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