Identity

We Speak to Asians About How Racism Affects Their Love Lives

Is it just a preference or is it considered racism if you aren’t interested in dating a certain race?
May 24, 2021, 6:42am
Sexual racism affects Asians in the dating scene through rejection and fetishization.
Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of Emery Thanathiti, L Sharvesh, and the Crazy Biatch Asians Podcast

“No Indians, no Banglas, not racist just a preference.”

This is a common profile description on dating apps, according to L Sharvesh, a 24-year-old Tamil student in Singapore.

“It is very common to see profiles stating… ‘I don’t like Indians’,” he told VICE, adding that he often finds these “preferences” on many profiles of Chinese men and a few Malay men.

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Since coming out as queer when he was 16, L has experienced sexual racism, a term that refers to a race-based hierarchy of sexual desirability, and the consequent actions of people who subscribe to it. L is not alone. The past year saw increased activism around long-standing racial discrimination, but sexual racism remains very much alive. For Asians living around the world, colorism and negative stereotypes about certain Asian countries continue to influence how, and who, people date. 

L Sharvesh, a Tamil student in Singapore, talks about racial discrimination of Indians.

L Sharvesh, a Tamil student in Singapore and co-founder of Minority Voices. Photo: Courtesy of L Sharvesh

L is the co-founder of Minority Voices, an online initiative that spotlights the discrimination faced by the marginalized in Singapore. Color-based standards of beauty remain prevalent in the Southeast Asian city-state, where lighter skin is generally preferred.  

“Colorism plays a huge part when it comes to finding partners,” L said. “This does not only happen between Chinese and ethnic minority folk but also within ethnic minority groups. I’ve heard many Indian men who say they are only into fair-skinned Indians or North Indians because of their skin tone.”

“Colorism plays a huge part when it comes to finding partners.”

Racial discrimination is disturbingly common in the queer dating scene. This has been documented in studies of gay communities around the world, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and Singapore. On gay dating apps, entire races are casually excluded with profiles that express an explicit disinterest in ethnic minorities.

But this is a problem across all genders, sexualities, and countries. Rates of interracial marriages have increased steadily over the past decades, but remain low. In the U.S., 17 percent of newlyweds in 2015 intermarried, a significant increase from three percent in 1967. In Singapore, 22 percent of marriages in 2017 were inter-ethnic, compared to six percent in 1984. 

“I dated a Chinese girl for a few months and we couldn’t hold hands in public because she was terrified of her parents seeing her with an Indian guy,” a 30-year-old Singaporean Indian writer who wishes to remain anonymous in the hopes of keeping his dating life private told VICE. 

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Ryan Wade, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Illinois, told VICE that sexual racism in the dating world manifests itself in various ways, including rejection or fetishization on the basis of race or ethnicity, as well as explicit denigration of a racial or ethnic group. This objectification doesn’t end in the casual dating phase. It seeps into serious relationships too, often in insidious ways.

“Once a partnership is formed, there may be additional racialized dynamics that are expressed or enacted within that partnership,” Wade added.

For Asian women like Emery Thanathiti, who live in communities where Asians are a minority, sexual racism is often rooted in blatant fetishization. She remembers how often she received caustic racial remarks as a Thai Chinese in Portland, hearing comments like “How much do you cost?” and “Oh, are you sure you’re not a guy?” 

Emery Thanathiti, a Thai Chinese in Portland, talks about Asian fetishization.

Emery Thanathiti, a Thai Chinese writer and filmmaker living in Portland. Photo: Courtesy of Emery Thanathiti

“Because I’m Thai, and they associate it with sex work and stuff like that,” she told VICE. “I’ve even literally had someone tell me after a hookup that I checked their yellow fever box,” she said. It was a rude awakening when she realized that most of the people she dated, even long-term partners, had an Asian fetish.

This pattern has created significant self-doubt in Thanathiti’s dating life.

“I constantly have this question in the back of my head, like do they have yellow fever? Are they just super fascinated with Asian culture, especially because they like anime?,” said Thanathiti. “Do they just see me as an anime girl?” 

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This is especially bothersome as fetishization can be tricky to identify, even for the women who are the subjects of such objectification. 

“I think sexual racism against Asian women can be quite confusing. Lots of comments can be misconstrued as compliments… and at times, I have fallen for these apparent ‘praises,’” said Sharon Jiang, an ethnic Chinese in Australia. 

“I think sexual racism against Asian women can be quite confusing. Lots of comments can be misconstrued as compliments.”

What lurks beneath these praises, however, is a hypersexualized “othering” of Asian women which pigeonholes them into fantasies of subservience.

Sometimes, Asians themselves play a role in driving this discrimination in dating.

“Perhaps less frequently discussed is how sexual racism can also manifest as sexual ‘self-prejudice’, where people of color internalize the notion that their skin color makes them less desirable, and/or where they are averse to dating other people of color,” Gene Lim, a doctoral candidate in sociology at La Trobe University in Australia, told VICE.

Jiang herself admits falling prey to this, as deeply ingrained concepts of racial hierarchy can produce a dimension of self-hatred among some Asians who associate having a white partner with social success.

“I think growing up in Australia, there was once a time when I believed that dating an Anglo person is more desirable than other races. My thinking was that it somehow represented the successful assimilation of myself, a new immigrant from China, into Australian culture,” Jiang said.

Juna Xu and Sharon Jiang, Australian Chinese and Korean co-hosts of the Crazy Biatch Asians podcast, talk about Asian fetishization.

Juna Xu (L) and Sharon Jiang (R), hosts of the Crazy Biatch Asians Podcast. Photo: Courtesy of the Crazy Biatch Asians Podcast

Jiang hosts the Crazy Biatch Asians Podcast, a show about Asians living in the West. Her co-host, Juna Xu, shares similar sentiments.

“I was convinced that if I entered a relationship with someone who wasn’t Asian and who looked like the typical poster boy, then it would help me conform to Western standards and assist in concealing my Asian heritage,” Xu said.

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Lim pointed to representation in mainstream and pornographic media as important drivers of sexual racism.

“We know that people tend to form sexual attraction to what is familiar and known,” said Lim, adding that the informal racial segregation in work and leisure life makes sexual racism “almost inevitable.”

But Lim also noted that the natural formation of these racial stereotypes doesn’t mean it’s fair to generalize entire ethnicities with common ideas of sex and romance.

“In interacting with people as if they’re stock characters, we end up reducing flesh-and-blood people into caricatures that we decide are ‘fuckable’ or ‘un-fuckable.’ It’s dehumanizing and reductive,” Lim said.

“In interacting with people as if they’re stock characters, we end up reducing flesh-and-blood people into caricatures that we decide are ‘fuckable’ or ‘un-fuckable,’ it’s dehumanizing and reductive.”

Still, some people justify their bias for or against certain races as a personal inclination and nothing else—like those not-racist-just-a-preference online dating profiles that L, the co-founder of Minority Voices, sees. 

“People love using the term preference or saying that there is a cultural difference but I have to disagree,” L said. “There is a reason why folks say they are not into [a certain] ethnicity. It’s because of the negative stereotypes about that race and the prejudices held by these people who believe in those stereotypes.”

Perhaps what many people don’t realize is that racial preferences in dating may be considered a product of institutionalized ideas about desirability. 

“The most fascinating part of this topic is the general disconnect between how one views race as a public issue and how race operates in our private lives. Someone who’s progressive about police brutality and racial discrimination may still have racial preferences in dating,” said Ken-Hou Lin, co-author of the book The Dating Divide: Race and Desire in the Era of Online Romance. “This is because we tend not to think that our personal decision is also political and it is easier to identify racial injustice in the society than looking inward.”

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Last year, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and around the world, several dating apps, including Grindr, pledged to remove ethnicity filters from their platforms. However, the online dating scene remains a hotbed of racial discrimination.

Tinder and Bumble don’t have sections that indicate a user’s ethnicity, and the dating apps told VICE through email that they don’t collect racial data. However, users may still include their race and racial preferences in their bio. Grindr and OkCupid—two apps with ethnicity sections on user profiles—did not respond to email inquiries. 

While long-standing structures of racism may have pervaded mainstream ideas of romance and sexual desire, Lim, the sociology academic, thinks that individuals can still play a part in shifting these conventional narratives.

“We don’t choose what messages we internalize,” Lim, the sociology academic, said. “But we can choose to be better people by examining our racist biases and actively challenging them, and not allowing them to influence our treatment of other human beings as sexual racial caricatures or cardboard cutouts.”

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