Matt Burrows, July 18, 2021, Newshub
Meet Jared*. He’s in his late 30s, plays sport, has a secure job and great friends, and lives in a pleasant flat north of Wellington.
For Kiwi women on the lookout for an eligible bachelor, he ticks a lot of boxes.
But since moving to New Zealand in his early 20s he’s not had much success on the dating scene, and he thinks he knows why – because he’s Fijian-Indian.
“On dating apps, a lot of girls write ‘no black guys, no Asians, no Indians’ – that kind of thing,” Jared explains.
“Going speed dating, there’s like nine or 10 girls… so many times you feel like you’ve made a connection, but when you come home you [find out it’s] a no.
“They just don’t want to know you when you approach them at bars and clubs… they cut you off, find an excuse, start playing with their phones, all different things.”
Jared says these experiences have dented his confidence and caused him mental and emotional trauma.
But it’s not just him who’s grown disheartened by perceived discrimination by potential romantic partners. He says many of his mates – fellow migrants from the likes of Vietnam, China and Fiji – have faced similar struggles.
“It’s our complexion, our ethnicity… The dating scene is not particularly pleasant. One has to be in our shoes to realise what we’re going through,” he said.
“Life is lonely. I try and keep myself busy, but even then there’s that emptiness, there’s something missing. I come home from work and there’s no one to talk to, you know? No romance, no nothing.
“I never thought New Zealand was going to be like this when I first came over, but that’s how it is for us.”
Unlucky in love
There is plenty of research into sexual racism – discrimination in sexual or romantic contexts – that shows these men aren’t alone.
For ethnic minority men in western countries, it usually manifests itself in feeling undesirable – and Asian men are among the worst-affected. Studies suggest this racial group is significantly more likely than others to be single and to be excluded by non-Asian women.
Yue Qian, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, told The Conversation this comes down to racial stereotypes of Asian men gleaned from unfavourable depictions in the media and historical portrayals of Asians as inferior to westerners.
“Asian women are stereotyped as exotic and gender-traditional. They are therefore ‘desirable’ as potential mates. But stereotypes of Asian men as unmasculine, geeky and ‘undesirable’ abound,” she said.
And other races are affected too. A survey carried out in Australia in 2011 found gay and bisexual men were “remarkably tolerant of sexual racism”, while black people in the US were found to be 10 times more likely to message whites than the other way round.
Qian says many people believe excluding someone based on race during the dating process isn’t inherently racist, and instead attribute their choices on potential romantic or sexual partners to ‘personal preferences’, ‘attraction’ or ‘chemistry’.
But University of Auckland Sociology Professor Dr David Tokiharu Mayeda says the ‘personal preference’ argument is actually just another way to uphold racial stereotypes.
“As human beings, we want social relationships and it’s natural to want to be desired,” he told Newshub. “When you see these patterns of you not being desired ascribed to your racial background, then it makes that sense of self-worth go down.”
Dr Mayeda has done plenty of research into New Zealand’s racism problem. He says one of his key learnings has been around just how much damage it does to victims.
“When people are racialised, when they’re experiencing these different forms of racism, it really affects their personal identity, it affects their sense of self-worth,” he explains.
“Some people are quite resilient to it and they’re able to kind of push back and it makes them stronger and want to fight against those stereotypes. But it gets exhausting… it can break them down.
“And a lot of times it contributes to what we call internalised racism, when people start to believe these racial stereotypes about themselves and their own ethnic communities.”
Steph Tan, a Kiwi academic at Yale University who organised the #StopAsianHate protest in Auckland earlier this year, says it’s common for ethnic minorities to face struggles in the dating realm.
“A lot of that is down to our societal norm of ostracising people of colour, and not accepting them based on their appearance, unfortunately,” she said.
“There are also cultural differences. Sometimes people want to stick with our simple social groups, and that means people who share the ‘Kiwi white people’ culture… There is this lack of familiarity culture-wise and lack of desire for people to explore outside of their bubble.
“And then we just have blatant, explicit racism – and that is a lot more prevalent in New Zealand than people realise.”
Are dating apps making things worse?
Data suggests sexual racism has become even worse in the digital era.
Dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, OkCupid and Grindr allow users to swipe left or right based largely on appearance – and they haven’t exactly tried to put a lid on race-based discrimination.
Since then, some got rid of them but many kept them anyway despite the pushback. Match Group, which owns dating platforms Tinder, Match.com, OkCupid, Hinge and PlentyOfFish, did not respond to Newshub’s questions on why it had retained its ethnicity filter.
But even without the user being able to filter potential partners by ethnicity, dating apps still reinforce racial biases.
This is demonstrated by MonsterMatch, a game about how app algorithms use a technique called collaborative filtering to decide who you may or may not be into.
“Collaborative filtering in dating means that the earliest and most numerous users of the app have outsize influence on the profiles later users see,” the game website explains.
“Some early user says she likes some other active dating app user. Then that same early user says she doesn’t like a Jewish user’s profile, for whatever reason.
“As soon as some new person also swipes right on that active dating app user, the algorithm assumes the new person ‘also’ dislikes the Jewish user’s profile, by the definition of collaborative filtering. So the new person never sees the Jewish profile.”
Again, Asian men are among the worst-affected as a result – a 2013 US study finding this group receives the fewest unsolicited messages from women.
The racism isn’t always subtle, however. Jared says he and his friends of colour often see profiles from other app users specifically asking black people, Asians and Indians not to make advances.
“Fat guys, short guys and dark guys please head left,” reads one Bumble profile Jared provided a screenshot of. Another user said they were looking for a “tall, white and handsome man”.
Tan said such messages are “blatantly discriminatory”.
“It’s straight-up racism and it’s really horrendous. I really hope to see less of that and that it can encourage some conversations about why that intolerance exists in the first place.”
Dr Mayeda says the fact some apps are removing their ethnicity filters is a “step in the right direction”, but warns racial preferences will continue being a factor.
“People will [still] make these kinds of assumptions about their potential dating partners based on skin tone,” he said.
“There needs to be a deeper conversation amongst the general population about the question of how racism materialises across different kinds of settings, including dating apps and the dating market in general.”
How minority women are impacted
While many ethnic minority men struggle with feeling undesirable, their female counterparts sometimes face the opposite problem – but for dubious reasons.
Asian women are often victims of fetishisation, a phenomenon by which men prefer them to other races owing to the stereotypical belief they’re ‘submissive’ or ‘exotic’.
Tan says it’s something she’s experienced first-hand.
“There’s this derogatory term for men who pick out specifically Asian women: ‘yellow fever’… saying it almost as if it’s a disease to like Asian women,” she said.
“‘Yellow fever’ is derogatory in that it’s not the sense that people are accepting of Asian women. It’s the feeling you get if the guy likes you out of that yellow fever category, it feels like it’s because they watched ‘Asians’ or the label ‘Oriental’ in some porn category.”
She says porn categories based on race only dehumanise and objectify women of colour further.
“It feels like [men] watch something like that and then they’re only looking at you or asking you out because of that, and not actually trying to get to know who you are as a person,” Tan explained.
“Other minority women will be able to speak better on their experiences, but I think a lot of Asian women do experience this.”
Dr Mayeda says even though it may superficially make them more desirable to men, fetishisation devalues Asian women.
“At a very kind of superficial, unreflective level, somebody might say, ‘well, I prefer them, isn’t that a good thing?’
“Not if it’s upholding those racial stereotypes where they’re saying we prefer you because we see you as passive or demure or exotic – that we would want to maybe date you temporarily, but you’re not good enough to take home [or] be permanent.
“That’s something that’s really going to objectify somebody; it dehumanises them and it’s not going to make them feel wanted, especially not on a long-term level. It very much erodes their sense of self-worth.”
The fetishisation of Asian women harks back to the 1950s, when US military men would visit sex workers in Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand, Mayeda explains. He says these women were seen as exotic and also as expendable, because the relationships were so temporary.
“Those types of racialised, gendered stereotypes, unfortunately, have just carried on for decades – even now in casual relationships.
“In places like Aotearoa New Zealand, we see too many young Asian women exotified, commodified, rendered expendable. When we realise how insidious that discrimination is… maybe then we can talk about [these attitudes] actually going away.”
Tan says it’s not just fetishisation Asian women deal with on the dating scene, but also feeling like an outsider.
“If I’m dating a white person, it’s made such a big deal that I’m Asian and not necessarily in a positive way,” she said.
“When people would describe their partners, they’d say, ‘they’re smart, they’re intelligent, they’re funny and charming and lovely’. But then the first descriptor that people might come to mind for me if I was someone’s girlfriend would be ‘Asian’.
“Not even my name or any aspect of my personality is described. And that can just feel very ostracising and unfair and like that people just can’t see you past your skin colour.”
What’s the solution?
So with fetishisation, ethnicity filters and racist stereotypes at play, how does society improve and rid itself of sexual racism for good?
Tan says the key to challenging racist behaviours is to be “really honest with yourself”.
“It takes people questioning: ‘Why do I see this person as less attractive than a white person? Do I actually feel that way inside? Or is that just all the racism in my environment that shaped me?’
“And then it takes having those honest conversations with other people. It takes people asking their friends of colour, ‘hey, do you experience the struggle? Would you be open to talking about this? And maybe have I ever done something to make you feel a certain way?’
“So having those honest conversations with oneself, with one’s friends and then educating themselves online, looking up resources and exploring the whole idea of what it’s like for those of colour in the dating scene.”
Dr Mayeda says there are already signs New Zealand is getting better.
“Especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter, people across different racial and ethnic and class backgrounds are having tougher conversations around race and racism. I think that’s a good thing. We’re more open to talking about a lot of this…
“In the wake of the #MeToo movement, more men are talking about sexism. That’s a good thing because we can confront our own kind of problematic patterns – and it’s the same thing with this.”
He says the next issue to tackle in the fight against sexual racism is beauty standards upheld by media.
“If you look at billboards and the covers of magazines and who the movie and television stars are, they’re dominated by these kind of Euro-centric notions of beauty,” he said.
“As long as there’s these racialised portrayals of people of colour, then when you have people growing up who don’t have exposure through their friends and schools and families to ethnic diversity, they rely on the media for what’s normal.
“Until that changes, we’re going to continue to see this kind of interpersonal discrimination happen that is reliant on racist and sexist stereotypes.”
Jared says it’s a “tough question with a simple answer”. But he urges people to check their thinking.
“Give us a chance – don’t judge a book by its cover.”