Hand-in-hand with a white man: Dating and racial hierarchies in Singapore

To a young Tamil Singaporean woman like me, the concept of racism is nothing new or inconceivable. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until I started going out with my fiancé, who happens to be Caucasian, that I began to see a new side to racial discrimination in Singapore.

The surprised looks by strangers were one thing, but the harsh comments made to me by fellow Indians, especially men, implying that I had somehow betrayed Indian men as a collective, came as quite a shock to me. I have been trying to grapple with this response and believe it all boils down, as do most issues, to racism and sexism.

Now I always knew that Singaporeans have particular dating preferences, as do people all over the world. I was acutely aware of this growing up, when I was mocked by some of my peers for having dark skin and curly hair. I wanted to sink into the floor when my teacher in Secondary School declared that she, a Chinese woman, would never date an Indian man.

So you can imagine my genuine surprise when I flew to Europe for a university exchange programme and started to be on the receiving end of a fair amount of male attention. More importantly, while I personally believe that a woman’s worth shouldn’t be connected to the number of guys who fantasize about her at night, this sudden change in how I was perceived by others spoke volumes to me about racial preferences and standards of beauty in Singapore. The dark skin and curly hair that I was ridiculed for in Singapore were admired and complimented for the first time in my life.

I did wonder if I was being exoticised by some European guys, but the fact that I had to even question why anyone would find me attractive reflected a bruised self-esteem that growing up as an Indian girl in Singapore had dealt me.

Before I say that minority women, especially those with darker skin tones, are generally considered to be less desirable in Singapore, I must admit that I personally know many dark-skinned Indian girls who are dating Chinese, Malay, Eurasian or Caucasian guys here.

But the statistics suggest that I may quite possibly know all of them. 48.4% of inter-ethnic marriages that took place in Singapore in 2014 were between Chinese grooms and brides of the “Others”[1] ethnic group. Another 12.7% took place between Caucasian grooms and Chinese brides. Indian grooms and Chinese brides rounded up the top 5 ethnic group combinations at 5.2%[2].

I have also heard Chinese Singaporeans state unequivocally that they would never date Indians. Furthermore, conventionally Chinese or East Asian features are constantly lauded as the ideal standards of beauty in Singapore. Numerous advertisements and the recent Cosmopolitan Singapore controversy are testaments to this.

Perhaps this is why so many people do a double take when they see my fiancé and me out together. Would seeing a Caucasian man and a Chinese woman together elicit the same reaction?

Strangely, the most disapproving looks I have received are from fellow Indians. Some of my male Indian friends have remarked to me that my decision to date a Caucasian man, presumably before other Indian men, speaks to a broader pre-occupation with the white male ideal. These friends have even implied that it is insincere of me to be critical of heterosexual white male privilege and date a white man at the same time.

This begs the question: why is dating within one’s own ethnicity and socio-economic class considered the norm? Moreover, why does it appear incongruous when a white man and an ethnic minority woman are seen together? What sorts of power structures and hierarchies does this pairing upset?

The answer is not as simple as saying that people prefer to stick to their own ethnic groups, where they can find partners with whom they have a greater cultural affinity. Even evolutionary biology would disagree with this explanation, as interracial relationships are biologically advantageous.

Instead, I believe this is the result of what Elizabeth Spelman called “the ampersand problem.” I am caught within a blend of both patriarchal AND racist structures when I am criticized for my choice in partner.

Here is why: If race was brought out of the equation and I dated an Indian man, it would be considered “appropriate.” However, when I go out with a white man, I am accused of disingenuity and betraying other Indian men who I should have dated instead.

If it was not race, but gender that was the issue and I was an Indian man with a white woman, would I be criticized of the same? My guess is that I would be getting a few congratulatory thumps on the back instead.

When Indian women, who are generally considered to be less desirable in Singapore for aforementioned reasons, date white men, this upsets the racial hierarchy in Singapore which places slim, porcelain-skinned Chinese women at the top of the totem pole and dusky Indian women at the bottom. It upsets gender roles that seemingly entitle men to women of the same ethnic group.

As for whether I can be critical of heterosexual white male privilege and date a white man at the same time, I think this isn’t unthinkable if the man in question was aware of his privilege and the fact that his life is significantly easier because of it. Awareness can be a powerful tool to stop the perpetuation of harmful social inequalities that are reproduced and justified on the basis on race, gender and class. My fiancé is not averse to earning less money than me, or becoming a stay-at-home-dad. He insists on dividing the household chores and care-giving responsibilities equally. It may not seem like much, but active awareness can do a lot to even the playing field, in a sphere as small and as private as the home.

If just seeing my fiancé and me holding hands and kissing by the train station draws stares of surprise and disapproval, wait till they see us with kids.

[1] “Others” refers to all ethnic groups excluding Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, Caucasians and Malays.

[2]. The full report can be found here.

Written by: Radha.

Radha is a Singaporean Tamil girl who believes that human dignity should not have to concede to social harmony.