At the start of June, a video of a Chinese Singaporean man lambasting an interracial couple went viral on social media. The Chinese man, who was later identified to be a professor at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, made various problematic and racist remarks. To him, Indians were “preying” on Chinese women, resulting in interracial marriages that were paradoxically ‘racist’. “If you are proud of our own race, you marry someone Indian… I think its racist that Indians marry Chinese girls,” he can be heard as saying in the video. The sentiments expressed by the lecturer were condemned widely and swiftly, particularly by younger Singaporeans. The message was simple: the man isn’t representative of us and we can do better.
Around the same time, Anand*, a 24-year-old Singaporean Indian student decided to sign-up for a dating app for the first time. The stricter social distancing measures that came with Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) had severely limited his social interactions and Bumble, he hoped, would help introduce him to interesting people.
To his surprise however, Anand almost exclusively matched with other Indians for the first week. “I’m sure I was swiping similarly across the different races, so this really came as a shock,” he shares. There seemed to be an inherent tension here. While on Bumble, Anand seemed to have observed racial preferences, on social media, his friends shared posts denouncing the poly professor’s rant and supporting inter-racial relationships
“It’s all a bit hypocritical, if you ask me,” Anand says.
The experiences of minorities like Anand seem to suggest that dating apps in Singapore are spaces where race plays a large role in decision making. But these anecdotes alone might not be enough in proving that this is the case. While Megha*, a 22-year-old Singaporean Indian student, conceded that a majority of her matches on Bumble were also Indian, she was hesitant in blaming others’ racial preferences for that outcome, pointing to the fact that her own preferences on dating apps might be contributing to the phenomenon.
This got us wondering. Is there any way that we could measure and study the racial preferences of Singaporeans on dating apps?
Getting to the bottom of that question turned out to be tougher than expected.
Dating apps like Tinder devote large amounts of screen real estate to pictures of users, thereby emphasising their physical and facial appearances. Thus, the user’s idea of what is attractive plays a huge role in most, if not every decision to ‘swipe right’ (or ‘like’ a profile).
As such, any experiment that aims to measure the racial preferences of dating app users must take into account the subjective nature of attractiveness. This is exactly why a comparison of match rates between profiles with pictures of ‘similarly attractive’ people across different races won’t work. What is ‘similarly attractive’ to one person might not be to another, and as such it becomes harder to gauge the extent to which a person is making their decision based on race, and not attractiveness.
To get around this, we decided to set-up three different Tinder accounts, each with a picture of the synthetic average Singaporean Chinese, Indian and Malay woman’s face. All other attributes were kept similar. The images were created by merging over 966 profile pictures from public accounts on LinkedIn.
In this case, ‘average’ refers to the mathematical mean, and not someone who looks unremarkable. While this might seem to be a bit unorthodox, there is a large amount of literature on averageness studies. Psychologists often study attractiveness and beauty by morphing together a large quantity of photographs of human faces. The derived average faces are usually quite attractive, and look rather familiar.
A possible explanation for this revolves around the fact that humans, like all animals, seek mates with average features, because extreme and uncommon features are likely to indicate disadvantageous mutations.
Thus, the profiles associated with the different racial groups have images that are representative of that racial group, familiar looking, and equally attractive. In other words, the averaging of faces side-steps the subjectivity of attractiveness.
After this, the process becomes relatively straightforward. The first 300 profiles seen on each account was indiscriminately swiped right on. Each of the profiles had their names, ages, and races taken down. From this it was possible to compare match rates across the three races and explore the racial preferences of Singaporean men.
The results seem to indicate that racial biases are quite prevalent on Singaporean Tinder. Here are five important observations that prove this:
- Chinese men are four times more likely to swipe right on Chinese women as opposed to Indian women. They are also two times more likely to swipe right on Chinese women as opposed to Malay women.
- Indian men are 1.8 times more likely to swipe right on Indian women as opposed to Chinese women. They are also 1.3 times more likely to swipe right on Indian women as opposed to Malay women.
- Malay men are 1.8 times more likely to swipe right on Malay women as opposed to Indian women. They are also 1.6 times more likely to swipe right on Malay women as opposed to Chinese women.
- The Indian and Chinese women’s profiles had the highest success rate in matching with their respective races. Interestingly, the Malay woman’s profile had a higher match success rate with Indian men as compared to Malay men by 1%. While on the surface this seems to disprove the hypothesis that there are racial biases favouring same-race matches, it is important to view that number in a wider context. Indian men swiped right more across the three races (56%, 44% and 31%) and Malay men swiped right on Malay women at a higher rate as compared to other races.
- The overall match rate of the Indian profile was around 10% less than the Malay and Chinese profiles.
Issues with the study
This isn’t to say that there aren’t issues with the study.
On the first level, Tinder’s proprietary algorithm determined which profiles were shown to the three accounts. This means that the Singaporean men encountered weren’t exactly the same across the three test profiles, making comparisons a bit tougher. In mitigation, however, it should be noted that all test profiles conducted the same actions from the same place and around the same time. This is why many, if not most, of the profiles shown across the test accounts were similar.
One way to improve the methodology of the study would be to create more average images and corresponding test accounts. Comparing results from this increased sample size would mean that its less likely that the other non-racial variables affect match rates.
Secondly, the races of Tinder users were sometimes ambiguous, hard to ascertain, or subjective. Erroneous attribution of profiles to the wrong racial group could skew results, once again making them hard to compare. In an attempt to minimise the effects of this, any profile with an ambiguous racial status was placed under the ‘others’ category.
In addition, while it can be conceded that users might self-identify with a race other than that which they were categorised under, the racial preferences of other Tinder users are also probably influenced by the same information available on the profile – physical attributes in photos, names and language used. As such, while the study’s categorisation might not be perfect, it is likely to be representative of how a lay Singaporean views these profiles and assigns them to a racial group.
The study also only gauges the racial preferences of straight males. It does not measure the preferences of straight women, gay and lesbian individuals in Singapore. The reason for this is twofold.
Firstly, it is widely acknowledged that dating apps like Tinder have a severe disparity between the number of male and female users. In the U.S., for example, 75.8% of all Tinder users are male while 24.2% are female. By choosing to create female accounts for the study, it was hoped that the sample size of matches would be higher.
Secondly, there were resource-related issues with creating more average images and then repeating the process a few more times. We hope that further research can be done on this subject with these limitations taken into account.
While the study might have a few issues, it seems to represent the lived experiences of minorities on dating apps. When presented with the results of the experiment, Megha remarks that the numbers reflect what “usually goes unsaid” on dating apps.
According to her, approximately 80% of her matches belong to the same race as her. Even though she thinks that this might be partially influenced by her own racial preferences, she is conscious of the fact that those choices have also been influenced by the knowledge that someone from another group might have their own racial preferences.
Referring to her own real-world experiences, Megha says: “I’ve been interested in pursuing someone from another racial group a bunch of times, but have naturally moved away because I don’t expect that interest to be reciprocal”.
Divya*, a 23-year-old Singaporean Indian student, reckons that she has matched with around 100 men over the past year on Bumble. Out of the 100, at least 90 were Indian and the remaining 10 were “mostly Malay”. She, too, felt that race has been a barrier in many of her relationships.
“There have been instances where I liked someone of another race. But it felt like we never got far because of the question of race,” she shares, adding that race was one of the reasons why her last relationship had come to an end.
At the same time, however, it is important to note that the experiences of minorities aren’t monolithic. Aisha*, a Singaporean who has spent time studying in both China and the U.S., says that her matches are more diverse, with a large percentage of people who swiped back on her being Chinese too.
“Indian men are attracted to my being of the same race as them and Chinese men are attracted to my connection to Chinese culture. Some of them also see me as being as ‘exotic’ and want to ‘try out an Indian’,” she says.
Are racial preferences in dating racist?
Both the results of the study and the anecdotes of minorities bring into question the ethicality of having racial preferences in dating.
Kai Heng*, a Singaporean Chinese undergraduate from the Nanyang Technological University, thinks that the results are reflective of how he swipes on dating apps.
“Racial preferences aren’t racist, they are a matter of cultural compatibility,” says Kai Heng, arguing that it would be “easier” to bring a significant other into the family when they share the same cultural baseline.
Aisha too seems to subscribe to the argument that racial preferences aren’t racist. As long as people don’t write off entire segments of the population, racial preferences can be valid as they are based “on people’s lived experiences” and what they are comfortable with.
On the other hand, there is a question of who these racial preferences are affecting the most. While Megha buys the argument that shared traits such as culture and lived experiences are important, she also says that “they can affect one ethnic group disproportionately over another, making the whole process of dating even harder for them”.
The results of the study seem to back this up. While all races seemed to have same-race preferences for swiping, Chinese males on Tinder seem to exhibit these preferences at a much higher rate.
To Anand, the question of whether racial preferences are racist or not is a distraction. “The fact that they exist remind me that I’m different from others in Singapore,” he said.
“I deleted the app because there have been enough reminders of that lately.”
The names of some of the interviewees have been changed to protect their anonymity