Highblood’s racist promo – ignorance rather than malice

Highblood’s racist promo – ignorance rather than malice
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Highblood dating app upsets public but is it racist?

To stand apart from others, you have to distinguish yourself, or your product. This, however, could lead you down the path you might not have intended to go.

Dating apps (or websites, before apps became popular) were cumbersome to use – you had to key in a tonne of information about yourself when you joined such a service, and you would have to scroll through the same amount of members’ profiles before you would find a few whom you might want to strike up a chat with.

That was the way things were – until Tinder came along and changed the dating scene in 2012. All you have to do when using Tinder, which is for casual dating or short-term relationships, was to upload a photo of yourself, provide some information, and then start swiping left or swiping right as you assess the profiles that match your preferences.

Highblood, an upcoming app created by a Singaporean, hopes to do one better than Tinder. According to its founder and creator, Herbert Eng, the app hopes to eliminate two of the most frustrating problems faced by dating app users:

  1. Fake profiles/bots
  2. Catfishing

Catfishing refers to scams, such as those asking for money or tricking you into a romantic or sexual relationship, perpetrated by fake or false profiles.

Catfishing is a serious issue online.

In the United Kingdom, for example, one woman – Anna Rowe –  was so affected by such a scam that she has started an online initiative to ban catfishing. (See here.)

“He used me like a hotel with benefits under the disguise of a romantic, loving relationship that he knew I craved,” she said, referring to the man who tricked her into a relationship.

According to the BBC, there were 3,889 victims of so-called “romance fraud” last year, who handed over a record £39m.

In July last year, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament that the number of credit-for-sex scams, Internet love scams, kidnap hoax scams and lottery scams committed over the phone and on social media in Singapore had more than doubled in a year.

One of the biggest “love scams” involved a 50-year old woman who met a man, supposedly an American, on Facebook who eventually scammed her of her life savings of more than $1.2 million.

The Singapore Police Force have regularly issued advisories on such scams to remind the public to be alert when engaging in online relationships or communications.

The creator of Highblood is aware of these problems and said his app intends to weed out such things.

“We’re here to improve the landscape of online dating as a whole in our commitment to eliminate fake profiles,” Mr Eng said. “I am very, very determined to improve veracity in the general Internet landscape and eliminate bots and fake profiles in online dating through our fact verification system… I happen to be a victim of catfishing myself.”

According to Mr Eng, the app requires users to provide their “income, education and profession” when they sign up.

“We are targeting young and educated professionals as well as ambitious university undergraduates,” Highblood said. “Many of the people we’ve talked to have complained about the lack of authenticity and concrete intentions on popular dating apps. We would like to provide an alternative.”

The “verification system” Mr Eng mentioned are “experts” who will vet the applications to ensure they are authentic; and a “covenant” of 5 users will decide on each application. 3 approvals are needed for an application to go through.

What got Highblood into the current controversy swirling online about its app is, however, the promotional advert it posted online recently.

“No banglas, no maids, no uglies, no fakes/bots, no escorts”.

Not surprisingly, the advert was met with outrage online, with many slamming it for being blatantly racist by excluding two groups of people in particular – “banglas” and “maids”.

Excluding “banglas” and “maids”

Excluding certain groups of people from using a service is racist. It is not unlike a restaurant saying it does not welcome Bangladeshis or Filipinos because it prefers its clientele to be Caucasians. Or for a Chinese restaurant to do the same to Caucasian customers.

It would also be like condominiums banning domestic workers from using the swimming pools simply because they are “maids”.

“If we allow all the maids to swim in the pools at the various condos, it will be swamped and over-utilised,” Mr Francis Zhan, the chief executive of the Association of Management Corporations in Singapore’s (AMCIS), shamelessly told The New Paper in 2011, obviously unaware of the blatant racism in his thinking.

Perhaps this is what the owner of Highblood is really worried about too – that the app would be “swamped” by “banglas” and “maids” if it were opened to everyone.

This would be an apparent departure from what is said on the Start-up Jobs Asia profile of the app, where it said the app is more inclusive, in terms of nationalities – welcoming Indians, Koreans, Japanese and Singaporeans.

Mr Eng has defended the app from criticisms.

In a rather awkward explanation, Mr Eng said:

“What does manifests in Asian culture however, and especially in Singapore, is a certain racial preference when it comes to dating — we are merely responding to honest (however politically incorrect) feedback respondents have given us when we asked them what they find insufferable in dating apps. Additionally, when probed further, some of them revealed that the preference was occupational rather than racial. Because of the nature of our app, we would like to interpret the terms as pertaining to occupations rather than a certain ethnicity.”[Sic]

Eng’s defence

It is good that Mr Eng is listening to customer feedback and tuning his service to meet their needs or preferences. However, it is questionable to attribute “a certain racial preference” to “Asian culture”. One could say the same of other cultures as well, although that is a debate for another time.

If users’ preference is “occupational rather than racial”, as Mr Eng said, then why exclude “banglas”, which is not an occupation but a nationality and a race – unless one associates the term with a particular (low-skilled) occupation? That would be stereotyping, which is a close cousin of racism and xenophobia.

Whatever it is, if it is in fact about occupation rather than race, then there is absolutely no need to even mention “banglas”. So, it is obvious some sort of negative racial profiling, conscious or otherwise, is going on here.

Why not let users decide?

What appears to have happened in this case is that Highblood went for the sensational eyeball-catching headlines to generate publicity for its eventual launch of the app. Unfortunately for Highblood, the stunt has not come off too well with members of the public.

Highblood could have just gone with the criteria it has stipulated for users – that is, membership based on occupation, education, and profession – without having to finger any nationality or any particular occupation for special exclusion. After all, it is existing users who will decide on whether a membership application is accepted.

As Mr Eng himself explained:

“We only verify information and leave the yardsticks and judging to the users. The process of denying entry into HighBlood is also performed by existing users.”

He added, “The application will be as elitist as the users want it to be.”

So, why not be as inclusive as possible by accepting anyone who meets the basic criteria and just leave it at that?  Let users decide who gets accepted and who doesn’t.

Having said that, what Highblood has done does not seem to be borne out of any inherent or deeply racist ill intent. In other words, it does not seem to be from a pathological hatred for a particular race or nationality, although its action can or is considered racist.

What has happened, however, looks to be an over-zealous attempt at generating publicity for itself, without careful thought, and with a careless use of words borne out of some stereotype ideas of certain groups of people.

In short, one would give Highblood the benefit of the doubt and see the offending advert as one made out of ignorance rather than malice.

As undergraduate Chloe Tong told The New Paper, “What Highblood is doing is nothing new or revolutionary. But what they are saying is tactless.”

And sometimes, tact is important, as this incident shows.

Let’s hope Mr Eng will accept the criticisms and refrain from using such unnecessary publicity stunts at the expense of others.

The app’s goals of eliminating fake profiles and catfishing are good ones, and Mr Eng should focus on these, rather than on which groups of people should be excluded.

For at the end of the day, if the app is able to provide an authentic experience by eliminating fake profiles and catfishing, it would be not an insignificant achievement.

Lastly, Mr Eng and the users whose feedback led to Highblood putting out those two criteria might want to acquaint themselves better with the different (foreign) ethnicities here in Singapore, to get a more accurate perspective of who exactly these people – Bangladeshis and “maids” – are.

Bangladeshis and domestic workers from the Phillippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar  work very hard to feed their families back home. They are decent, hardworking, honest people who do not deserve to be swiped in the way Highblood has done.

To gain some perspective on our foreign or guest workers, do visit Our Better World.