Sweating the Small Stuff: Microaggressions in Single Life

Married people are so massively advantaged over single people that it can cost single people more than a million dollars over the course of their lifetime. That’s just from the big ways that singles get the shortchanged by laws and practices that favor married people in taxes, Social Security, housing, and health spending. Financial discrimination, written right into the laws of the land, is just one of the many domains of big-time singlism.

Every single person who cares about social justice should get to complain about all that big stuff, no questions asked. But what about the small stuff?

What might count as small injustices or slights among those who are not married? The possibilities are endless. Here are a few examples:

The everyday presumptuousness of people who think that what you want more than anything else is to get married, and at weddings will say condescending things like, “Don’t worry, honey; your turn will come.”

The assumption that what couples want, couples should get, and people who are solo should just step aside. That might mean moving to a less desirable seat on a plane so couples can sit together or, as in this recent kerfuffle, being expected to move out of a public space because a couple wants to take their wedding pictures there.

The practice in many grocery stores of selling perishable items only in large “family size” quantities.

Pricing that assumes that people attend events as couples ($100 per couple, with no other option listed) or allows for people to attend solo but at a steeper cost ($100 per couple, $60 per individual).

There is a name for “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” They are called microaggressions

The microaggressions that are already recognized

Once the nearly-exclusive domain of academics, microaggressions have surged into our cultural conversations and stirred up a storm of controversy. Racial microaggressions are probably the most familiar ones. Derald Wing Sue, who wrote the book on microaggressions (and whose definition I quoted above), offers these examples in his Psychology Today blogpost, “Microaggressions: More than Just Race”:

·         A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.).

·         An Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking “good English.” (Hidden message: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.)

·         A Black couple is seated at a table in the restaurant next to the kitchen despite there being other empty and more desirable tables located at the front. (Hidden message: You are a second-class citizen and undeserving of first-class treatment.)

Professor Sue points to other groups who are also targets of those slights, snubs, and insults. They include “women, LGBT persons, those with disabilities, religious minorities.” He mentions social class as well. Marital status is not on his list.

You can find examples of microaggressions on this page. A quick glance reveals that marital status does get a nod – when the target is someone who is married: “You’ve been married for two weeks! When are you going to change your facebook name to Mrs. [husband’s name]? People are going to think you’re a feminist.”

You describe a microaggression; they call you a snowflake

Attitudes toward the concept of microaggressions, like so much else, are now polarized. A 2014 article in the New York Times asked “whether the issues raised are a useful way of bringing to light often elusive slights in a world where overt prejudice is seldom tolerated, or a new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion.”

Things have only gotten more inflamed since then. One criticism is that people who point out microaggressions are part of a “victimhood culture.” In contrast to those who ascribe to a “dignity culture,” emphasizing “either their strength or inner worth,” in the victimhood culture, “the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization” and they do so as “a way of attracting sympathy.”

The victimhood argument is part of the popular bashing of college students as coddled and college campuses as misguided and even intolerant. A black Harvard student who objects to being mistaken for a waiter at a formal event, is, according to the microaggression detractors, just being a snowflake.

In response to the charge of victimhood and the suggestion that microaggressions are “much ado about nothing,” Simba Runyowa argued:

“It is certainly worth exploring microaggressions on the basis of their link to implicit biases, and the ways in which they can both telegraph and contribute to the proliferation of more invidious, macro-level prejudices. Implicit biases have serious material consequences beyond hurt feelings, from discriminatory hiring to racial inequities in policing and the broader U.S. criminal-justice system. In other words, microaggressions matter because they seem to be both symptoms and causes of larger structural problems.”

That’s what Professor Sue thinks, too. Microaggressions are not just slights we should “get over.” They are the stuff that’s implicated, for example, in the wildly disproportionate representations of white men in positions of power as presidents, CEOs, athletic team owners, tenured professors, and school superintendents.

People persuaded of the significance of microaggressions sometimes use the “ton of feathers” analogy. Sure, any one example can seem so slight, it carries no more weight than a feather. But there sure are a lot of feathers, and a ton of feathers is just as crushing as a ton of bricks.

Another risk: Members of your own group will demean you, too

The New York Times article noted that the backlash against people pointing out racial microaggressions does not come solely from white people. For example, one person said, “I don’t get bent out of shape if a white person asks me are you, like, Hindu or something? I just correct them.”

That’s painful. As a member of a targeted group, you might hope to at least get some support from fellow group members. Instead, sometimes they just put you down.

Microaggressions and the single person: What’s going on, psychologically?

Single people who want justice and equality for their group are up against a special challenge. Most people don’t recognize or acknowledge even the big ways in which unmarried adults are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism, and a whole array of other isms have made their way into our collective consciousness and our cultural conversations. Singlism, not so much. People pointing to serious instances of marital status discrimination are more likely to be mocked than taken seriously.

Single people realize this. They know that taking a stand for the big stuff can be an act of courage. Taking on the small stuff can seem just a little too daunting, and for such (seemingly) small stuff, maybe not worth the price.

They know what they are up against. They will get called victims and accused of acting all aggrieved just to elicit sympathy. Some people will taunt them with the “snowflake” epithet. Fellow single people might tell them, “I don’t get bent out of shape about things like that,” with that dollop of condescension.

It is understandable, then, that some single people will stay ahead of the blame by taking the side of the critics. It pains me when single people go after other single people for speaking up against microaggressions, or flat- out aggressions and injustices that are not so micro. I get it, though. One of the points of mocking microaggressions is to silence the people who would point them out. I think it is working.

I don’t think that the concern with other people’s judgments is the only psychological dynamic at work. For example, some people pride themselves on not sweating the small stuff, and not just in matters of stereotyping or discrimination.

For others, strategic considerations may be paramount. Maybe discussions of small stuff would undermine efforts to get the big stuff taken seriously. We’d need some good research to know if that is so, but it is a reasonable possibility.

Should microaggressions against single people be taken seriously? My personal heuristic

When I was writing Singled Out, I struggled with the reluctance of some of my colleagues, including some whose personal and professional identities were built on a commitment to justice for all, to acknowledge the significance of singlism, including even the big stuff. Finally, as the book was due to be turned in to the publisher, I figured out how to think about it. The key question, I decided, is this: How would married people react if the tables were turned? If they wouldn’t like it, then single people should not have to put up with it, either.

The part of Singled Out that I wrote last ended up being the first page of the book. Here it is:

I think married people should be treated fairly. They should not be stereotyped, stigmatized, discriminated against, or ignored. They deserve every bit as much respect as single people do.

I can imagine a world in which married people were not treated appropriately, and if that world ever materialized, I would protest. Here are a few examples of what I would find offensive:

•           When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like “aaaawww” or “don’t worry honey, your turn to divorce will come.”

•           When you browse the bookstores, you see shelves bursting with titles such as If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married and How to Ditch Your Husband After Age 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School.

•           Every time you get married, you feel obligated to give expensive presents to single people.

•           When you travel with your spouse, you each have to pay more than when you travel alone.

•           At work, the single people just assume that you can cover the holidays and all the other inconvenient assignments; they figure that as a married person, you don’t have anything better to do.

•           Single employees can add another adult to their health care plan; you can’t.

•           When your single co-workers die, they can leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them; you are not allowed to leave yours to anyone – they just go back into the system.

•           Candidates for public office boast about how much they value single people. Some even propose spending more than a billion dollars in federal funding to convince people to stay single, or to get divorced if they already made the mistake of marrying.

•           Moreover, no one thinks there is anything wrong with any of this.

Married people do not have any of these experiences, of course, but single people do. People who do not have a serious coupled relationship (my definition – for now – of single people) are stereotyped, discriminated against, and treated dismissively.  This stigmatizing of people who are single – whether divorced, widowed, or ever-single — is the 21st century problem that has no name.  I’ll call it singlism.

[Note: This post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own. For links to previous UE columns, click here.]

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