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Kamala Harris’ Singles Comments: Problematic or Progressive? November 8, 2020

Posted by Onely in Celebrities, Food for Thought.
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Now that we in the U.S. have narrowly dodged the apocalypse (so far), we can start holding the new presidential administration accountable for singlist language. My fellow intrepid singles advocates Dr. Craig Wynne and Dr. Bella DePaulo have written about the repeated and problematic use of the term “families” by politicians on both sides of the aisle. But today I want to examine a different sort of relationship rhetoric. Twice in the last year, Kamala Harris has said variations of this statement:

Let’s remember to check in on our single friends. 

Is this progressive or problematic? Considerate or patronizing? 

Whatever the answer, I love Kamala Harris. Sometimes I pretend we’re related. (She shares a surname with my step-grandpa; my nanny taught me some Tamil when I was a toddler; this all practically makes her my third cousin twice removed.) I would have loved to see a Harris-Biden 2020 ticket. Also, #Harris-Warren2024!  But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed many months ago when Harris went on Seth Myer’s show in the beginning of the pandemic and said, in a cringingly patronizing tone, “Let’s remember our single friends.” I wrote in an earlier post about why that was a problem. I may have been a tad snide. Since then, a couple things have made me think further about Harris’ words. 

First point for consideration:  Vicki Larson and Dr. DePaulo wrote articles mentioning that Kamala was single (meaning unmarried) until she was 50. Larson’s article flags some lines from Harris’ memoir that show Harris has a good understanding of some elements of singlism: 

As a single, professional women in my forties, and very much in the public eye, dating wasn’t easy. I knew that if I brought a man with me to an event, people would immediately start to speculate about our relationship. I also knew that single women in politics are viewed differently than single men. We don’t get the same latitude when it comes to our social lives.” –Kamala Harris

Second point for consideration:  Recently Harris tweeted the same “check on your single friends” sentiment again, further indicating that she has an awareness of the challenges of singledom: 

“Take some time to text a loved one you haven’t seen in a while, check in on your single friends, or write that letter you’ve been putting off“ –@Kamalaharris, 25 November 2020

Hold up. You see what I did there? “She has an awareness of the challenges of singledom.” But the problem is that actually, singledom is not inherently a challenging situation. (Except where financial, legal, commercial  and socio-cultural discrimination make it so.) Many single people who live alone are thrilled and relieved that they kicked out their toxic financial parasite ex well before COVID and can therefore weather the pandemic sitting by themselves on the couch eating macademia nuts and intermittently unhooking their bleach-stained sweatpants from the claws of their three semi-geriatric cats. (Or so I’m told.)

When Harris tells people “Check on your single friends!” what I hear is, “Check on your single friends, because they may be suffering from the unbearable loneliness of being velcroed to their sofas by their cats”. In response, my instinct is to lean towards my laptop and shout, “But I LIKE being velcroed,” convinced she can hear me, because we’re related.   

The big question is whether Harris is saying “check in with your single friends because the poor dears are alone and suffering” or “check in with your single friends because. . .” I can’t even think of an example here. What other reasons would someone have for singling out (sorry) single people, other than the underlying assumption that singles are somehow needier?  In what circumstances would it be ok to suggest people reach out to single people, in a way that wouldn’t alienate those of us who like living alone? (Tangent cam: Let’s also remember not to conflate singleness with living alone.)

That said, I do much appreciate people checking in on me. I just prefer that they check on me for reasons other than my relationship status, reasons that actually do impact how depressed or lonely I am: maybe my chronic illness, or my complicated work situation, or my cat Theo’s new seizure disorder, or that black sludge that keeps flaking out of my upstairs bathroom faucet. I’d like people to check in on me because I’m me, not because I’m single. 

Nowadays it wouldn’t be unusual to hear, “Make sure to check in on your friends with school-age children.” But when would you ever hear, “Make sure to check in on your married friends,” even though the quarantine has spiked domestic violence rates?

One reason I fear that Harris may have been pitying singles is that on Myers’ show she also advised viewers to check in with seniors, who are currently viewed as a vulnerable group. By lumping in singles with seniors, Harris was framing singles as vulnerable as well. (Tangent cam: The topic of whether saying “check in on seniors” stereotypes and alienates perfectly capable seniors is a topic for another post on another blog.) 

Even people who have a good understanding of the discrimination single people (especially, as Harris points out, single women) face in day-to-day life may still not quite get why I’m raking poor Harris over the coals like this. In her 27 November email newsletter, political analyst and writer Heather Cox Richardson (whose work I respect) interpreted Harris’ statement as follows: “The new administration’s focus on ordinary Americans has grown out of our history, but its emphasis on community, rather than male-centered nuclear families, is new.”

I’d argue that saying “check in with your single friends” isn’t emphasizing community, it’s supporting the stereotype that the single lifestyle is lacking, that singles are divorced from (sorry) community. In truth, studies have shown that single people have stronger and wider ties in their communities than married people. By advising people to reach out to singles, Harris was technically, and probably unwittingly, saying to reach out to the people whose lives are already most woven into the community. It’s redundant and brings us back to my above point:  The more sensible thing is for single people to reach out a kind and helpful (or patronizing and pitying?) hand to married people. But I accept Richardson’s overarching point: by even mentioning singles at all, Harris poked a small hole in the patriarchal-driven nuclear family unit. 

And although it arguably sounds as if Harris is addressing couples specifically (the “normals” who are tasked with checking in on the “peripherals”), we could also take a more charitable view:  Maybe she is saying couples need to get out of their bubbles. Harris probably legitimately wants to support single people, because she was single for so long. According to her memoir, she did date while she was single, which means she may not have yet considered the possibilty that it’s ok to be totally single forever. (I’m not judging her; I was in my thirties before I consciously realized this was a valid option.) We just need to make sure she’s supporting us in a validating way, not in a “I know how deep and dark that singledom hole is and I’m reaching you down a hand to help you up” way. She can do this by tweeting more inclusive encouragement like, “Check in with your friends, your family, and your married neighbors whose son just began learning the trumpet.” 

So, Copious Readers, what’s the verdict? Were Harris’ well-meant comments progressive or problematic? Considerate or patronizing?

Here’s my flaky, equivocating answer:  Her statements were a complex mosaic of all those above adjectives. 

Some Copious Readers may think I’m nitpicking. But the thing with singlism is, it’s insidious, woven in to the fabric of society around the world, and the only way to dislodge it IS to nitpick at the little threads that poke out of the weave. That’s why it’s important to also call out politicians for using “working families” instead of “working people” or “American families” instead of “American people” (see the above links to Dr Wynne and Dr DePaulo’s articles about this).  Yes, I know that in spirit family can mean any group of closely linked people and pets, but in practice this term only means the nuclear unit and extended nuclear unit; therefore repeatedly using the word family reinforces discriminatory policies like the bereavement leave where I can take time off for my spouse’s brother-in-law but not my own uncles or cousins. I single out Harris not because she’s singlist (I don’t think she is), but because she’s progressive enough to understand the subtleties involved and well-placed to speak on our behalf, instead of patronizing us. The preponderance of Kamala’s political views are progressive, so I’m sure that if she were exposed to discussions about singlism and matrimania, she would start tweeting, “Make sure to check on your coupled friends!”

–Christina

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

Comments»

1. Phil - December 1, 2020

When my married acquaintances have bothered to ‘check up’ on me they’ve been shocked to learn how little the pandemic has affected me. Some of them have admitted that perhaps they could learn how to cope better from me.

Onely - December 2, 2020

I love it, thanks Phil!


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