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Uncovering Kenji Yoshino’s Covering [1 April, 2006]

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Kenji Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Random House, 2006), makes a bold claim for a paradigm shift in our understanding of the entanglements between identity, marginality and society.  Yoshino is currently a law professor at Yale Law School and this book expands the arguments he’s previously made in various law review journals and magazines.  The title is inspired by Erving Goffman’s pivotal 1963 book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.  Stigma, about the relationship between society and its marginalized subjects, is among the most referenced texts for scholars in a range of disciplines from queer theory to sociology.  Goffman’s words form the epigraph to Covering: “It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma […] may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large ...  this process will be referred to as covering.”

Yoshino’s central thesis is that an earlier deference to diversity has given way to an emphasis on assimilation to the extent where individuals who are different from the perceived norm feel compelled to cover or downplay their distinguishing characteristics.  He includes a wide range of people in this group—from the disabled who hide their canes to African-Americans compelled to “look white.”

Stigma maintains its allure in part because it’s a generous and capacious book, and it presents both theory and actual narratives from the margins “straight,” as it were, without the political correctness that marks similar and more recent books.  Yoshino draws upon experience as well: his own, writing about it in excessively writerly prose that strains too hard to be beautiful.  He includes these because “if a human life is described in enough particularity, the universal will begin to speak through it.”

In an interview with Yoshino, I asked him what role covering might play in a post-9/11 world.  After all, we are now witness to an erosion of civil rights in the form of endlessly expanding surveillance and policing.  His response was that covering is like the canary in the coal mine.  After 9/11, Muslim communities found themselves debating the extent to which they should downplay their more obvious characteristics, such as speaking publicly in Arabic.  Covering indicates the extent to which American culture and politics demand that citizens conform to standards of the norm.

But examples like this don’t indicate the centrality of covering, only the degree to which it might be a symptom of an erosion of civil rights.  That doesn’t mean that such instances are not troubling, and Yoshino gives equally poignant examples of same-sex couples feeling compelled to self-censor their demonstrations of affection in public and women downplaying their lives as mothers in the workplace.  In the process, he lumps together disparate groups in order to advance his thesis.  But women who must cover their maternal roles in the workplace are subject to an entirely different set of pressures than African-Americans who feel compelled to “act white” by speaking and dressing in particular ways.  Talking about covering may get at the need for people to assert what Yoshino calls their authentic selves, but it does nothing to question the systemic conditions of inequality that determine how we negotiate our identities in society.

Take, for instance, Yoshino’s example of Lawrence Mungin, an African-American lawyer and the subject of Paul Barrett’s book The Good Black.  Mungin related how his white suburban neighbors were friendly to him when he walked around in a suit but clutched their purses when he dressed for the gym.  Ultimately, according to Yoshino, Mungin simply got tired of trying to make his neighbors comfortable and the author uses this as an example of why covering is ultimately exhausting and pointless.  He argues that those who don’t choose to cover—like Barack Obama refusing to change his name—and are proud of their explicit difference eventually succeed the most.

This analysis ignores the realities around race.   Success or failure at covering doesn’t explain the fact that an African-American male like Mungin, who drives into an affluent suburb at night, is still likely to get pulled over regardless of how he’s dressed.  It assumes that Mungin’s neighbors were responding to his class status in his gym clothes when, in fact, they responded to him as an unidentifiable African-American who did not fit in their environs, a marker of inequality.  An African-American UPS delivery person, signified as such by his uniform, would not elicit such a reaction and would be ignored in the way that we ignore “service” people going about their business around us.  What the neighbors really responded to was their fear that someone who looked liked he had less than them, economically speaking, might seek to redress the imbalance by taking away their purses.  In other words, the real reason behind Mungin’s reception was a complex mixture of race and economics that signifies how people respond to inequality.  Yoshino confuses class with inequality.

Yoshino gets it wrong when he claims that those who choose not to cover are rewarded for their authenticity.  Despite the popular mythology surrounding Oprah Winfrey, the truth is that her audiences don’t love her because they see her as an African-American who survived the odds and stayed true to herself.  They love her because she made it into and stayed in a realm of wealth that exceeds our imagination.  Nobody loves the poor.  We don’t celebrate people who remain poor.  What we love is the idea that we can leave the poor and poverty behind.

Yoshino is undoubtedly sincere in his belief that there is a cost to covering, and this book does indicate a sharp intelligence at work.  The problem is that he doesn’t present too much of a case as to why covering should be a central organizing principle in a collective quest for social justice or equity.  The autobiographical details, while sweet and occasionally touching, only call for our sympathy.  Their transparency belies the extent to which this book furthers a neo-liberal rhetoric of choice and autonomy.  If only we could talk to each other and understand each other’s differences, it argues, we might see what we have in common with each other.

The question remains: And then what?  How do we confront the conditions of inequality that define “our” fractured relationship to a social sphere where not everybody is able to talk at a collective table?  To what extent should we rely on that to address our needs? Talking about the hidden costs of covering will appeal to those who like the book’s reliance on the idea that accepting diversity and difference solves our problems.  But covering doesn’t begin to cover the issues we face today in the realm of civil rights.

Originally published in Identity, 1 April, 2006]

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