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Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (2006)

by Kenji Yoshino

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4361058,097 (4.31)7
Gay Asian American Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino fuses legal manifesto and poetic memoir to call for a redefinition of civil rights in our law and culture. Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life. Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the demand to cover can pose a hidden threat to our civil rights. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. Racial minorities are pressed to act white by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to play like men at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. In a wide-ranging analysis, Yoshino demonstrates that American civil rights law has generally ignored the threat posed by these covering demands. With passion and rigor, he shows that the work of civil rights will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity. A legal scholar presents a memoir that documents his experiences and calls for a return to an authenticity which recognizes that the suppression of personal identity causes harm to all society.… (more)
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Very readable book, part memoir, but mostly discussion of what "covering" is and how the more subtle aspects of discrimination can be dealt with by legal and other action. I like his very underplayed sense of humor. ( )
  steve02476 | Jan 3, 2023 |
In Covering, Yale law professor Kenji Yoshino has three themes. First, he tells his personal story of "covering" his gay and Asian identities to fit in in America, distinguishing covering (making it easy for others to ignore the identity) from the related demands of conversion and passing. Second, he explains that current American law protects only "essential" aspects of identity, which in practice makes covering required. Third, he argues for shifting the burden of establishing "essentialism" to the institution rather than the individual ("it is an essential aspect of the job to do X; employees can behave how they like as long as they can do X" vs. "it is an unchangeable aspect of my class to be Y; because I can't change it, it's inappropriate for you to harm me because of it").

I wanted to love this book, in part because it was so explicit about parallels for religious identities with racial, queer, gender, and disabled identities. Overall, however, I found myself uninspired by the primer to queer studies (it's fine; I've just had it many times before) and underconvinced by the legal argument. I absolutely believe that everyone has some aspects of their identity that they cover for general palatibility, and that it would be better to live in a society where that doesn't need to happen. But I laugh at the idea that court decisions supporting "everyone has a right to behave in any way that isn't essential to the job" would do anything favorable for civil rights. I can well imagine organizations choosing between competing narratives of a role depending on the situation, and I suspect that old court cases might impose a regressive effect on entire industries (e.g., the service/safety role of a flight attendant). Generally I suspect Yoshino's desired shift would devolve to our current definitions and/or reinforce problematic cultural narratives, and it could even reduce rights by putting the power to write the narrative first in the hands of organizations rather than individuals. But I'm not a Yale law professor, so who knows.

This book is absolutely worth a gander if you're not very familiar with the literature on assimilation, especially if you haven't really noticed or considered the politics of your own assimilationist tendencies yet. ( )
  pammab | Mar 20, 2021 |
Not terribly sophisticated in its ideas or composition. The main premise of the book—the concept of covering—is important, but the topic could have been addressed in an article or lecture rather than an entire book. I did find some of the examples mentioned interesting, but overall it felt like the ideas were stretched out too much to fill the book. The mix of memoir and theory wasn’t very smooth, but I did enjoy hearing about the author’s life, particularly the stories of growing up in and between two cultures, so I’d be interested in reading a full memoir by him.
  csoki637 | Nov 27, 2016 |
To be honest, I expected more given the hype surrounding this book. Well-written, the first two of three parts is largely autobiographical in which Yoshino describes the existential angst in which he wallowed despite a life of privilege. The connecting thread of his narrative is a line he lifts from Erving Goffman's Stigma: "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."

This idea strikes him as a revelation, and he makes it the third phase of a progression he devises to describe the coming out process: Conversion, Passing, Covering. He then discovers this process literally everywhere. It applies to everything.

In the hands of a more competent theorist, that (possible) insight would lead to a more general theory of identity formation and socialization (tellingly, he tells us nothing of what Goffman did with this idea, or how later sociologists might have followed up on the suggestion). Lacking those skills, Yoshino can only leave his discussion at the superficial level of claiming that we each have a hidden authentic self that must be managed in order to fit into various social roles.

Part III attempts to insert this platitude into civil rights law, leading him to claim that we should favor more accommodation over assimilation. That may sound lovely, but as recent events have shown those most vociferously demanding accommodation are sectarians claiming a right to exercise their discrimination against gays. He would seemingly favor this request as it follows from his prioritizing the protection of general liberties over the more particularized equal protection of minorities. In such a world minorities will always lose their attempts to rectify actual injustices in order to preserve abstract principles. Reasonable people can disagree.

The first two parts are a pleasant read and can be insightful and inspiring in the way that a good novel can be. However, the third bears no stylistic relationship, and is theoretically superficial, and would have benefited from fuller and deeper analysis. The end result is something of a chimera, each part making better sense on its own, but having a jarring impact when forced together. ( )
1 vote dono421846 | Sep 17, 2015 |
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It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma (in many cases because it is known about or immediately apparent) may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large. . . . This process will be referred to as covering.
—Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity
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Gay Asian American Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino fuses legal manifesto and poetic memoir to call for a redefinition of civil rights in our law and culture. Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life. Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the demand to cover can pose a hidden threat to our civil rights. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. Racial minorities are pressed to act white by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to play like men at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. In a wide-ranging analysis, Yoshino demonstrates that American civil rights law has generally ignored the threat posed by these covering demands. With passion and rigor, he shows that the work of civil rights will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity. A legal scholar presents a memoir that documents his experiences and calls for a return to an authenticity which recognizes that the suppression of personal identity causes harm to all society.

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