BY ARLA SHEPHARD
How many people are familiar with Krishna Bhanji? Issur Danielovitch Demsky? Ramon Estevez? No? How about their counterparts Ben Kingsley, Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen?
These famous celebrities are real life examples of a phenomenon that Professor of Yale Law Kenji Yoshino describes as “covering.” Yoshino gave a speech at Seattle University on Jan. 11 on his debut book “Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights,” where he discusses growing up as a conflicted, homosexual Asian American man and the current state of civil rights legislation.
Looking at Yoshino, you wouldn’t guess that he was at one time a young man so uncomfortable with his own identity that he would pray at the college chapel to be converted to heterosexuality. He laughs and smiles as his colleagues introduce him as one of the smartest, most distinguished men they know. He jokes around, and yet when he speaks the room goes quiet to hear the engaging young speaker describe his own issues with conformity. He has a way with words that some have described as poetic.
Yoshino graduated from Harvard, went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to obtain his master’s, and then studied law at Yale Law University where he now teaches constitutional law, and is the Dean of Intellectual Life. His publications include articles in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Village Voice. It is his current novel, though, that has critics calling him the next W.E.B. Du Bois or Betty Friedan — an eloquent champion of human rights.
So what is “covering”? Yoshino claims we have all done it in some form or other. As defined by sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963, covering is the term used for when one tries to “tone down” or “downplay” an aspect of one’s identity. Yoshino describes racial, sex-based, gay, religious and disability-based covering, but he leads his novel with “Everyone covers.”
Covering is when you try to hide your accent so as not to sound too “Asian” on the phone. It is when you change your name because it is too “ethnic,” or, on a smaller scale, when you are hanging out with your white friends and try to downplay any “Asian” behavior you might otherwise engage in.
In the workplace, gays are asked not to “flaunt” their sexual orientation, mothers are asked not to discuss their children so as not to appear too “feminine,” and in today’s state of global affairs, Muslims, or those who would appear so, are in situations where they must “cover” basically every day. In the legal arena, an African American woman was forbidden to wear cornrows to work in Rogers vs. American-Airlines (1981) and a Latino was fired for speaking Spanish in an English-only speaking workplace in Hernandez v. New York (1991).
Famous examples of disability-based covering are Helen Keller’s insistence that photographers only take pictures of her at a certain angle to avoid her protruding eye, and later when she replaced her eyes with beautiful glass ones, fooling unsuspecting journalists. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made sure the press never saw him in his wheelchair, although everyone already knew of his disability.
To clarify, covering is not “passing” or “converting,” both of which Yoshino said are the earlier stages of not accepting one’s own identity. When you convert, you try to change who you are, when you pass you try to hide who you are. Covering is a whole new matter entirely. You cover when people already know who you are, but you subtly try to downplay it anyway. F.D.R. was not trying to pass as an able-bodied person; he simply didn’t want to showcase his disability.
Yoshino came across Goffman’s term “covering” when he tried to “cast about” for the perfect word to describe what he was asked to do when teaching at Yale School of Law, he said. As a gay man, Yoshino was told by his peers that he would be more successful as a professor who simply happened to be gay, rather than a professor who advocated gay rights, flaunting his sexual preference for all to see.
Yoshino described his avoidance of all topics gay-related when teaching. “After awhile this felt completely nonsensical,” he said. “I wasn’t being true to myself.” He was surprised at his current predicament. He had already come out as a graduate student at Yale Law, so he assumed his issues with his sexual orientation were over. Furthermore, no one was asking him to act the way he was acting; it was all his own internal misgivings.
The more he studied this phenomenon, the more examples of other groups “covering” he found. The more he realized that what people do on a regular basis, trying to “act white,” etc., was a hindrance to our struggles for personal autonomy. He looked at legal cases and asked, “Where is the law?” in all of this.
The answer is unclear. Our current civil rights legislation will protect you as someone with a certain identity, but it rarely protects you from engaging in activities associated with that identity. Hence, if you are fired for being gay or being Jewish, you will win discrimination lawsuits in the courts. If you are fired for having a same-sex union or wearing a yarmulke, you will probably lose.
So how do we remedy this? Yoshino wrote his book in an attempt to make the term “covering” as much a part of our vocabulary as “passing” or “coming out of the closet.” He argues that civil rights should happen outside of the law, in our daily quotidian lives. The next time someone acts uncomfortable about something you do associated with your ethnicity, ask them why. Be prepared to open a discussion, because “all human beings should be allowed to express their flourishes,” Yoshino said.
“I am a work in progress,” Yoshino said, and one should always be aware of who they are and what identity they want to claim. It is possible to be comfortable with one’s identity and gain a margin of success. Just look at Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho and Barak Obama. Ever heard of them? .