Kenji Yoshino, author of the book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, came to campus last week. Yoshino is a professor at the NYU School of Law. He’s currently writing a book on Shakesepare and the law, which I plan to read.
Covering is part cultural argument, part memoir. In it he tells the story of his struggles with identity as a gay man, and as the son of Japanese immigrants. Yoshino describes covering as the third and last phase in the integration of any person (or group) with a stigma.
The first phase is conversion. An example would be how a gay man or woman would try not to be that way. It could also be a person of color who tries to be white. The second phase is passing, where conversion is no longer sought, but aspects of personality are hidden from others. The third phase, covering, takes place after a person has “come out,” but that they still conceal aspects of their identity to conform to the perceived mainstream.
In his talks on campus, Yoshino took pains to point out that while his story was a positive one, he acknowledges that there are significant chances for pain as others consider coming out or challenging the “mainstream” status quo. At the PETE lunch, he acknowledged that as a lawyer, he is fairly thick-skinned when he encounters pressure to hide his identity.
Others in the room said that they were not so thick-skinned, and a conversation ensued about the difficulty personally and academically when issues of orientation, race, or gender are picked on by students. Yoshino said that he discloses his orientation in his constitutional law or civil rights courses, but not in the literature courses he teaches, since orientation is not a topic in those courses. In explaining his orientation he identifies himself as a person coming from a particular point of view but he also emphasizes that he welcomes a vigorous debate.
Two of the big difference between Yoshino’s classes and those at a small liberal arts institution are the age of students (his are 23, undergrads closer to 18) and grading is anonymous in his (and most) law schools, but not in most liberal arts classes.
Yoshino’s solution to covering demands is cultural, not legal. He prefers a conversation focused on universal human rights rather than civil rights for a growing (and unmanageable) number of groups seeking protections. When a company or peer makes a covering demand, there should be room for a conversation about the reasons for that demand. If the reasons are rational, the demand to cover should be accepted. But reasons shouldn’t be accepted based only on organizational or “mainstream” cultural authority.