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Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights Hardcover – January 17, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Seldom has a work of such careful intellectual rigor and fairness been so deeply touching. Yoshino, a law professor at Yale and a gay, Asian-American man, masterfully melds autobiography and legal scholarship in this book, marking a move from more traditional pleas for civil equality to a case for individual autonomy in identity politics. In questioning the phenomenon of "covering," a term used for the coerced hiding of crucial aspects of one's self, Yoshino thrusts the reader into a battlefield of shifting gray areas. Yet, at every step, he anticipates the reader's questions and rebuttals, answering them not only with acute reasoning, but with disarming humility. What emerges is an eloquent, poetic protest against the hidden prejudices embedded in American civil rights legislation—legislation that tacitly apologizes for "immutable" human difference from the white, male, straight norm, rather than defending one's "right to say what one is." Though Yoshino recognizes the law's potential to further (and hinder) liberty's cause, he admits that his "education in law has been an education in its limitations." Hence, by way of his unsparing accounts of self-realization, he reveals that the struggle against oppression lies not solely in fighting an imagined, monolithic state but as much in intimate discourse with the mother, the father and the colleague who constitute that state. As healing as it is polemical, this book has tremendous potential as a touchstone in the struggle for universal human dignity. (Jan. 24)
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From The New Yorker
Yoshino's memoir-cum-treatise combines a provocative examination of the current state of civil rights with an account of his experiences as a gay Japanese-American. Arguing that discrimination now targets "the subset of the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms," Yoshino describes a phenomenon that he calls "covering": the pressure exerted on racial minorities to "act white," the social acceptance offered to gays as long as they don't "flaunt" their identities, the ways women in the workplace are expected to camouflage their lives as mothers. Exploring the history of civil-rights litigation in the United States, Yoshino concludes that courts have too often focussed on individuals' capacity to assimilate, rather than on the legitimacy of the demand that they do so.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker
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Here, law professor Kenji Yoshino discusses the idea of covering, and how the demand (generally toward minority groups) to cover is in some way a violation of people's rights to liberty. What is covering? If 'passing' is the demand that people pass for something other than they are (blacks with light skin passing as white, gays pretending to be straight), 'covering' is the idea that, while you don't have to pass, you do have to keep your differences with others under wraps (blacks not acting "too black," or gays making sure not to "act too gay" in "polite company").
To discuss how covering makes life quite difficult, Yoshisno gets quite autobiographical, discussing and dissecting his own experience as a gay man who, at first, had to admit to himself that he was gay and, after that, had to navigate a world that might allow him to be gay but not allow him to (even inadvertently) draw attention to his homosexuality. So, while it has always been perfectly acceptable for straight couples to hold hands or walk arm-in-arm in public - without anyone accusing them of drawing attention to their own heterosexuality - gays who do the same thing will be readily accused of flaunting their homosexuality. Hence, while one might be allowed to be openly gay, whether to be openly gay in one's actions (and not just one's words) is often a pretty thorny question. Hence, the social demands to cover.
As the book progresses, Yoshino gets less autobiographical and more academic, discussing reports that others have of covering demands and how they affect many types of people, as well as cases in the law where the courts generally allow employers to enforce covering demands on the job. As to the former, Yoshino reports cases where women have been asked not to talk so much about responsibilities of motherhood in the workplace, and even to refrain from displaying pictures of their kids at their desks (where men generally are not asked to do this), the lengths the disabled often go to to hide their disabilities for fear of prejudgment by others, etc. As to the latter, Yoshino's conclusion is that while courts are generally good about barring employers from overt forms of discrimination around who one is (black, female, disabled, etc), the courts are generally content to allow employers to discriminate regarding what one does (wearing one's hear in cornrows, talking in a certain dialect, etc). Yoshino, though, questions whether and to what extent who one is can be separated meaningfully from what one does.
Yoshino concludes that the burden of proof should be on employers to give reasons why covering demands on employees are justified; they should have to give "reason-forcing arguments" in Yoshino's words, as to why covering demands shall be necessary. This is one of the few spots where I disagree with Yoshino, and I do so for two reasons. First, what is and isn't a good reason is a very fuzzy, if not a subjective, thing. If an employer wants, say, to prohibit employees from wearing cornrows because, say, they simply want their employees to look relatively 'mainstream,' could the court really find some objective way to determine whether this is a good reason? Indeed, if we follow Yoshino's opinions, he would almost never see a reason cor a covering demand to be good. Second, and more simply, we live within a legal system that puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff, not the defendant. Yoshino's idea would mean that every covering demand is guilty until the employer proves it innocent.
But Yoshino is also reluctant to use law as a way to remedy these things, mostly because he (rightly, I think) surmises that it would be VERY hard to get our legal system to change course, to allow judges to dig that far into employee-employer relations, and also, because he understands that covering is a social phenomenon, not just one confined to workplaces. And we can't (or shouldn't) likely expect the law to expland its scope of authority to all social interactions.
Anyhow, this is a really well written, and a very throughout, book. Ehrenreich, Chua, and Appiah were correct. Yoshino draws attention to a very little noticed (for those in the majority) phenomenon that anyone who cares about liberty in a pluralistic world should care about.
Wonderfully written. If you have any interest in social justice and creating a better world, this is a good one to read.
The law is clear that protecting peoples’ differences based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, and (dis)ability, is a fundamental part of our civil liberties. Despite this, however, 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. A case study he examines is about a black women who worked for American Airlines and fired for defiantly wearing cornrows. She sued arguing that wearing cornrows were an intrinsic part of her race/culture but lost. Women are told to “play like men” in white collar workplaces but simultaneously expected to be feminine and dress sexy. We see this often; a double standard and usually a catch-22. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. Yoshino recounts a story of a woman who was offered a job at a law firm but immediately had the offer rescinded after being found out that she was lesbian and planning to marry. She sued and lost because courts deemed that the “flaunting” of her sexuality is not legally discriminatory.
It’s a very fine line. It may be illegal to refuse to hire or fire someone for being gay but it is completely legal to regulate and discriminate against certain behavior. Since the courts do not see behavior (a black woman wearing cornrows or a gay man having overtly effeminate mannerisms) as an immutable aspect of ourselves, they are not protected under equal protection laws. We can be gay, but just not act gay. How asinine.