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Covering is a manifesto for the oppressed authentic self in each of us

Kenji Yoshino was destined to obsess about identity. A first-generation Japanese-American, his parents raised him to be “100 percent American in America and 100 percent Japanese in Japan.” A vague prescription for an adult, much less a transpacific child. Toss in homosexuality, which he didn’t confront till after college, and one finds a writer well-acquainted with the closet.

Yoshino’s first book, Covering, takes its title from Canadian sociologist Irving Goffman, who used the term to describe how members of minority groups downplay their differences in order to fit into the dominant culture. Covering is similar to, but not the same as, “passing,” a term typically pegged to African Americans who get by as white. A useful example of covering is found in Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who avoided being photographed in his wheelchair. The President didn’t deny he was disabled; he just opted to hide it.

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Yoshino’s personal example comes courtesy of a Yale Law School colleague who tells him he’ll have a better crack at tenure if he’s a “homosexual professional” rather than a “professional homosexual.” Yoshino initially acquiesces, keeping his boyfriend away from faculty parties, and not teaching gay civil-rights law even though he’s passionate about the issue.

Because of patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, and even the so-called “fetishization” of the able-bodied, a host of minority cultures find themselves “covering” their authentic selves. According to the author, women are discouraged from discussing childcare in the workplace; gays are encouraged to act straight; and African Americans occasionally are fired for nontraditional hairstyles (NBA dress code anyone?).

These days, most blatant race- or gender-based discrimination is legislated against, but covering demands are not. As Yoshino sees it, covering is the future of civil rights — not based on group identity politics, however, but on the premise of individual liberty. Part memoir, part legal history, Covering is a nuanced polemic that pushes for a civil-rights paradigm that’s as original as it is inchoate. Covering advocates for social rather than legal solutions that are more libertarian than a conservative reader might imagine. And more formless than a Queer Nation might have patience for.

Putting aside the question of how much motherhood

is a “flauntable identity,” the statement is puzzling.

Doesn’t most of the world exist “in the extreme

vulnerability of pre-tenured life?”

Some of Yoshino’s musings are skewed through Ivory Tower beer goggles, a condition contracted by logging too much time in an environment where everything but the napkin holders is politicized. This results in statements like this:

“I feel a rush of admiration when a junior colleague speaks out against scheduling workshops after business hours because of its exclusionary effect on mothers like her. I identify with the courage it takes to ‘flaunt’ such an identity in the extreme vulnerability of pre-tenured life.”

Putting aside the question of how much motherhood is, or should be, a “flauntable identity,” the statement is puzzling. Doesn’t most of the world exist “in the extreme vulnerability of pretenured life?” Just ask an IBM employee about their pension. Or a Ford worker about, uhhh, the rest of their life ...

It’s also worth pointing out that Yoshino confesses to another identity: poet. This explains the appearance of such words as “ravening,” “whorl” and others seldom found in books without Kaplan on the cover. Sadly, stereotypes of the self-important poet are not eradicated in these pages.

Covering:
The hidden Assault
on our Civil Rights


By Kenji Yoshino
Random House
$24.95, 304 pages
ISBN: 0375508201

After a job interview in which a federal judge betrays the fact that he’s never encountered the term “Queer” as a political signifier and knows nothing of the Pink Triangle, Yoshino is indignant. Understandably so, but does he have to take it out on his readers with this: “By the time I returned to school, I knew I would write an essay on gay symbolic politics that drew on both legal and literary theory. I wrote with a passion I had felt before only for poetry.”

And the world hasn’t been the same since.

Yoshino never articulates the extent to which economic fears take precedence over identity-based ones. Does Mary Sue not discuss her child-care needs at work for fear of “flaunting” a gender identity or because she doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of her boss for more mundane reasons? In addition, the question of what covering means to racial and other minority groups is delicate to say the least. Charging a person with covering for behaving in ways that don’t seem “authentic” to a specific minority culture is arguably as stifling to one’s authentic self as any dress code. To his credit, Yoshino is aware of this. Covering might not deliver us to a totally new civil-rights debate, but it does start a fresh dialogue that’s not afraid to hide from its own complex implications.

By John Dicker


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