Covering: The Hidden Assaulton Our Civil Rights [Buy Now]

Random House, New York
By Kenji Yoshino
304 pages
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.” Toss in homosexuality, which he didn’t confront until after college, and heres’s a writer well acquainted with the closet.

Yoshino’s first book, Covering, gets its title from Canadian sociologist Irving Goffman, who used it to describe how members of minority groups downplay their differences in order to fit in to the dominant culture. Covering is similar, 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 FDR, who avoided being photographed in his wheelchair. The president didn’t deny he was disabled; he just opted to hide it.

Then there’s Yoshino’s own example, courtesy of a Yale law school colleague who tells him he’ll have a better crack at tenure if he’s a “homosexual professional,” not a “professional homosexual.” Yoshino initially acquiesces, keeping his boyfriend away from faculty parties, and not teaching gay civil rights law even though it’s something he’s passionate about.

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 are occasionally fired for nontraditional hairstyles.

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 inchoate than a Queer Nation might have patience for.

Some of Yoshino’s musings are skewed through Ivory Tower goggles, a condition wrought from logging too much time in an environment where everything but the napkin holders is politicized. This leaks out 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 pretenured 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?”

It’s also worth pointing out that Yoshino confesses to another identity: poet. This explains the appearance of words like “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.

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.

To what extent economic fears take precedence over identity-based ones is never articulated. 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 not 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 new dialogue that’s not afraid to hide from its own complex implications.