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Covering by Kenji Yoshino

Kerry Kumabe

"Covering" is the demand "to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream." As Yoshino puts it, we are at a transitional moment in how Americans discriminate.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights

Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 0375760210
Author: Kenji Yoshino
Price: $15.95
Length: 304
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-02
UK publication date: 2006-02
Author website

There are those who would applaud the progress of American civil rights. Japanese American internment is now an embarrassing memory, segregation is long behind us, and some states now recognize same-sex civil unions. Sure, we seem to have developed a suspicion of turbans, and women still earn less than men, but aren't these minor annoyances compared to the problems we once had? America could very well have reached the pinnacle of liberalism. Can we really progress any further? We have far to go, Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino argues in his new book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. Yoshino contends that we are entering a new civil rights epoch, gripped by a new generation of discrimination he calls covering: "Covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights. We have not been able to see it as such because it has swaddled itself in the benign language of assimilation". To elaborate, Yoshino uses legal examples, but also draws upon his experiences as a gay man. "Told carefully," he explains, "the gay story becomes a story about us all -- the story of the uncovered self." This balance between particular and universal defines the form of Covering. Yoshino gracefully blends theory with memoir, and the result is a deeply personal, passionate foray into the future of our civil rights.

To define "covering," Yoshino re-posits the history of civil rights as "the story of a struggle against weakening demands for assimilation -- the demand to convert, the demand to pass, the demand to cover." "Conversion" describes the demand for change, such as physical or biological, illustrated by early attempts to "cure" homosexuality through electroshock therapy. "Passing" recognizes the immutability of difference but demands concealment, illustrated in laws such as "don't ask, don't tell." And "covering" allows for difference, but not the flaunting of difference. "Covering" is the demand "to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream." As Yoshino puts it, we are at a transitional moment in how Americans discriminate. Discrimination once targeted entire groups of minorities. Now, discrimination directs itself against those that fail to assimilate to mainstream norms.

"Covering" thus attempts to capture the insidious shifts prejudice has taken in recent years. Few would be foolish enough to openly discriminate because of race, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation now, but this does not mean prejudice has vanished. Yoshino uses several discrimination cases to illustrate. In Rogers v. American Airlines, for example, American Airlines fired Rogers, an African American woman, for violating their grooming policy by wearing her hair in cornrows. Yoshino argues that the American Airlines "no cornrow" policy violated the Civil Rights Act by disproportionately burdening African Americans without a business justification. In other words, American Airlines punished Roberts for "flaunting" her African American-ness with hair braids, and fired her for failing to "cover" her racial identity with a mainstream hairstyle. The court ruled in favor of American Airlines. Yoshino notes that covering demands, as illustrated by Roberts, "occur at such an intimate and daily level that they are not susceptible to legal correction." The law is "an inadequate remedy," he remarks. This is a rather chilling observation.

According to Covering, our final answers lie in social solutions and not legal solutions. "The new civil rights requires both legal and cultural action," Yoshino concludes. If we cannot depend upon the law, where does the future of civil rights lie? Simply recognizing covering demands is a good start, but where should we go from there? Yoshino never quite gets around to telling us, however, and he does not strain to offer solutions when he knows there is no quick answer. This is both a relief and a disappointment. Covering does not bore with intricate, Foucault-ian critical theory, but it does not present much resolution, either.

If Covering lacks some critical force, it is ultimately effective because of Yoshino's delicate honesty. "I have a personal investment in framing civil rights in this way, as I sorely need, and often lack, the courage to elaborate the many individual selves I might hold." If this book were simply a dry, critical analysis it would disappoint, but Yoshino is at his most convincing when confessing his personal turmoil. As a Yale Law School Dean educated at Phillip Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, and Yale Law School, Yoshino succeeded in the rarefied realms of the intellectual elite because he "covered" his gay and Asian American identities. But his concealment caused great psychic pain. He felt himself a "thing of darkness." Yoshino admits that even now, after coming out as gay to his parents, professors, and friends, his struggle with honesty continues. As he embraces his gay identity, he still finds himself shucking aside his Japanese identity. He ponders, "why is it I am so comfortable covering my Asian identity?" "Do I yearn to convert to whiteness?" There is again, no easy solution. But Yoshino does not stumble around for one.

Yoshino's personal story inspires, and his use of memoir keeps his discussion fresh. "I follow the Romantics here in their belief that if a human life is described with enough particularity, the universal will begin to speak through it," he writes. And it is true, the universal speaks through Yoshino.

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