The Perils of Passing

The Los Angeles Times

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino, Random House: 286 pp., $24.95

Kenji Yoshino’s new book, “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,” is a plea for the populace to take action on what he sees as one of the pressing issues of our time. It is a problem, the Yale University professor of law contends, that threatens fundamental human liberty and one the U.S. legal system cannot fully address.

The distinction between being and doing is at the heart of Yoshino’s argument about “covering,” a term he has borrowed from sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1963 book, “Stigma.” It describes the act of downplaying a disfavored trait so as to blend in.

Covering is a well-known phenomenon among groups traditionally linked to civil rights issues: Racial minorities feel pressured to “act white”; women in professional arenas opt to “play like men”; people with physical disabilities try to fit in by hiding crutches or otherwise masking their differences from the able-bodied world. It is one thing to be gay, for instance, a status increasingly protected in legislation and policymaking. It is another thing altogether to flaunt one’s gayness through active display, such as marrying someone of the same sex or acknowledging sexual activity while in the military.

Assimilation is not necessarily problematic, Yoshino argues, but coercion to assimilate is. Using gay history as an example, he recalls widespread attempts at forced conversion — with heterosexuality the goal, lobotomies and electroshock treatments were practiced well into the mid-20th century. Increased tolerance and understanding have virtually eradicated such drastic attacks, but pressure endures to avoid demonstrations of one’s racial, sexual or gender identity. Covering, then, is a subtler, more complex form of assimilation expressed through appearance, affiliation, activism or association, the four axes that Yoshino sees as the “fundamental dimensions along which we all mute or flaunt our identities.”

The legal system offers an insufficient avenue for redress, Yoshino claims, because the many demands to cover “occur at such an intimate and daily level that they are not susceptible to legal correction.” Indeed, he writes, the urge to cover often comes from within. With a leavening humor that ripples throughout the book, he points to his impulse to hide his own homosexuality. “When I hesitate before engaging in a public display of same-sex affection, I am not thinking of the state or my employer, but of the strangers around me and my own internal censor. And while I am often tempted to sue myself, this is not my healthiest impulse.”

Paradoxically, the pressure against conforming to an imagined mainstream ideal — reverse covering — can be just as oppressive to the individual. “More generally, negative epithets for racial minorities who cover — such as ‘Oreo,’ ‘banana,’ ‘coconut,’ or ‘apple’ — seem to come from minority groups rather than from whites,” Yoshino observes.

For this meditation on identity and self-liberation, Yoshino mixes scholarship with memoir — and a degree of personal exposure he was initially reluctant to offer up. “But I came to see that I could not compose an argument about the importance of human authenticity without risking such authenticity myself.”

Yoshino was a typical child of immigrants — the repository of his parents’ dreams for all that their adopted country promised. His parents sent him to Exeter, the exclusive and predominantly white East Coast boarding school, and they questioned why he would join Asian American student groups that would only isolate him from the majority. Yet they enrolled him in Japanese language correspondence courses and sent him to Japan each summer, hoping he would make a deep connection to their native culture.

Yoshino felt like a fish out of water in both worlds. Anglo Americans would look at his face and ask where he really came from; but when his parents’ countrymen heard his stilted Japanese, they responded with disdain and worse. Noting the Japanese proverb, “the protruding nail gets hammered,” Yoshino adds that “all Japanese society seemed entitled to do the hammering.”

With great tenderness toward those who helped and challenged his budding sexuality, Yoshino writes of struggling to accept his sexual orientation, including the anxiety surrounding coming out to his parents and how, for a time, he would not bring his boyfriend to workplace events.

Others have faced far worse. Yoshino gives examples of people who have lost jobs, promotions and child custody in recent decades — examples backed up by 65 pages of end notes and bibliography. He also examines cases of people who “breached the social contract of assimilation” by flaunting rather than covering — “an African-American woman was prohibited from wearing cornrows, a Latino was struck from a jury for acknowledging his capacity to speak Spanish, a Filipina nurse was barred from speaking Tagalog at work.”

Even when not actionable, the need to cover has a chilling effect on performance. Yoshino cites a study of gender issues in University of Pennsylvania Law School classrooms showing that “women who spoke out in class were subjected to hissing, public humiliation, and gossip. Women who did not conform to stereotypically feminine behavior were called ‘man-hating lesbians’ or ‘feminazi dykes.’ “Not exactly an encouragement to pipe right up.

Yoshino advises us to go beyond emphasizing civil rights to promote more inclusive human rights.

“Contemporary civil rights has erred in focusing solely on traditional civil rights groups, such as racial minorities, women, gays, religious minorities, and individuals with disabilities,” he writes. “This assumes those in the so-called mainstream — those straight white men — do not have covered selves. They are understood only as impediments, as people who prevent others from expressing themselves, rather than as individuals who are themselves struggling for self-definition. No wonder they often respond to civil rights advocates with hostility. They experience us as asking for an entitlement they themselves have been refused — an expression of their full humanity.”

We all feel pressure to cover, he is saying. But because the law is not equipped to handle the subtleties of complex humans, the real work of uncovering falls to society, to individuals.

“[Covering] demands are better redressed through appeals to our individual faculties of conscience and compassion,” Yoshino writes. “When my colleagues suggested I stop writing on gay topics, my best response was not a lawsuit but a conversation.”

Practically speaking, it’s hard to say whether Yoshino’s rallying cry will catch on. After all, the same pressures that urge us to cover also mute us in the face of perceived criticism. But the potential benefit, he says, is human flourishing, and that has always been the aspiration of civil rights. To underscore his point, he offers, again, an example of his own life, and the poignancy of his personal victory is as compelling as any other piece of his treatise.

“Being gay shifted for me from being a condition into being a life only when I began to overcome covering demands,” he writes. “This was where I came to possess my emotions, my culture, my politics, my lovers. This was where gay life assumed a tincture of joy.”