The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights
House, 304 pages, $24.95
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 you have a writer well-acquainted
with the closet.
Yoshino’s first book, Covering, gets 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 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 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 (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 inchoate
than a Queer Nation might have patience for.
Some of Yoshino’s musings are skewed through Ivory Tower beer
goggles, a condition wrought from logging too much time in
an environment where everything but the napkin holders is
politicized. This spews 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 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 pre-tenured
life?” Just ask an IBM employee about their pension. Or a
Ford worker about, uh, the rest of their 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. Does Mary Sue not discuss her childcare
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?
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