by Latoya Peterson
I’m starting to love air travel. It is really the only time where I actually have to disengage from the internet, which becomes time to read actual books.
On this trip, I packed Kenji Yoshino’s Covering, a book I had been intending to read for quite some time. In Yoshino’s gut-wrenching combination of memoir and legal study, he brings a lost concept back into the lexicon to allow us to use new language when discussing issues of race and assimilation. The term he uses is called covering.
“Covering” is sociologist Erving Goffman’s term for how we try to “tone down” stigmatized identities, even when those identities are known to the world. In my work, I describe four axes along which individuals can cover: appearance, affiliation, activism, and association.
Appearance concerns how an individual physically presents himself to the world. Affiliation concerns his cultural identifications. Activism concerns how much he politicizes his identity. Association concerns his choice of fellow travelers — spouses, friends, colleagues.
So a person with an X identity can cover by making sure he doesn’t look like a stereotypical X, disaffiliating himself from X culture, not engaging in activism about X causes, and distancing himself from other Xs. It’s probably easier to see how this works in concrete cases. Those can be found below.
But why do we cover?
As Yoshino explains in his introduction:
Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our increasingly diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way. Nonetheless, being deemed mainstream is still often a necessity of social life. For this reason, every reader of this book has covered, whether consciously or not, and sometimes at significant personal cost. […]
I recognize the value of assimilation, which is often necessary to fluid social interactions, to peaceful coexistence, and even to the dialogue through which difference is valued. For that reason, this is no simple screed against conformity. What I urge here is that we approach the renaissance of assimilation in this country critically. We must be willing to see the dark side of assimilation, and specifically of covering, which is the most widespread form of assimilation required of us today.
Covering is a hidden assualt 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. But if we look closely, we will see that covering is the way many groups are held back today. The reason racial minorities are pressured to “act white” is because of white supremacy. The reason women are told to downplay their child care responsibilities in the workplace is because of patriarchy. And the reason gays are asked not to “flaunt” is because of homophobia. So long as such covering demands persist, American civil rights will not have completed its work.
Over the next few weeks, we will discuss in depth the ideas posed in Yoshino’s book.
Ideas on format or requests on specific sections are welcome.