Racial Covering, Part I [Racialicious Read-Along]

by Latoya Peterson/A Racialicious Roundtable


One of the examples Yoshino uses while discussing racial covering is another memoir.

Racial covering occurs when non-whites “act white” by modulating their behaviors. A useful example of racial covering can be seen in Eric Liu’s memoir The Accidental Asian. Liu follows the statement “Here are some of the ways you could say I am ‘white,’” with the following catalog:

    I listen to National Public Radio.
    I wear khaki Dockers.
    I own brown suede bucks.
    I eat gourmet greens.
    I have few close friends “of color.”
    I married a white woman.
    I am a child of the suburbs.
    I furnish my condo à la Crate & Barrel.
    I vacation in charming bed-and-breakfasts.
    I have never once been the victim of blatant discrimination.
    I am a member of several exclusive institutions.
    I have been in the inner sanctums of political power.
    I have been there as something other than an attendant.
    I have the ambition to return.
    I am a producer of the culture.
    I expect my voice to be heard.
    I speak flawless, unaccented English.
    I subscribe to Foreign Affairs.
    I do not mind when editorialists write in the first person plural.
    I do not mind how white television casts are.
    I am not too ethnic.
    I am wary of minority militants.
    I consider myself neither in exile nor in opposition.
    I am considered a “credit to my race.”

Notice how Liu’s list includes all four of the covering axes: appearance (“I wear khaki Dockers,” “I own brown suede bucks”); affiliation (“I listen to National Public Radio,” “I furnish my condo à la Crate & Barrel,” “I speak flawless, unaccented English”); activism (“ I do not mind how white television casts are,” “I am not too ethnic,” “I am wary of minority militants”); and association (“I have few friends ‘of color,’” “I married a white woman”).

In this passage, Yoshino starts to really untangle the meanings of such a list, referring first to himself and how he views the Liu’s list.

Liu stresses his “yellow skin and yellow ancestors” – he has not passed or converted. Yet he believes these covering behaviors have transformed him. Observing that “some are born white, others achieve whiteness, still others have whiteness thrust upon them,” he says he has become “white, by acclamation.” That metamorphosis is also internal. Liu says that insofar as he as moved “away from the periphery and toward the center of American life,” he has “become white inside.”

My first reaction to this list is a jolt of Linnaean pleasure. Liu’s list includes all four of my covering axes: appearance (“I wear khaki Dockers,” “I own brown suede bucks”); affiliation (“I listen to National Public Radio,” “I furnish my condo à la Crate and Barrel,” “I speak flawless, unaccented English”); activism (“I do not mind how white television casts are,” “I am not too ethnic,” “I am wary of minority militants”); and association (“I have few close friends ‘of color’,” “I married a white woman.”)

But then I became puzzled. I could, with minor revisions, sign my name to this list. This suggests I have covered my own Asian-American identity as much as I have covered my gay one. Yet, these two forms of covering feel different. I regret covering my gay identity – refusing [ex-boyfriend] Paul’s extended hand or abstaining from gay activism. Contemplating my racial covering behaviors incites no such self-recrimination. It strikes me that I, like Liu, am an “accidental Asian” – someone who only “happens to be” Asian.

I believe this country is in the grip of white supremacy as it is in the grip of heteronormativity. So why is it I am so comfortable covering my Asian identity? It is because Asians are more accepted than gays? Is it because I have always had a place to elaborate my racial self? Is it because racial covering does not feel like a response based on fear?

I’ll get to Yoshino’s conclusions – and thoughts of his students – a little later. Still intrigued over this list and the subsequent meanings, I enlisted the Racialicious crew to respond. My instructions were basic:

Racialicious crew, I’d like you to go through this list, line by line. Please note which of these (if any) apply to you, and your own personal reactions to the assertions. Please try to get this to me by the end of the week.

The responses were illuminating, to say the least.

Arturo

Ok, here we go with the ones that I identified with:* I have few close friends “of color”: Unfortunately, this has come about in part because of the circles I run in: Rocky Horror, comic-books, general geekery.

* I am a child of the suburbs: As a child I literally lived in South Central Tijuana. But if I’m reading this right, I think this one applies because I typically lived in “safe” areas.

* I expect my voice to be heard: I’m not sure how “racial” this is. I’m a Leo, a blogger, a twitter and a podcaster. Loudness comes with the territory, no?

* I speak flawless, unaccented English: Definitely an accident, rather than an affectation. Even growing up in Mexico, I learned to speak English – thanks, Toho Studios! – before my own native language.

* I am not too ethnic: I get what Liu is saying in context, but, again, since I grew up not here, I’ve always considered myself ethnic – just not in the way people in the U.S. tend to interpret Mexicanidad.

* I am wary of minority militants: This was certainly the case for me when I moved to the States in junior high; Chicanismo and “Pochismo” were interchangeable terms in my family – a way of distinguishing native Mexicans from immigrants in a prejorative sense. In later years that waryness manifested itself in the context of feeling like I was looked at as being “not too ethnic.”

* I am considered a “credit to my race”: Once, when I was in high school, a friend called me, “one of the GOOD Mexicans.”

As far as the others, they definitely connote a division in tax brackets. I wonder if I get to keep my “‘Hood Pass” because they don’t apply to me.

Wendi

As a child, I was sometimes told by my family and classmates (all black) that I was trying to be white. I never felt that I was trying to be anything other than myself. Despite my family’s not always using correct English or having interests beyond those designated as (stereotypically) “black,” I identified with both popular culture and subculture different from theirs. I did not do it on purpose. It is just the way things panned out.

Nevertheless, the refrain always went right back to my liking x music or being interesting in y style or speaking perfect, clear English somehow being symbols of my attempt to disguise my blackness or, at least, act like a member of a race to which I did not belong. Even at an early age, I knew there was something wrong with this characterization. I knew without being told directly what black and white meant in our society, and I was ultimately opposed to being stuck into one or the other simply because of my behavior or my physical features and skin color. I also objected to the idea that my being educated, well-spoken, and creative was somehow at odds with my blackness. Was this not a complete insult to all black people, including myself and those who teased me for being “different”? Did “acting black” mean adhering to some tired stereotype, even if I didn’t feel in my heart that it fit me? I also took issue with the assumption that anything “positive’ was ultimately associated with whiteness, as if anything infinitely approaching perfection also meant infinitely approaching being like whites.

I think what I found most troubling, however, is that in order to get ahead, in order to have a job or continue my education, I knew that being myself, whatever racial realm that may fall into, was what was going to help me advance in the world. Call it assimilation if you will, but it is also our reality. I had watched my family members change their voices if speaking to strangers or making professional phone calls as if other blacks did not deserve their best diction and command of English while non-blacks did, almost as if black vernacular English were some sort of foreign language my family spoke outside of the presence and gaze as others, just as many immigrant families may switch to their native languages at home. I found relief in the fact that I already spoke the language I needed in order to do well at an interview or be accepted by peers of any race (at least on the superficial level). If anything, my family was putting on more of an act that I ever was.

Did I feel I was any less black for being myself? No. And in actuality, I ended up hearing the same stories from my college peers of color, indicating that I was not alone in this philosophical struggle to be myself, to live beyond the lines of antiquated racially-oriented limits for the sake of pleasing other people who may or may not consciously choose to adhere to them. At the end of the day, I owe no one an apology. I know who I am and know about my history. No one’s poorly founded jabs at my behavior or speech, most of which are probably rooted in jealousy or simple confusion in seeing someone behave beyond their stereotypical norms, are going to make me feel guilty about being myself.

Andrea

This is ripping off some wounds for me, mostly because the way I heard—and still hear—“acting white” is in the tone of accusation from some other Black people, especially from my own family and ex-friends, a cut to make sure I don’t see myself as better than them because I have, say, a higher level of education than they do and, because of that, have exposure to—and, deities forbid, a liking of!–ideas and other things that they don’t, for whatever reasons. That, in essence, I can “cover” around white people, perhaps better than the Black people who throw this phrase will, want, or can. So, I’m coming at this a bit leery.With that said, I’m looking at Liu’s list, and the only ways I have or still do “cover “ are:

–I listen to National Public Radio

–I have partnered with white mates (my major celeb crushes are white guys, i.e. Viggo Mortensen and Clive Owen)

–Speaking flawless, unaccented English (with a caveat: I know how to code-switch. Also, coming from the Midwest, my particular accent is considered the standard American one.)

–I own brown suede bucks (revision: I own a pair of Brooks Brothers penny loafers, the ones in which I can insert actual pennies. One of my exes, a white man, gave them to me)

–I eat gourmet greens (revision: I know what they are and have eaten them in my adult life).

But if I had to draw up my own list of how I “act white” it would look like this:

–I listen and like old country (Patsy Cline), alt-country (Lyle Lovett), and bluegrass.

–I practice a form of Buddhism and was a convert to Roman Catholicism.

–I participated in a couple of pagan ceremonies.

–I know how to do—and like—yoga.

–I know several schools of interior design (and liking and decorating your dwelling in Crate & Barrel will earn permanent direct side-eye and yawns from me).

–I believe in feminism.

–I’m deeply and vocally pro-abortion.

–I like my collard greens in the form of a marinated salad.

–I like to salsa and tango.

–I like the New York Times and C-Span.

–I like Masterpiece Theatre and Monty Python.

–Heck, I like PBS.

Then I look at my list and think, am I doing and/or do I like these things because I’m trying to “act white,” to cover, or just because I like them, whether or not it gets me “in good” with the white people I may run into or befriend?

I understand some of the above-listed items may hold cachet with some white people; I see how their faces light up when I mention these things, as if to say, “You aren’t like those other Black folks. Yay me!” And when I did have more white friends than those of color, the crowd I hung with liked those things. And, yeah, I got off on that exoticizing attention because it was wrapped up in finally finding people with whom I could share some common interests. (When I lived in the Midwest and in Boston, it was mostly white people who were into those things.) At the same time, I also found white people who resented the facts that I speak with an unaccented clip, know what arugula is, had a white partner, can dance salsa, and like Greg Wise and Frances O’Connor in Madame Bovary because that knowledge indicates my exposure to “educated” tastes, which gets read as my thinking that I’m equal to or better than them. And I’ve found Black folks and other PoCs who have the same tastes and life experiences I have, especially living in NYC and being online.

Another flip in the idea of “covering” is how much is within a person’s control? Liu certainly can’t help the fact that he grew up in the suburbs or that he fell in love and married a white person (though some folks may argue his attraction to his partner). Can the same be argued for personal tastes in, say, food or TV shows or dancing, which may or may not emerge as a way to assimilate? And just because a PoC is down with, say, Monty Python, does that mean the person is inherently “covering?”

I had to then I have to look at what it means to “act” like a certain group in order to “cover.” It seems to me the working definition is “the observed behavior of a significant number of people within a particular demographic, i.e. white people, men, straight people, etc.” This, however, also steers awfully close to stereotyping that observed group.

Thea

The items on the list that applied to me:I eat gourmet greens.

I am a member of several exclusive institutions.

I am a producer of the culture.

I expect my voice to be heard.

I do not mind when editorialists write in the first person plural.

There were others that applied to me (I have few close friends “of color.”; I speak flawless, unaccented English), but I would never use that kind of language, or have reason to make some sort of comment like “my best friend is Korean!” Usually those sorts of statements are made to assert worldiness, or immunity to being a racist – I have never felt the need to assert those things.

In the same vein, one thing I noticed about the list is that (oddly) it makes the assumption that the list taker is white. (Again, it’s hard to imagine a POC saying “I have a few close friends of colour.” That would just be weird.)

This is interesting in itself since much of the racism experienced by (educated, middle class 2nd+++ gen) Americans of colour consists of being faced by a culture that totally assumes you have the exact same cultural background as the dominant culture. For example, our experience is erased when we our work cafeteria’s “Homestyle Cooking Menu” is mashed potatoes and macaroni & cheese; or when romantic comedies are supposed to express a universal picture of romance, but all the actors are always white.

But back to the list – it contains a weird contradiction in that it feels like the list is assuming the list taker is white, yet the last item (and the last item only) indicates that list is for POCs; I can’t imagine a white person saying “I am a credit to my race.”

In this sense it’s almost like the list is made for POCs who don’t think of themselves as POCs. It reminds me of the scene in See No Evil Hear No Evil, where Richard Pryor plays an adult blind person who has always assumed he is white – and then is told he is black. Upon this revelation, the character grabs his face and exclaims “Does Dad know??” Hahaha…but seriously. There are lots of POCs who don’t “realise” that they are POCs – ie don’t realise that the world racialises them.

It makes me wonder how this kind of POC fits into the concept of covering – the person who covers without recognising that that’s what they’re doing. Or is that what covering is?

That brings me to my next point: while reading the list I wondered about POCs who stay at bed and breakfasts and shop at Crate and Barrel simply because they like to, and not because they’re attempting to give themselves an identity makeover.

Of course we recognise the specific cultural ramifications of the lifestyle choices we make as we make them – but we have to recognise that the point of anti-racism and anti-oppressive work is to create a culture where people can make whatever choices they want. That means that, for example, we want to make space for black folks to listen to gangster rap and not be concerned about being labelled a racial stereotype, AND black folks to make asparagus for dinner and not be considered race traitors.

What I’m trying to say is that if this list (and the concept of covering) is suggesting that any POC who performs behaviour associated with “whiteness” is covering (no matter whether or not they simply enjoy the activity), then I’m not down with that.

PS: I also noticed that the list uses racially problematic language, and I don’t know what to make of that. For example see these two items: “I’m not too ethnic” and “I speak flawless, unaccented English.” Hey, everybody’s ethnic, and everyone speaks English with an accent.

Latoya

I’m always amused at these kinds of lists. I’m not sure what they “prove,” if anything. But then again, I grew up learning that whiteness was to be despised, not embraced, so I have trouble understanding these types of associations.So, going through the list, I thought to myself:

I listen to National Public Radio.

NPR is dominated by white voices, even more so now that News and Notes is off the air. But it’s a news source – is being aware of the news and current events a white thing? I doubt it.

I wear khaki Dockers.

No wait, I kind of agree with this one. I’m not invested in Dockers as a brand and don’t really have knowledge of their practices, but there are clothing companies – most notably, Abercrombie and Fitch – that peddle an aggressively white brand image. And Abercrombie backs that up with discriminating against their employees at every level possible – race, age, attractiveness, weight, ability – they’ve had lawsuits filed for everything. I wouldn’t touch that brand with a ten foot pole. So, I suppose a clothing brand can racialize itself, but only if it is as aggressive as Abercrombie.

I own brown suede bucks.

Are these like saddle shoes?

I eat gourmet greens.

Me too. They’re tasty and they should be available to every one. The premium pricing is some bullshit. Word to Bryant Terry!

I have few close friends “of color.”

How peculiar. All my close friends are POCs. Where do you live?

I married a white woman.

Good for you. I date brown people. So?

I am a child of the suburbs.

Me too. Whiteness was alienating but fading by the time I hit high school.

I furnish my condo à la Crate & Barrel.

So wait, the rest of us don’t shop there? What kind of ish is this? Do I need to email CB2 and tell them to stop sending me catalogs I drool over but never buy anything from? I dare you to try that shit with Ikea…oh wait, maybe Target is brown-sanctioned…

I vacation in charming bed-and-breakfasts.

No thanks. I like the anonymity of hotels.

I have never once been the victim of blatant discrimination.

Damn, where do you live? [Aside: Later in Yoshino's book, we find that Liu was not exactly truthful about this point.]

I am a member of several exclusive institutions.

Nah, not a joiner.

I have been in the inner sanctums of political power.

Define that. Are we talking Congress, or secret societies?

I have been there as something other than an attendant.

But as something other than token representation, I wonder? I’ve been there, it’s not fun.

I have the ambition to return.

Meh, there are many different paths to an end.

I am a producer of the culture.

Old media or new media? Really, I need more clarity here, Liu.

I expect my voice to be heard.

Always.

I speak flawless, unaccented English.

Does anyone speak flawless English? Especially considering our language is in a constant state of flux.

I subscribe to Foreign Affairs.

I don’t like that mag, but I read it, along with the Economist, Newsweek, Utne – are we back on the news is white meme again?

I do not mind when editorialists write in the first person plural.

I do. There’s a whole lot of “We” in this country.

I do not mind how white television casts are.

Man, my raison d’être is pointing that shit out.

I am not too ethnic.

I think I’m disqualified. I passed the “too ethnic” threshhold years ago.

I am wary of minority militants.

Carmen, you should make this our new site tag. “Beware the minority militants and their brainwashed white associates.”

I consider myself neither in exile nor in opposition.

Hmm? Neither do I, but somehow I don’t think we mean the same thing with this turn of phrase.

I am considered a “credit to my race.”

I fucking hate this term. And the whole idea of “talented tenths” “model minorities” and all that other bullshit.

Yoshino concludes the section on Liu’s list by exploring other meanings that came to the surface during discussions with his students:

Like many of my colleagues, I sometimes teach seminars to puzzle through problems. A student once posted a mock course description titled “Law and Me,” spoofing the golden thread of narcissism that ravels through our pedagogy. As a student, though, I always welcomed engagements in which the professor was willing to risk transformation. So I teach a seminar to explore the relationship between assimilation and discrimination across race, sex orientation, and religion.

I give my twelve students Liu’s list. Julie, an Asian-American woman, says she is struck by the grammar of the sentences. She points out that each sentence begins with the word “I,” that each takes Liu as its subject and not as its object, and that each is declarative and unhedged by qualifiers. This sense of agency, she continues, extends to content – “I am a member of several exclusive institutions,” “I expect my voice to be heard.” But then she notes this power comes at a price. She says these statements can be paired like contracts – “If you let me into ‘the inner sanctums of political power,’ I will not be ‘too ethnic.’” “If you let me be ‘a producer of the culture,’ I will ‘not mind how white television casts are’.” This, she says, is the deal – if you want to be central, assimilate to the white norm.

I ask the class what they think of this bargain. Jean, also an Asian-American woman, takes Liu to task for being a “banana,” an Asian who is yellow on the outside but white on the inside. She thinks Liu is in denial, as she cannot imagine any self-respecting minority could remain untroubled by the whiteness of television. The comment engenders a murmur of disagreement. She retorts that we need not speculate about whether denial is occurring, as Liu says on the list that he has never been a victim of blatant discrimination, but says elsewhere in the book that he grew up being called “chink.” She says it bothers her that he thinks any form of English could be “unaccented,” and that she thinks of him as an Uncle Tom.

I look at Jean more closely. She has taken a class with me before, in which she said almost nothing, and turned in a perfect exam. What startles me is the passion in her voice. In this class, she will begin a paper, which will later be published. The paper argues that Asian-Americans occupy a kind of closet, in which attributes associated with our culture must be muted in the public sphere. Actors who have made it into the mainstream – such as Keanu Reeves or Dean Cain – closet their racial difference in their very bodies, downplaying their Asian ancestry. Other prominent Asian-Americans, like Liu, cabin their ethnicity in the private spaces of their homes. I read her paper as a primer on Asian covering, and I am startled at how closely it describes my own experience.

[...]Jean kindles my conscience. I still find many items on Liu’s list – the gourmet greens, the suede shoes, the expectation my voice will be heard – unproblematic. Others look more suspect when I revisit them. I realize I accept the whiteness of television casts in part because I dread how Asians will be portrayed if we are included. I also know the absence of Asians from these public portrayals means that Asians – like gays – will be less likely to see ourselves as the protagonists of our lives. I see my students have intuited my long and thoughtless history of not associating with other Asian-Americans – gay students seek me out far more than Asian ones do. I see that my pleasure when I am deemed a “credit to my race” always reinscribes the primacy of an actual or imagined white audience.

Covering is a masterfully complex work that manages to blend together the law, sociology, race, sexuality, gender, religion, societal expectations and cultures is a poetic but poignant way. This is why I selected the book for the read along. As we progress through the work, we will visit various aspects of Yoshino’s discoveries and hopefully reflect on how the concepts he uncovers play out in our lives.

So this leads us to the first question – what was your perception on Liu’s list? (Feel free to comment on the other points brought up by the correspondents or Yoshino, but Liu’s list and it’s assumption about racialized action is the cornerstone of this discussion.)