The literature on sex equality is shot through with accounts of this predicament, variously described as a “double bind,” a “Catch-22,” or a “tightrope.” In many workplaces, women are pressured to be “masculine” enough to be respected as workers, but also to be “feminine” enough to be respected as women. (I put the adjectives “masculine” and “feminine” in quotation marks when otherwise unmodified because I use them to describe perceptions rather than realities about traits held by men and women.) The sheer mass of evidence further persuades me that demands for conformity made of women are not generic, but target them as women. I also become convinced these contradictory demands mean the story of contemporary sex discrimination is more complex than a single narrative of forced conformity to the dominant group.
To see how distinctive this Catch-22 is to women, consider the absence of a gay equivalent. If gays were in the same position as women, straights would constantly ask me not only to cover but to reverse cover. If I dressed conservatively, I would be asked to wear edgier attire. If I “acted straight,” I would be urged to be more flamboyant. But I do not think gays occupy this position. With significant exceptions of the “queer eye for the straight guy” variety, straights generally only ask me to cover. In my experience, the reverse-covering demand is more likely to be made by gays themselves.
Racial minorities are more like gays than women in this regard. If I, as an Asian-American, “dress white” and speak “perfect unaccented English,” I will find safe harbor. Whites make occasional reverse-covering demands – “Speak Japanese so we can hear what it sounds like,” or, “No, tell us where you’re really from.” But again, I have fielded reverse-covering demands more often from other Asian Americans, who tell me to get as politicized about Asian American issues as I am about gay issues.
When gays or racial minorities are caught in the crossfire of covering and reverse-covering demands, it is often because we are caught between two communities. The majority community (straights or whites) makes the covering demand, and the minority community (gays or racial minorities) makes the reverse-covering demand. Recent literature on African-American “oppositional culture” illustrates this dynamic. In response to white demands that African-Americans “act white,” some African-Americans have developed a culture of “acting black.” An African-American could easily be caught in a Catch-22, but not one generated by whites alone. 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.
What makes women distinctive is that the dominant group – men – regularly imposes both covering and reverse-covering demands on them. Women are uniquely situated in this way because their subordination has more generally taken a unique form. Unlike gays and racial minorities, women have been cherished by their oppressors. Men have long valued the “feminine” traits women are supposed to hold, such as warmth, empathy, and nurture. Read the Post Quoted: Kenji Yoshino on The Gender Double Bind [Racialicious Read-Along]
I would think, I wish I were dead.
I did not think of it as a suicidal thought. My poet’s parsing mind read the first “I” and the second “I” as different “I’s.” The first “I” was the whole watching the self, while the second “I” – the one I wanted to kill – was the gay “I” nestled inside it. It was less a suicidal impulse than a homicidal one – the infanticide of the gay self I had described in the poem.
My only consistent foray from my rooms was to the college chapel, where I prayed to gods I did not believe in for transformation. No erotic desire I had ever felt exceeded my desire for conversion in those moments. It is hard now to recall that young man at prayer. To see him clearly is to feel the outlines of my present self grow fainter.
An older American student [also studying at Oxford at the time] tried to help. Arad was struggling to come out himself, but seemed, I thought enviously, much more self-possessed. He was the prodigy of his class – his intellectual feats, in medicine and philosophy, were reported in hushed and reverent tones. Tall and angular, he accentuated his forbidding demeanor with a black coat that billowed out like the wings of a predatory bird.
Arad was kind to me. I never named my malady, but he knew its ways better than I. I remember sitting in his rooms, listening to him describe the deadlines he had set for himself – to come out to his parents in three months, to go to a meeting of the college gay group in six months, to begin to date in a year. It was important, he said, to be a creature of will. Unable to meet his eye, I looked over his shoulder at the wall behind him, which was tiled with diplomas and awards. In the center were some framed black-and-white photographs he had taken. One caught my eye – a statue of a kneeling angel weeping with her head buried in her arms.
It was a portrait of abject perfection, a portrait of him, and it terrified me. I recognized the striving impulse in Arad as an attribute of my former self, and felt shame for having lost the discipline he possessed. Yet I was also frightened by the harshness of that will. I thanked him and left, never to return. I could not help him, and I knew he could not help me. […] Read the Post Quoted: Kenji Yoshino on Covering and Conformity [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”).
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. Read the Post Introducing The Racialicious Read Along! Kenji Yoshino’s Covering