In this remarkable and elegant work, acclaimed Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino fuses legal manifesto and poetic memoir to call for a redefinition of civil rights in our law and culture.Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life.
Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the demand to cover can pose a hidden threat to our civil rights. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. Racial minorities are pressed to "act white" by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to "play like men" at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. In a wide-ranging analysis, Yoshino demonstrates that American civil rights law has generally ignored the threat posed by these covering demands. With passion and rigor, he shows that the work of civil rights will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity.
At the same time, Yoshino is responsive to the American exasperation with identity politics, which often seems like an endless parade of groups asking for state and social solicitude. He observes that the ubiquity of the covering demand provides an opportunity to lift civil rights into a higher, more universal register. Since we all experience the covering demand, we can all make common cause around a new civil rights paradigm based on our desire for authenticity-a desire that brings us together rather than driving us apart.
Yoshino's argument draws deeply on his personal experiences as a gay Asian American. He follows the Romantics in his belief that if a human life is described with enough particularity, the universal will speak through it. The result is a work that combines one of the most moving memoirs written in years with a landmark manifesto on the civil rights of the future.
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February 20, 2007
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Excerpt from Covering by Kenji Yoshino
Send the beloved child on a journey," the Japanese proverb says. So when I turned thirteen, my parents sent me to boarding school. I could see they wished to keep me close, but worried about the effects of tenderness. Small for my age, not so much quiet as silent, I was tarrying at the threshold of adolescence. A singer, I was stricken when my clean boy soprano, that noise only boys can make, broke into a sublunary baritone.
So off I went, to boarding school and radical reinvention. The need for self-reliance called into being a self on which I could rely. As no one knew me there, no one could challenge the authenticity of this brighter self. Seemingly overnight, I became full of speeches, sociable. I have never worked so hard, or been so happily appetitive, as in those years.
Yet physically I remained a small dark thing altogether. I remember thinking during a soccer practice that I must have had a lot of natural muscle once, to feel so punished as I watched those boys scissor the air with their blond high school legs. Their bodies hummed to a frequency not my own as balls sailed fluently into nets. I sensed these bodies knew other bodies, as I knew calculus or Shakespeare. That knowledge flaunted itself in the lilt of small hairs off their necks.
I would not have been able to say I was gay and these others were straight. I knew only I was asked not to be myself, and that to fail to meet that demand was to make myself illegible, my future unimaginable. I hoped time would soften the difference between others and me, but knew it would do the opposite.
To evade my fate, I acquired a girlfriend. I have a memory of my dormitory's stairwell, where boys would kiss girls good night before curfew. I am standing on the bottom step looking down at her. She is Filipina, a year older, her fluency in French standing for her urbanity. The waver of shadow superimposes an ambivalence on the sweet certainty of her face. I wonder what is more abject than this--my brain urging the bloodrush and attention that comes so naturally, so involuntarily, to others.