By Hentyle Yapp
In Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Kenji Yoshino draws upon personal storytelling, legal casework, and psychoanalytic, sexology and queer theories to reveal complexities in our current state of civil rights.Â Yoshino puts forth that although it is tolerable by law to be different (in ways one cannot control like skin pigment, sexual preference, or gender identity), it is not completely acceptable to perform this difference.Â Therefore, covering becomes the normative mode of existence.
Yoshino describes covering through legal casework, while also drawing from his experience as a gay male who grew up Japanese and American.Â His use of personal narrative to capture how covering invades our daily psyches and existences is vivid, especially as they relate to a particular East Asian experience.Â He uses accessible language and contextualizes legal terminology and precedents in order to maintain a scholarly discussion with a mass appeal.Â But while Yoshino provides insight into the trend of covering within civil rights, he fails to analyze how power is situated and perpetuated by the US, law and institutions.
Unlike passing, which involves the invisibility of a trait, covering focuses on downplaying a characteristic in order to assimilate into the mainstream.Â Within the context of the U.S., the norms of the white, heterosexual, Christian, non-immigrant, masculine, middle-class and non-disabled dominate, demanding individuals who do not fit into these constructs to diminish oneâs âundesirableâ? identity traits.Â Yoshinoâs theoretical discussion primarily focuses on covering in three areas: gay, racial, and sex-based.
He cites a variety of moments when individuals have covered, ranging from popular culture to legal casework.Â Famous actors changed their names to appear less âethnicâ? (from Ramon Estevez to Martin Sheen, Krishna Bhanji to Ben Kingsley, and Issur Danielovitch Demsky to Kirk Douglas).Â Margaret Thatcher utilized a voice coach to lower the pitch of her voice.Â Renee Rogers lost her job at American Airlines because her hairstyle in cornrows did not coincide with work policy because according to the courts, hairstyle (unlike skin color) is mutable.
Yoshino describes how covering seems to pervade institutional practices, as well as the private citizenry.Â The law protects those who are different, but not those who refuse to cover their difference.Â When people lose jobs not because they are queer, but because they did not cover their sexuality, these demands preclude them from taking certain career paths.Â When policies are instituted in order to regulate a normative culture of whiteness in the workplace by restricting dress, speech, hairstyles, etc., the norm of covering dictates our behavior and personalities.
Another point that Yoshino stresses is the universality of covering.Â According to him, citizens, law and culture must expand their understanding of covering beyond rights-based identity factors (including but not limited to sexuality, ability, gender, and race), to other forms of personality and expression.Â For example, Yoshino posits that we all universally suffer from covering demands, because of not only identity but also entities like depression, behaviors, desires, etc..Â Drawing upon the work of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, Yoshino hopes to maximize a symbiotic relationship between oneâs âtrue self,â? oneâs authentic nature, and the âfalse self,â? which mediates the âtrue selfâ? within the world.Â Covering pervades law, work policies, interpersonal connections and even our sex lives; therefore, Yoshino proposes changes in both law and many other forms of daily culture and living.
The author complicates and questions the limits of law.Â He stresses that dialogue needs to occur not only in legal institutions, but also within the private citizenry.Â In particular, during legal cases involving covering, Yoshino proposes that the state and other institutions discuss their rationale for certain policies in order to hold them accountable for their demands.Â This model of dialogue can permeate daily interactions, as he hopes that conversations about inequity and oppression can become part of larger consciousness.
I appreciate this attempt to depend upon culture, as well as law, to achieve social change, but his thinking raises many questions.Â First and foremost, Yoshino calls for the expression of the authentic self, but does such a self even exist?Â How does one know if oneâs ideal of the authentic self comes from within or is formulated by societal, cultural and historical factors?Â How do we discover and know what is authentic?
Second, is there such a thing as universal struggle?Â We all possess our own unique paths in life, but depending on geographic location, we are confronted with specific demands and struggles.Â Yoshinoâs idea of universal struggle is limited to the US, but how does his model of the authentic and universal apply within an international context?Â Furthermore, how does expressing the authentic self look in a world where structures of power, such as the US government and capitalism, create inequities where people cannot necessarily express their authentic selves?
As Yoshino pushes for rights-based organizing that concentrates less on identity but more on the accommodation of universal rights, he ultimately relies on expanding rights in order to achieve equality.Â But is that solution enough?Â Why only expand rights?Â What about questioning the institutions that impose these demands upon us? Ultimately, Yoshinoâs argument to expand law to accommodate for universal rights is remedial, not revolutionary.Â Instead of critiquing the institutions, like capitalism, consumerism, the state, and even law itself, that demand us to cover, he focuses on expanding rights in order to deal with inequality.Â His analysis merely focuses on remedying symptoms, not challenging and preventing systems that create these problematic symptoms.
In addition, Yoshino separates sexuality, race and gender in his discussion of covering.Â I can understand, for the convenience of argumentation, to talk about each identity factor individually, but can a single-issue discussion of difference give justice to the multiplicity of human struggles?Â While he proposes that our authentic selves are comprised of multiple identities, he does not explicitly bring out this idea.Â In one point in the book, Yoshino realizes that he can actually demand covering of some of his female law students, highlighting how in one context he may be asked to cover as a queer API male, but in another, he benefits from male privilege.Â Yoshino offers only a glimpse into these complex issues.
Although Yoshino hopes to expand discourse outside of law, he ultimately tries to work within the system in order to achieve change.Â As Audre Lorde declares, âThe masterâs tools will never dismantle the masterâs house.â?Â Utilizing the masterâs tools of law can possibly change the demands of covering; however, even as rights are expanded, those demands will still be generated in different ways.Â Although I feel this activism is needed, working outside of these systems is needed in order to push for equality that reaches into the realm of international/global issues.
Overall, Yoshinoâs application of the idea of covering is crucial in looking at civil rights; however, this framework in relationship to universality and social change is limited.Â Kenji Yoshino represents a specific voice in queer API public discourse, and his work will be instrumental in shaping future policies on rights-based work.Â However, it does not fully engage multi-issue politics, and his solutions are more remedial than revolutionary.