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Monday, September 26, 2005

"Covering"

August 22, 2005- After speaking with DEAN KOH at Yale Law School, we had a long and rich conversation with KENJI YOSHINO (pictured), Deputy Dean of Intellectual Life and Professor of Law. I first met him on Yale Law’s admit day, when we had a small group discussion about law and discrimination. We picked up the discussion today and delved deeply into assimilation, discrimination, and covering.

Since revolutionary times, Professor Yoshino began, the magic of assimilation has been part of the American dream: that if you assimilate, you will be able to escape discrimination. But since the 1960s, people began to see the dark underbelly of assimilation: that pressuring people to assimilate and hide parts of their authentic identities is a form of discrimination called covering.

To cover, he explained, is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. When racial minorities are pressurd to 'act white', women to downplay their child-care responsibilities at work, gays not to 'flaunt' their homosexuality, they are covering. The law no longer allows categorical prohibitions against groups based on race, class, or sex. But it does not extend far enough to protect people who choose not to lose authentic parts of themselves by conforming.

The assimilation ideal was already gaining strength in recent American consciousness. Then 9/11 sealed the pressure on particular groups of Americans to cover: to lose their Arabic, drop their veil, or remove their turban. The law continues to enforce this assimilation: it still does not allow a workplace to discriminate against Sikhs categorically, but it will allow a workplace to discriminate against Sikhs with turbans. The law still does not protect those who maintain parts of their identity that they could change.

Attorney AMARDEEP SINGH of the Sikh Coalition spends all his time fighting precisely these battles for recognition. For example, the law was not set up to protect KEVIN HARRINGTON (below right) who was asked to remove his turban after working as a train operator for the MTA for twenty-three years. Or AMRIC SINGH RATHOUR (below left) who faced years of litigation in order to wear his turban in the NYPD.


Professor Yoshino proposes that we work toward a pluralistic society that removes the legal and cultural pressure to cover. Perhaps the most appealing part of Professor Yoshino's argument for pluralism is that it applies to everyone, because all of us cover. Each of us feels pressured at one time or another to hide parts of our identities that are outside of "the mainstream." What is the mainstream? The mainstream is a myth, he explained. Even if you are a straight, white male, you may still be obese, poor, depressed, or insecure about a part of yourself. Each of us has our own struggle for authenticity and recognition. This is precisely why all of us would benefit from the expansion of civil rights and a culture that embraces difference.

After our interview, Professor Yoshino and I (he's the one on the right) discussed his upcoming book, Covering: the Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, available early next year. Our conversation made me eager to start law school next year-- it had the same affect on the rest of our crew who were all engaged in the discussion:

After a long day at Yale, the film crew traveled back to New York City for one final interview... More to come. Join us!

[This entry is cross-posted on "Into the Whirlwind."]


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