Kenji Yoshino, author of the bestseller Covering, spoke at an all-school lecture September 28, providing a stark look at how societal expectations keep people from achieving success and force just about everyone to hide parts of themselves—to “cover.”
Yoshino, a professor at New York University Law School, defined covering as “a strategy through which an individual downplays a known stigmatized identity to blend into the mainstream.”
He explained that covering is all around and gave examples including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who received training to reduce the shrillness of her voice; CBS’ Julie Chen, who had eyelid surgery to reduce her Asian appearance; and even Groton alumnus Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who as president frequently hid his disability. Yoshino distinguished between passing and covering: President Roosevelt was not passing for non-handicapped because his disability was known; FDR was covering because he felt the need to put it out of view.
The speaker noted one politician who refused to cover: Barack Obama, who years ago ignored advisors who urged him to use Barry instead of Barack or otherwise change his name. Yoshino himself told of an employer who accepted his sexual orientation yet advised him not to write about gay rights issues. He was not passing, but he was being told to cover.
Yoshino split covering into four categories, based on appearance, affiliation, advocacy, or association. In a data-filled presentation, one head-turning statistic indicated that 45 percent of straight, white men who were surveyed reported that they covered. Less surprising was that 83 percent of those identifying as LGBT reported covering, as did 79 percent of blacks. Yoshino pointed out that even white men cover in numerous ways—by dying their hair to hide their age; hiding their working class background, socioeconomic status, or military service; or even by claiming to head to a meeting when they are attending a child’s athletic game.
Of women surveyed, 66 percent reported covering; they may feel even more pressure than men to hide their parenting. Said Yoshino: “Men who talk about their kids get a pay bump. Women who talk about their kids get a pay decrease.”
The speaker touched on well-intentioned but sometimes misguided corporations and organizations: 93 percent of his survey respondents said their organizaitons stated inclusion as a value, while 78 percent said the organizations lived up to those values. He related stories of “jokes” that fall flat: for instance, a white person who walked in on a group of blacks in the office and asked, “Is this a NAACP meeting?”
Yoshino shared solutions, encouraging listeners to consider “what might interrupt each covering demand.” He noted leaders of organizations who “uncover” first, making it easier for their underlings, and CEOs who directly welcome same-sex partners to company events.
"There's power in authenticity as well as in assimilation," Yoshino said.
Covering was Groton School’s Upper School summer read. Before the lecture, at sit-down dinner with faculty, members of the GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance) and the Diversity and Inclusion Group, led talks at each table about the themes in the book.
Conversation continued after the lecture as well, when many students gathered at the Headmaster’s House for further discussion with Yoshino.