Diversity is a subject that means a lot to me, and one on which I've been active within IBM and at HENAAC - the Hispanic Engineer's National Achievement Award Conference. I am proud of IBM's diversity programs in the workplace, and those of many other companies, which focus on making sure that women and members of under-represented minorities feel welcomed and valued, and are given every opportunity to advance in their careers. I strongly support efforts to promote the value of education in general and more specifically, careers in science, engineering and technology to girls and young women, blacks, Hispanics and native Americans working closely with groups like NACME and HENAAC. And I'm thankful that the US and many other societies have not only enacted laws forbidding discrimination but have truly become much more accepting of different groups.
But, as an excellent article in the January 15 issue of the New York Times Magazine makes clear, this progress on legal equality cannot mark the end of our efforts -- or our learning. The article, "The Pressure to Cover" was written by Kenji Yoshino, professor of law and deputy dean for intellectual life at Yale Law School. (Warning: the New York Times charges $3.95 to access this article online unless you subscribe to Times Select.) It is based on his recently published book, Covering - The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights. Kenji Yoshino is a gay professor of constitutional law, and a major part of the article's appeal is that it reflects both his personal experiences and his legal expertise.
I had never heard of the concept "Covering" before. In the book's website Yoshino writes: "'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 other words, "Covering" is the pressure we all feel to assimilate to norms established by the dominant groups in society and its institutions like the workplace and universities, in order to fit in. In the article and website Yoshino gives concrete examples of covering in a variety of situations: "non-whites" feeling the pressure to act white by modulating their behavior; women executives and professors feeling that they should avoid references to their children at work lest they appear stereotypically feminine; gays feeling that they need to hide their partners from colleagues; religious Jews feeling that they should not appear too Jewish, such as by wearing yarmulkes at work; and people with disabilities feeling they need to hide those disabilities to demonstrate that they can be good workers.
The pressure to assimilate is very different from discrimination. As mentioned above, civil rights laws in the US and many countries now prohibit discrimination against women and a number of minority groups. Yoshino discusses several legal cases in which members of such legally protected groups went to the courts to contest situations were they felt that they were asked to "cover," that is, to assimilate, such as a black woman being fired for wearing her hair in cornrows, an Orthodox Jewish Air Force officer who refused to remove his yarmulke indoors, and a lesbian attorney not being offered a job for having had a same-sex religious commitment ceremony with a domestic partner. They all lost their cases. He observes that: "When dominant groups ask subordinated groups to cover, they are asking them to be small in the world, to forgo prerogatives that the dominant group has and therefore to forgo equality. If courts make critical goods like employment dependent on covering, they are legitimizing second-class citizenship for the subordinated group. In doing so, they are failing to vindicate the promise of civil rights."
Yoshino points out that the covering demand is where many forms of inequality continue to have life and that we therefore need to adapt "the aspirations of the civil rights movement to an increasingly pluralistic society," which he labels "the new civil rights." But ultimately, he believes that "law will play a relatively small part in the new civil rights." First of all, "The new civil rights begins with the observation that everyone covers." He writes that when he lectures on covering, angry straight white men often argue with him that covering is not a civil rights issue at all. "After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depression, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. I, too, am one of the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation. Why should legally protected groups have a right to self-expression I do not? Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?"
"I surprise these individuals when I agree," he then says, and later in the article adds " . . . many covering demands are made by actors the law does not -- and in my view should not -- hold accountable, like friends, family, neighbors, the 'culture' or individuals themselves. When I think of the covering demands I have experienced, I can trace many of them only to my own censorious consciousness. And while I am often tempted to sue myself, I recognize this is not my healthiest impulse."
Professor Yoshino advocates that ultimately the tensions between the pressures to assimilate and conform and our desires for individual identity and self-expression should be resolved in conversations outside courtrooms - " in public squares and prayer circles, in workplaces and on playgrounds. They should occur informally and intimately, in the everyday places where tolerance is made and unmade." He concludes "This just brings home to me that the only right I have wanted with any consistency is the freedom to be who I am."
The freedom to be who I am. I can't remember when I last encountered words that so succinctly captured our deepest aspirations.