Yale law professor Kenji Yoshino, the keynote speaker for Civility Day on Thursday, Feb. 22, spoke about his book Covering and the many civil rights issues facing America. “Covering,” a term Yoshino based his book on, is when one plays down critical aspects of one’s self in order to fit into the mainstream. He said that everyone experiences some form of covering, whether it is racial, sex-based, gay, religious and disability.
The desire to write his book largely came from his own life experiences. As a gay/Asian-American, Yoshino had many memories of his own covering. Although he always knew he was gay, it was not until Yale law school that he accepted his sexual orientation. A strong interest in the class sexual orientation law prompted him to feel passionate about the subject. He said he “saw how much effect law had on people.” At this point Yoshino was convinced that he wanted to be a law professor and a lawyer.
Yoshino stressed the point that it was “painful to downplay his sexuality” and said, “if we hide who we are, we don’t allow ourselves to connect with people that support us.”
He changed his outlook on his life by embracing what he was passionate about.
“Assimilation prevents us from being the passionate individuals that we are,” Yoshino said.
There are three stages of assimilation that Yoshino discovered: conversion, passing and covering.
Yoshino wants the word “covering” to be a word used in everyday vocabulary much like “the closet,” because it is a crucial word for our society. The word can apply to everyone because, according to Yoshino, everyone covers something about themselves.
Yoshino used examples of powerful people in history that have used covering. Franklin Roosevelt would sit behind a desk when addressing the nation, keeping his disability in the background for no one to see. Helen Keller downplayed her disability when she replaced her natural eyes with blue glass ones.
As a professor of civil rights, Yoshino explained that even though the court system does protect against groups, often individual members of the group are not always protected. Spanish people speaking Spanish in work, racial minorities celebrating certain traditions and women for being too feminine are just a few of the instances where these groups are mistreated and not protected against.
The courts are not setting specific guidelines to protect against these groups because they are not positive in which behaviors go along with each group.
“The courts are wrong because they think they can’t give relief,” Yoshino said.
Yoshino said that people should be able to be with people they love, speak the language they grew up with and embrace their identity. He challenged the audience to think of the demands we have for covering and to realize the hurt they cause.
The importance of civil rights, Yoshino explained, is human flourishing and finding their passions without bias or witless conformity.