Covering is where you cover your true self to fit in with mainstream America, downplaying the ways that make you different. Gays call it acting straight, blacks call it acting white. But most Americans do it to some degree because few are perfectly mainstream.
Covering comes out most clearly with gays, blacks and women, particularly at work. Women, for example, will downplay their duties as mothers, gays do not bring up their love lives, blacks speak Standard English, etc.
Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at NYU, wrote a book about it, “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights” (2006). In it he argues that the law is applied to give everyone equal rights – but only if they play down who they are. Like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. Or black women not being allowed to wear dreadlocks at work.
Yoshino grew up between Japan and America, between gay and straight, not knowing who he truly was – all the while covering, putting forth a false self that was suitably mainstream. But then he noticed that it was not just him – everyone was doing it to some degree.
As an example of racial covering he uses Eric Liu, author of “The Accidental Asian”. Liu listed the ways he felt he was acting white:
- I listen to National Public Radio.
- I wear khaki Dockers.
- I own brown suede bucks.
- I eat gourmet greens.
- I have few close friends “of color.”
- I married a white woman.
- I am a child of the suburbs.
- I furnish my condo à la Crate & Barrel.
- I vacation in charming bed-and-breakfasts.
- I have never once been the victim of blatant discrimination.
- I am a member of several exclusive institutions.
- I have been in the inner sanctums of political power.
- I have been there as something other than an attendant.
- I have the ambition to return.
- I am a producer of the culture.
- I expect my voice to be heard.
- I speak flawless, unaccented English.
- I subscribe to Foreign Affairs.
- I do not mind when editorialists write in the first person plural.
- I do not mind how white television casts are.
- I am not too ethnic.
- I am wary of minority militants.
- I consider myself neither in exile nor in opposition.
- I am considered a “credit to my race.”
The list is not completely truthful: Liu has been called a “chink”, for example. But that he even thought to make such a list is telling.
Yoshino says that Liu covered in all of the four ways:
- appearance (“I wear khaki Dockers,” “I own brown suede bucks”);
- affiliation (“I listen to National Public Radio,” “I furnish my condo à la Crate & Barrel,” “I speak flawless, unaccented English”);
- activism (“ I do not mind how white television casts are,” “I am not too ethnic,” “I am wary of minority militants”); and
- association (“I have few friends ‘of color,’” “I married a white woman”).