Converting, Passing, Covering (Book Review)

I’ve done it. I’ve downplayed something about myself to give off a different or specific image of myself to others. I just never knew there was a word for it. It’s called “covering,” and it has deeper implications than we may think.

My book club read a few months ago a book by that name, Covering by Kenji Yoshino (more info at his website). He talks about the history of the gay rights movements, but also makes it clear that the covering phenomenon is universal and does not only occur in members of the gay community, for all types of people who may be discriminated against.

The first “phase” is converting, where the group feels the social pressure to “convert” to the norm that is accepted. There may even be direct actions taken by society in order to try to convert those individuals, such as sending people to places where they can be “cured” of homosexuality.

The next phase is passing, where the individuals will seem on the surface to be an average member of the larger group, such that the individual can “pass” for a member of the larger group. This is a sort of unspoken social camouflage. Others may know the underlying truth, but do not acknowledge it publicly.

The last phase, covering, is where individuals downplay certain aspects of themselves in order to present an image that is expected, such as changing your hairstyle from a ethnic style to a more commonly “acceptable” style. They may be asked to do this, or may do this on their own. This could also include things like not talking about family in the workplace as a woman because you would not like to seem too feminine.

“Appearance concerns how an individual physically presents herself to the world.
Affiliation concerns her cultural identifications.
Activism concerns how much she politicizes her identity.
Association concerns her choice of fellow travelers – lovers, friends, colleagues.”

These are the different avenues by which we may assimilate, or cover, in society. Why would anyone do this? Subconsciously or not? In a way, social interactions are biological adaptations for living in a community with many other individuals who may be different from yourself. Those differences could lead to conflicts, which may be better off avoided. It would be interesting to see if there are psychological or behavioral studies along these lines.

I can relate to each of these 4 aspects as a Chinese American growing up in New York City. I didn’t grow up in a very Asian neighborhood, and did not attend high school with many other Asian Americans until high school (where Asians made up nearly half of the student body). The Asians, of course, were drawn to each other and formed social groups, sometimes along very stark lines. These groups, or cliques, tended to look alike and dress alike, probably as a phenomenon of sorting and/or peer effects. There were those that rejected association with these groups, and seemed to not be Asian at all except for their Asian looks that that were given to them. They were Asian on the outside, but white or black or latino on the inside.

Yoshino makes the argument that covering inhibits our ability to communicate honestly and effectively. The projections of ourselves are what we think others expect to see. We feel the need to live up to expectations in order to maintain social balance, but where do those expectations come from?

Yoshino also talks about reverse covering, where individuals go to extra lengths to express their specialness (such as joining all the Asian culture groups in high school, or only dating within your ethnic group). I found that the pressures of both covering and reverse covering can occur in tandem, and makes for a confusing adolescence.

The take away in this book is that the conversation about covering is not happening enough, and if it does, it is not occurring in the right way. Several court cases discussed in the book were decided with assumptions that if a person could assimilate, that they should. These past few days I’ve been at a meeting held by the Convention on Biological Diversity. Perhaps we need a Convention on Human Diversity as well.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“It is a sad truth that one of the most potent psychic antidotes to racism is racism.”


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