January 21, 2006

"'Don't think so hard,' Kenji Yoshino's mother once said to him in Japanese. 'Life is not that simple.'"

That's the first line of a book review I wrote for Sunday's NYT Book Review.
But Yoshino has spent his life thinking very hard, as if the problems of sexual orientation and racial identity that have troubled him so much really were amenable to answers.
The book is "Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights." Read the whole review. Read the book too. It's good!

MORE: The NYT also has a nice, long excerpt from the book. An excerpt from the excerpt:
I don't teach classes on gay rights any more. I suspect many of my students now experience me as a homosexual professional rather than as a professional homosexual, if they think of me in such terms at all. But I don't experience myself as covering. I've just moved on to other interests, in the way scholars do. So the same behavior - not teaching gay rights - has changed in meaning over time.

This just brings home to me that the only right I have wanted with any consistency is the freedom to be who I am. I'll be the first to admit that I owe much of that freedom to group-based equality movements, like the gay rights movement. But it is now time for us as a nation to shift the emphasis away from equality and toward liberty in our debates about identity politics. Only through such freedom can we live our lives as works in progress, which is to say, as the complex, changeful and contradictory creatures that we are.
(For an explanation of what "covering" is, see the review.)

16 comments:

Balfegor said...

Your review makes me want to seek out this book and read it!

He avoids "gay examples" when teaching constitutional law. He attends law school functions without bringing the man he is dating. And he takes it to heart when a colleague remarks that he should be a "homosexual professional" and not a "professional homosexual."

This is certainly true, from my limited experience. I had him for my Constitutional Law class, a few years ago, and thought he was very good. I had no idea he might be gay until in class, he supposed something to the effect of "suppose you were a gay, Japanese man," or something to that effect.

Regardless of his outside ideological commitments, I found him an excellent professor -- fair and instructive, and really, everything one wants one's professors to be.

They deftly switch personas as they move back and forth from one place to the other. Trying to follow their example, Yoshino finds it easy to conform in the United States, but in Japan he is overwhelmed by the behavioral component of Japanese identity: "I . . . flunked Japanese race."

I find that somewhat interesting. I know that when I speak a foreign language, I always assume different behaviours. There are certainly elements that carry across -- I bow reflexively no matter what language I'm talking -- but the verbal attitudes and behaviours I adopt are somewhat different. The vocal tones, the eye-contact, the pauses, even the inarticulate grunts one uses to fill empty space (uhhh vs. eto vs. euh, etc.). The way one gesticulates too.

Of course, unlike Prof. Yoshino, I don't have to worry about being mistaken for a Japanese, and finding that my non-native Japanese behaviours don't match up. On the other hand, I know at least one Japanese-American who was born and raised in the San Francisco area, married a Japanese, and moved to Japan, where she has lived these past 20 or 30 years or so. She still has a strong American accent, and many of her behaviours seem not-quite Japanese, but they just assume she comes from a different part of the country. Within Japan, there is actually a not-inconsiderable variety of regional cultures, such that in some ways, their Japanese behavioural identity is more flexible than it sometimes seems.

But I am also curious to know what contrasts, if any, he draws between his experience as gay in Japan and gay in the US -- clearly he draws on his American experiences in this book, and while I am sure it will be novel to me, it is not that novel, because many people talk about their own experiences as gay all the time, both casually and in print or online or whatever. But I've never really looked seriously at the individual Japanese experience. We're told, from time to time, that they're more accepting, and perhaps that is true -- it's a family problem, I gather, rather than something outsiders think about. On the other hand, though, in Japanese popular media, the gay stereotypes are much broader (and perhaps, more bigoted) than anything I've seen on US TV, and you also see male characters in mainstream programming reacting with disgust to the thought that a man might be attracted to them. More positive images of male homosexuality typically come in Boys Love or Yaoi stuff, which are targeted at young women, and strikes me as rather exploitative in the same way (thought not to the same degree, perhaps) that lesbian porn is, here in the US. He'd be much more able to see that from the inside, as it were, and I'd be interested to read what his experience was.

Balfegor said...

Re: the excerpt:

They discovered that résumés with white-sounding names like Emily Walsh or Greg Baker drew 50 percent more callbacks than those with African-American-sounding names like Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones.

Haha -- This is so true. For myself, I have an "Asian" sounding name I go by among friends and family, and I have an Anglo name I go by in my professional capacity. And I go by my white name in public for precisely this reason.

XWL said...

Excellent review, and nice comment balfegor.

I have no personal incites (insights even, I like the mistake better than the correct word) or experiences to add to this thread, but I suspect some of the inferrences made in the review might lead to trouble.

Especially the concluding paragraph, "The real work of civil rights takes place outside of the law, he tells us, in individual conversations about the reasons for demanding assimilation to some imagined standard of behavior, and the burdens felt by those who are asked to cover their authentic selves."

Too many folks are too invested in creating a legalistic framework for EVERYTHING race/ethnicity/culture/orientation related that to suggest the real work to be done is in the cultural and not legalistic sphere is to ask for trouble.

knoxgirl said...

Perhaps I am misunderstanding what he defines as expressions of "authenticity." I see a really big difference between the pressure of having to mute the fact that you're gay and, say, not being allowed to wear cornrows. (aside: I think if a white stewardess wanted to wear her hair in cornrows, they probably wouldn't let her--just as they probably wouldn't allow, say, facial piercing, either.)

What I'm doing a very bad job of saying is that it's a contradiction to want to be appreciated and noticed for being different and yet to be simultaneously as comfortable as if you were no different. That's just not possible.

But again, I see the gay thing as very different from one's choice of how to dress or wear their hair. I have sympathy for a gay person who feels like they have to tone down their "gayness" for acceptance and someone who wants to wear a certain hair style.

Jonathan David Jackson said...

I must say that your blogging is always inviting, and your review of Kenji Yoshino's book--a real gem of unhurried, studied elegance--was fair in all respects.

Let me offer these thoughts on the prose style and rhetorical framing of Professor Yoshino's book. These thoughts come from writer who has always been interested in the way difficult ideas are popularly aired; and the way that imaginative personalization can merge with other forms of reasoning in nonfiction.

COVERING makes an important contribution to new directions in popular legal writing.
I turned to legal writing about ten years ago to learn about "critical race theory" and "critical race feminism." What I found were fascinating blends of storytelling and argumentative prose. Surely, readers of contemporary legal writing know of the personally-anecdotal styles of Patricia Williams and Derrick Bell (to say nothing of the work of the great poet-lawyer Lawrence Joseph).

Professor Yoshino's contribution improves on these trends by surpassing mere anecdote. His personal examples are developed with the precision of the best classical and contemporary personal essayists. Those of us who write about personal experiences try to subject our life-writing with a different yet no less deep ethic of argumentation found in traditional academic prose. Professor Yoshino creates a tapestry of reference that allows me to gradually negotiate my own perspective on his revelations. I am thrown into the heat of his ambivalences. First person narration, scene-setting, and other story-telling strategies defy pontification. The result: experiential wrestling.

Essai--the french term made famous by 1580 publication of Michel de Montaigne's ESSAIS--means struggles. You were right to point out that in COVERING Professor Yoshino holds out no easy legal solutions. The book is the performance of his (arguably) ongoing struggle to come to terms with the fault lines between assimilation and acculturation.

Now for some more suggestive comments on the rhetorical framing of the last sections of the book. Professor Yoshino makes a problematic tactical move by titling the two final, penultimate chapters "The End of Civil Rights" and "The New Civil Rights." He mentions that before they died both Martin Luther King and Malcom X expanded their arguments to include not just civil rights but human rights. Yet surely neither of these great men would call for the end of civil rights. The rhetorical hyperbole in these chapters' titles--a hyperbole that almost spills over into the chapter's content--pulls away from the questioning, experiential writing of earlier chapters.

After I finished the book I made these observations in the margins of the last page:

Particular civil rights and universal human rights overlap and inform each other. We need them both.

PatCA said...

"Why do we push human beings into a standardized mold, he asks, when we ought to value diversity and self-expression?"

Good grief, man, look around you! You are living in the most diverse society ever and are opening talking about your "diversity" while enjoying a job at Yale!

I dress differently and speak differently at work because my job is enhanced by my keeping certain private things private!

Good review, but I have no interest in reading it. Sounds repetitive and a bit whiny. Did his race and sexuality play no part in getting the professorship? I would think so--it sure does in the rest of academia.

And why on earth would he not flunk race in Japan if he was brought up in America? So much for MLK's dream that character and not skin color should determine a person's worth or identity.

I am just out of patience with people who, like knoxgirl says, simultaneously emphasize their difference and condemn a society that then recognizes that difference. Oh, and them make a lot of money off the difference.

Balfegor said...

And why on earth would he not flunk race in Japan if he was brought up in America? So much for MLK's dream that character and not skin color should determine a person's worth or identity.

I don't understand this, quite. Certainly, in Japan, race (not quite "skin colour") is much more important than here in the US, but that's not why he flunks race in Japan -- he's already Japanese, after all. The description leads one to believe that instead, he has difficulty feeling that he is himself when he adopts a Japanese-Japanese identity, in terms of body-language, language, and perhaps thought (my inference). As far as I can tell, that has nothing to do with MLK's ideal.

One could connect the problem, rather, with the idea of "authenticity," in the sense that one feels that one has an "authentic" self in some mode or other, and that this authenticity is lost when one experiences pressures to affect the cultural fripperies of some majority culture or other (e.g. Tokyo Japanese in Japan, Anglo-American in America). In that sense, then, covering would feel mildly oppressive. Not to say that Yoshino's approach is that simplistic (not having read the book, I don't know), but that makes perfect sense to me.

There is a distinction -- which you appear to elide -- between the private and the cultural. One could argue that private decisionmaking (e.g. as a white person, to wear or not to wear cornrows) is essentially the same as cultural allegiance (e.g. as a certain kind of Emperor-worshipper, to wear or not to wear dreadlocks). But I don't think that can be assumed. A choice you make because of an allegiance to something other than yourself alone -- particularly if it emerges out of a powerful group or familial identity -- is binding and socially reinforced in a way that a personal predilection is not, I think.

Further, when you say:

I dress differently and speak differently at work because my job is enhanced by my keeping certain private things private!

I think you have missed his point somewhat. One's membership in a minority group is not really a "private" thing. If you look Japanese, as Yoshino does, even if you act like a white man, and talk like a white man, and affect a white name (Kenneth Jones, say), you're a fool if you think the people around you aren't going to see through that flimsy facade and consider you as "Japanese" (or more likely, "Asian" -- Americans, even Asian-Americans, are typically not too good at differentiating the different Asian races). You're not passing. That you are Japanese is already an open and indisputable social fact to anyone who sees your face, and no amount of covering will change that. As a result, acting Asian in public isn't providing people with any information they didn't already know. It's not keeping anything private.

The situation is a bit different with homosexuals, since even open homosexuals don't look any different from heterosexuals, and you generally have to know people a bit better before you find out their sexual preference (unless it's someone who flaunts his hetero- or homo-sexuality, perhaps by sexually harrassing his preferred sex). But again, it's not really new information, but rather information that the public already knows -- you're just recommunicating it.

PatCA said...

"As far as I can tell, that has nothing to do with MLK's ideal." That he obsesses about his racial appearance in a diverse society does indeed conflict with MLK's ideal.

He is NOT Japanese; he is American. That is who he is in the public sphere. If he chooses to travel to Japan to seek out his roots, that is is a private matter. It makes no different whatsoever that people here recognize him as Asian, unless you are saying all Asians are victims of discrimination. He has all the privileges and duties of a US citizen--do you deny this? Until he changes his citizenship, he is still American, which does support MLK's thesis, if he would only admit it and live up to it.

As for "authenticity," that is a widely dispersed and abused buzz word. It is not an argument.

Balfegor said...

He is NOT Japanese; he is American. That is who he is in the public sphere.

Yes, and he seems to be so in the private sphere too -- his surprise seems to be there because many other people are perfectly comfortable being one person in one country and a different person in another; I am reminded how I heard once how, when returning to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, many Arab men start the flight in Western garb, then file into the restroom to change into their robes before disembarking (no idea whether this is true or not). And of course, almost all of us have the experience of being a plainly different person outside the home, among friends and colleagues, and inside the innermost parts of the home, among one's closest blood relatives or confidants. I know I am. He discovered that he didn't feel comfortable switching roles, it seems.

When you say:

He has all the privileges and duties of a US citizen--do you deny this?

I don't deny, that, of course, but you seem to ignore that the problem of "covering" has nothing whatsoever to do with your privileges and duties. Nor is being culturally Japanese, or feeling a kinship with the Japanese people necessarily connected with being a citizen of the Japanese state, regardless of what the Japanese state may think. When you land at Narita, the welcome sign says "Welcome to Japan!" in English, and "Okaerinasai!" in Japanese -- that is, it says "Welcome home!" But when you land in the United States, we do not make that kind of distinction.

Covering is not a matter of privileges and duties as an American citizen. Rather, it is a problem of American culture -- and Yoshino himself seems to recognise this, indicating that it is not primarily a problem for the law (a problem of rights and duties), but at root, a problem for people to resolve in society. The argument propounded by those who object to being forced to cover is, in some sense, nothing more than that being American and being Anglo are two different things, and it is not helpful to conflate them.

What I am, for example, is undeniably American -- as a cultural creature, I could hardly exist in any other country of the world. But I am not Anglo -- and the Anglo norms that control "covering" are only that one particular subset of the overall American family of cultures. It is just as American to be gay as it is to be straight -- they are neither of them integral parts of the American character. So also with different cultural heritages.

It makes no different whatsoever that people here recognize him as Asian, unless you are saying all Asians are victims of discrimination.

Uh, you think it doesn't make a difference to those other people when they recognise him to be Japanese? Think of it this way. I am half-Korean. I have certain habits, certain ways of thinking, certain body language that are, to be quite plain, not-white. And of course, I suppress those when I am playing at being professional, and going about with my white name, amongst my white colleagues, in a largely-white business world. I supress them imperfectly -- if I don't think about it, I bow and duck my head and adopt certain speaking tones and all that. Now, people are generally conscious that I am not white, no matter what I do. Indeed, people often think that not only am I not white, I am actually foreign, although that has more to do with my imperfect imitation of a standard American accent than anything else. And of course, people relate to you (to me) differently on that basis, whether they realise it or not. It's not as stark as it is with Black people (or among Japanese people in Japan, where I can slide oh-so-comfortably into the preset foreigner role), but it's noticeable.

lindsey said...

The funny thing to me is that, based on the NYTimes picture of him, if I didn't know he was Japanese before looking at the link, I would have just assumed he was a white guy.

lindsey said...

"Covering is not a matter of privileges and duties as an American citizen. Rather, it is a problem of American culture -- and Yoshino himself seems to recognise this, indicating that it is not primarily a problem for the law (a problem of rights and duties), but at root, a problem for people to resolve in society."

It's not a problem of American culture. American culture wouldn't exist without it. Really take a moment to think about this. Could America exist as a nation if the majority of immigrants did not assimilate? No, it could not. The same thing applies to European immigrants who came in the nineteenth century as much as it applies to modern day immigrants. Everyone has to make their own personal compromise with joining the larger American society and retaining the parts of their original culture they value: How to remain true to yourself and also become part of the larger culture. This isn't exactly a new topic. The crux of the issue is that America couldn't and wouldn't exist if the vast majority of immigrants didn't make this compromise. This doesn't involve the violation of civil rights. It's part of the duty of being allowed the privilege of becoming an American, and any society has the right to expect such a thing.

Balfegor said...

It's not a problem of American culture. American culture wouldn't exist without it. Really take a moment to think about this. Could America exist as a nation if the majority of immigrants did not assimilate? No, it could not.

It's a question of the scope of assimilation demanded. After all, American culture, even assimilationist American culture, is not uniform, any more than the culture of any nation is uniform (even France). It's also a question of what you assimilate to -- what is the core of American-ness. And I don't happen to think that the core of our common American identity resides in things like what your hairstyle is, what food you eat, how you greet people, or what your sexual orientation happens to be.

Now, to maintain social cohesion, true, we need to have that sense of fellow-feeling, and common, shared identity. And some things, like all sharing a language in common, i.e. English, are kind of essential for that (though not-necessarily in a different kind of state, as in China or perhaps even the old multi-ethnic Hapsburg Empire). But I don't see why we can't have all that, and still leave space in the public/official/business culture for the expression of different root cultures.

PatCA said...

I think you're thinking way too hard, just like the very privileged author, balfegor, to try to find something to feel sorry for yourself about and to blame on American culture. And people have been fretting about their identities since long before American was founded, so I'm not buying it any more.

Noticing differences and even despising differences is NOT an American failing, it is a human failing.

But you have the freedom to feel these things and speak them. I will leave you to it.

chuck b. said...

PatCA,

cbSurely America's ambivalent relationship with ethnic (or whatever) 'differences' is distinctly American, and interesting to consider. Of course, glib dismissal is equally one's right, and I will leave you to it.

Deb S. said...

Excellent review! Very intriguing. Great blog. I'm adding you to my links.

http://mediabysistrunk.blogspot.com
http://dcsistrunk.blogspot.com

pansophia said...

Yoshino should take a look at Bob Fuller's analysis of rankism. Fuller explores rankism as the basis for many "hidden assaults" on human dignity, and he regards rankism as an issue of liberty rather than equality. The problem of rankism may underlie or at least contribute to many of the difficulties Yoshino has faced, and it's certainly pertinent to the idea of "covering".

Here is Fuller's web site:
http://breakingranks.net

He described rankism in a book called Somebodies and Nobodies a couple of years ago, and he has an upcoming book called All Rise.