Updated: Jan 29, 2021
As a writer, I often document real-life scenes as if they will find their way to a reader eventually. I found this true story that I wrote in my email drafts on July 26, 2018, to capture the mix of grief, uneasiness, and shame that I felt in the moment I realized I covered at work (and in front of another Black woman no less). I am cringing at my over-the-top descriptions and not quite the right word choices, but here is the unedited text:
I received news that the brother of a close family friend was murdered last night, just days after his 22nd birthday. When greeted with “hey, how are you?” my red eyes raise to meet my colleague’s own and I quip “I’m okay” with just enough of a forced smile to dismantle the furrow starting to form across her forehead—a faint but present indication that she is acutely aware that something could be wrong. I smile my own question to her, mustering enough cheer to put to bed any inkling of a problem—lest she inquire “you sure?” detonating the bomb that would burst my body into one thousand tear-stained pieces—“what is a good gift for a teacher?” We partake in an upbeat exchange about teachers and childcare and I walk away feeling slightly and temporarily better. On the walk back to my office, I am struck with another pain… the kind that starts as a floating question moving through the air inside your head, then behind your eyes, before scratching through your throat gathering weight and speed down your esophagus until it ultimately rockets into bottom of your gut, threatening to come back up and out—the queasiness that comes from the realization that I covered. I covered for fear of the inevitable assumptions about the people I associate with—assumptions about who I really am. That I could “code-switch” even in a moment of grief is a testament to the embeddedness of this practiced corporate survival skill. Sick and tired, I wonder if I am built for this… is it worth it? Can I change it?
“Covering” is a term coined by Kenji Yoshino, a legal scholar, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University’s (NYU) School of Law, the Director of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU, and author of multiple books, including Covering: The Hidden Assault On Our Civil Rights. He defines covering as downplaying a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. We all do it in both big and small ways, so much so that it is, in essence, a social norm. Yoshino claims that covering appears across four dimensions and I have provided an example for each:
Appearance - changing one’s appearance to match mainstream culture (Ex. chemically straightening my kinky coily natural hair)
Affiliation - distancing one’s affiliation with an identity by avoiding stereotypical behavior (Ex. Turning down the volume of the rap music I was blasting on the walk into the office once I mount the elevator. I have also been known to pace outside the building to finish rapping Cardi B’s verse on “Backin’ It Up” before entering.)
Advocacy - Refraining from advocating for a group that one belongs to (Ex. … I am having a hard time finding a personal example of this. I advocated so much that I decided to change my career to get paid for this passion. However, an example could be if one makes a stereotypical joke about people that share the same religion, gender, race, or other identity as you and you don’t speak up in defense, so as to maintain your acceptance as atypical.)
Association - Avoiding any association with other group members (Ex. Not joining the Black affinity group at work as to not seem separate from the mainstream culture. I had a former Black male colleague and friend who refused to talk to me by the elevators in order to keep the White people in the office from thinking we all congregate and talk about how we really feel, “you know how they get when they see us talking.” In stark contrast, you can read this very old blog post about another Black male colleague who could give a damn about any of that, yet still felt uncomfortable in the office.)
As you can see, there are many ways to cover, and based on these four dimensions, you can imagine how straight White men cover as well. Conformity is as old as time. However, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. Aside from the mental, emotional, and sometimes physical toll that covering takes, it also affects how committed you are to the organizations and careers you find yourself covering for. Make no mistake, this is not just an internal hurdle that you have to overcome. Too with showing up as your most authentic self, the organizational culture has to present as a safe place to do so—a place where your opportunities are not limited by the degree to which you deviate from the mainstream. Career success in the absence of conformity is a utopia. It is unrealistic because organizations are run by humans; humans have preferences and biases and make judgments based on them. We must all instead look to be in spaces where diverse perspectives and ideas are explicitly solicited, valued, and used to produce solutions that work for all.
As I re-read the journal entry now, I do so with an appreciation for my self-awareness, compassion for my effort to show up, and pride in the way that I took a selfish moment to write about what would have been compartmentalized only to spill out later. But if I needed to give voice to an unspoken piece of myself or if you need to, do so with the awareness that we are all living this human experience. We all care for our friends and know what it feels like to hurt when they hurt. This is universal. This is truth. Shouldn’t the truth be uncovered?