Acclaimed legal scholar Kenji Yoshino on “Covering,” allyship, and how to create a culture of greater authenticity

headshot of Kenji Yoshino

New York University law professor Kenji Yoshino is a longtime advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. He is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law and Director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, the author of three books, and the co-author of his recently published fourth book, Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice.

Yoshino is known for his important work on furthering the concept of “covering,” which, as Yoshino explains is “to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” Covering holds particular significance in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space. In 2013, Yoshino collaborated with Deloitte to co-author Uncovering Talent: A new model of inclusion, a report spotlighting that many people feel pressure to “cover” stigmatized identities, including those relating to race, sexuality, gender, and disability, among others.

Now, ten years later, Yoshino and his associate David Glasgow, Executive Director at the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, are once again collaborating with Deloitte through its DEI Institute to publish forthcoming follow-up research to gain new insights into covering and propose actionable solutions (Uncovering culture: A call to action for leaders).

In the following interview, Yoshino shares his personal experience and connection to covering, his own strategies for organizations to address it, his call to action for business leaders, and why allyship is a key pathway to making progress on these issues.

You have shared publicly how your personal story inspired you to write a book on covering. Can you tell us about your personal experience and how it led you to do this work?

The roots of covering are deeply autobiographical in nature, because it has to do with my puzzling through a conundrum that I had as a gay man coming into consciousness in a professional world.

The exhilarating thing about coming out of the closet was that I felt like I could stop managing my identity.

The exhilarating thing about coming out of the closet was that I felt like I could stop managing my identity. But that proved to be naive, because no sooner did I arrive at Yale Law School as a wet- behind-the-ears tenure track professor than I was told by a very well-meaning and kind colleague, “you'll do a lot better if you are a homosexual professional rather than a professional homosexual.” I believe he meant that I would do a lot better if I were a mainstream guy who taught constitutional law and just happened to be gay on the side—quietly as an extracurricular activity—than if I were a gay-rights guy who was writing on gay subjects and working on gay cases and teaching gay-rights law. Of course, it was the latter that I wanted to do. I decided that I would much rather get tenure as somebody I was than as somebody I wasn't. I believe that oftentimes when we bring our full authentic selves to work, that's when we find our power. A few years later, I got tenure unanimously.

The thing that gave me pause about this experience is that I had my intuition upended. I thought that when I came out of the closet, I could stop managing my sexual orientation, but that wasn't the case. So I tried to figure out what this demand was, i.e., “It's perfectly fine for you to be openly gay, but you need to manage that identity in the workplace.”

The word “covering” identifies this phenomenon where you can have an identity so long as you modulate it or edit it or make it easier for people around you to absorb that identity or interact with it.

Covering directs itself at the behavioral aspects of all our identities. Everyone who is different in any way is going to be asked to downplay or mute or edit their identity to blend in. This is truly a universal phenomenon. Covering diagnoses the second-generation forms of discrimination or unconscious bias that people may be encountering in the workplace, such as “It's fine for you to have a disability, but use a cane because a wheelchair makes us uncomfortable.” Or “It's fine for you to be Black in the workplace, but straighten your hair.” Or “It’s fine to be a woman, but play like a man and be as aggressive and analytical and tearless as the stereotypical man is supposed to be.”

What stood out to you from your research collaboration with Deloitte in 2013, and why is this conversation about covering still so relevant and important to have now?

If I were to take one top line out of it, it would be that I had these intuitions, but I didn't have the data. The research at the time found 61% of people overall—but 83% of LGBTQ+ individuals, 79% of Black individuals, 66% of women, all the way down to 45% of straight white men—reported covering.1

I still get a call a week to talk to organizations about covering. And this is worldwide. Some organizations may be struggling to build a culture of inclusion and equity, and searching for solutions to that. Ten years ago, this research was a bit ahead of our time, and now others have caught up that this idea is actually important. I believe that it's become more pressing and more vital to talk about this topic today than it was when we initially published the research together.

1Smith, Christie. Yoshino, Kenji, Uncovering Talent. Deloitte Development LLC, 2013.

We often hear about the concept of bringing our authentic selves to work, yet, as you've discovered, some individuals may feel like they have to choose between their identity—their authentic selves—and fitting in. In what ways can that negatively affect both individuals and organizations?

We have precise data on this [from our 2013 study]. Of the 61% of individuals who reported covering, 60-73% said this experience somewhat to extremely diminished their sense of self. With regard to organizations, when we asked individuals whether or not their leaders expected them to cover, 53% of them said yes. And of that 53%, 50% said it somewhat to extremely diminished their commitment to their organization. That is a staggering number of individuals, particularly coming from marginalized cohorts. So if you're looking for those leaks in the pipeline, this is a very good place to look for organizational health and making sure that organizations are being fully representative of the talent that exists in the talent pool.

Why is creating a culture of greater authenticity important and what does that look like? How does that manifest in a workplace?

At a minimum it is making sure that people don't have to manage their identities. Going back to the disability example, if someone experiences pressure not to wheel into a room in a wheelchair, but to use a cane instead, they may say, “This causes me so much more physical pain to get through my day, but it's socially so much more uncomfortable to use the wheelchair. So I would rather forgo the paraphernalia that allows me to function in a pain-free way to avoid the social pain that's going to be visited on me.” When people have to work their identities instead of working their jobs, that can be a huge tax on them and on the organization, because the organization is likely not going to get the best from them. I think that's why this culture of greater authenticity is so important.

When people have to work their identities instead of working their jobs, that can be a huge tax on them and on the organization, because the organization is likely not going to get the best from them.

There's a much more positive story to be told about why we should create a more authentic culture, which is that when people really do feel free, when they have the psychological safety2 to express themselves and to bring their full selves to the workplace, they can really flourish. Hedonically they do much better, and they're much more innovative. Study after study has shown that people who don't feel like they have to work with one hand tied behind their back can give a lot more to the organization.

In some ways it's easier to approach it by saying what a culture of authenticity wouldn't look like. It wouldn't look like every Asian person is going to have to talk about their Asian identity all the time, because that might not be what they want to do. For me, what it would mean instead is that I wouldn't feel a demand not to talk about it, so that it would be a real choice for me to either share my identity where relevant or not to share it, but the decision would be made by me, rather than by a demand that was external to me.

The 2013 report finds that even when organizations are achieving “formal inclusion,” some individuals are actually covering to feel that inclusion. When you're working with leaders around this topic, what advice do you give them?

The first is a diagnosis, understanding whether people on your team are experiencing covering demands, whether they feel pressure to do that. We always start here because you can’t fix it if you can’t see it. I really want people to have covering in their own vocabulary when they're looking at the workforce or their teams to figure out whether this is going on.

Second, if uncovering is going to happen within an organization, leaders have to go first, because if leaders don't go first, we won't go at all. People can't be what they can't see. If you uncover then you empower all the other people who are looking up to you as a role model to do that.

People can't be what they can't see. If you uncover then you empower all the other people who are looking up to you as a role model to do that.

The third would be allyship. Oftentimes it's very difficult to advocate for yourself and it's much easier to advocate for somebody else. And as social science is increasingly telling us, allies are both more effective and take less of a personal hit than affected people when they speak up. If you see an individual being subjected to a covering demand, you as the ally are the cheapest cost avoider; you can step in and help that person and interrupt the source of the demand. If you do that in a smart way, you're going to be much more effective than the affected person at addressing it.

The 2013 study found that 45% of straight white men reported covering. This is especially interesting in that, “a model of inclusion should almost by definition be one in which all individuals see themselves.” Can you talk more about how these new paradigms can benefit everyone?

So often people may hear the words “diversity” and “inclusion,” and then think if they don't belong to certain traditional cohorts, it may not have an application or benefit for them, and in fact might be a burden or a tax on them. Many White men have called my center and said, “Am I ever going to get a promotion again?” Like, “What does your work have to say about me?” One of the things that we found so hopeful about this statistic was that it indicated that no cohort was exempt or immune.

As human beings, we always have some bucket of advantages and some bucket of disadvantages, which is why I'm so hopeful, because we can extend allyship where we have those advantages and receive it where we don't.

It's interesting when I give my presentations to watch the White men in the room when I throw that statistic up on the screen. Their body language absolutely shifts; and this is not to impugn their allyship or their bona fides as people who care about inclusion. They're there, they want to participate. But it has a kind of different valence to say, “This has implications for you, too. You can hold this accountable to your own life.”

So how do straight White men report covering? The common answers are things like age, mental or physical disability or illness, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and religion. There are lots of ways in which even the ostensibly “immune” cohort, the dominant cohort, may be covering.

Given you recently published a book regarding allyship, what advice do you have? Why is it important, and what does that look like, to be an ally?

Our research found there was a big gap between the desire to be an ally and effective allyship, because people dead-ended in one of two directions. One was we're all so terrified of saying the wrong thing and hurting someone we care about or being canceled ourselves, that we think the safer place to be is to do nothing and to remain silent. That's obviously a big obstacle to real allyship. Increasingly we're realizing that silence is no longer neutrality in many situations. Silence can be read as complicity in an unjust status quo.

So that fact tends to galvanize us into action. But then we can often toggle to the other extreme where we're not sufficiently informed enough to act, so we barrel in uninformed, and we're the bull in the china shop that can end up doing more harm than good. This book was really an attempt to say there is a middle path between those two.

Perhaps most critically, we [also] outline how to be an ally even to the source of non-inclusive behavior, because that’s going to be all of us someday.

What is your call to action for business leaders, their teams, and anybody working to drive change in these spheres?

My call to action is to be an informed ally. I'm betting a decade of my career on the idea that allyship is the next big wave and the thing that's really going to make a difference in the DEI space. I think we've already seen the beginnings of that, but I hope that it is persuasive to the people who are reading this that allyship can really resonate so deeply across context.

I hope that I can persuade people to lean into informed allyship by saying these final words, which is that unlike many other initiatives that I have participated in, allyship gets immediate seamless uptake no matter who I am talking to. No matter where I am in the world, no matter how hard it might be to explain some other concept of diversity and inclusion, if I talk about allyship, people immediately get why it's a critical concept no matter where they are in the globe. And perhaps just as importantly, I could be talking to anyone from any walk of life, and they will see the value of allyship, and they'll always translate it through their own lens. There will always be a reference within their own industry for what allyship means to them—whether that's being a good teammate or a good neighbor—everyone can find their pathway into it, and that's what gives me hope.

This may ultimately be about a shift in consciousness. What is your wish for the future?

I think that what most people strive for is this understanding of how many different valid ways there are to be a human being and how all of us can benefit from recognizing that simple fact. If we can see that someone is conducting their life differently from me, their experience is far from my own, but they have their own kind of contribution to make, that is the shift in consciousness we’re seeking. It’s an empathetic urge to understand that simply because someone is different from you, that is not something that should be a cause for distaste or distress or feeling of self-threat, but rather something that can actually be celebrated. So I keep going back to this idea, it's almost my mantra that I say to myself: there are many valid ways to be a human being.

This article was written by Marianne Schnall, a widely published journalist, author, and contracted Deloitte writer.

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews. The individual’s participation in this article is solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This article should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

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