Authentic Selves

All of us are living in closets.

Our society – our human society – is built around norms. Around the mainstream. Around social conventions and unspoken rules.

And some of that, I would say, is good. It leads to social cohesion and common ground. We are, after all, social animals.

But as we try to navigate that world, we are in danger of losing ourselves, our authentic selves, in a quest to be what we perceive society expects.

Some of us feel this danger more sharply than others. Racial minorities are pressured to “act white,” gays and other sexual minorities are pressured to “act straight,” women are pressured to “act ‘feminine.'” The list goes on.

But all of us feel this danger to some degree. The dark past we don’t want to share. The unpopular opinions we don’t feel we can voice. The personal or family dysfunction, struggles, or suffering we hide from those around us. All of this diminishes our authentic selves.

I, for one, couldn’t begin to list the identities I hide from the world.

Kenji Yoshino, professor at Yale Law School, covers this topic extensively in his book Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights. Covering is essentially a matter of conforming to the mainstream, or, perhaps, the perceived mainstream. As he writes:

When I lecture on covering, I often encounter what I think of as the “angry straight white male” reaction. A member of the audience, almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue. Why shouldn’t racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal protection against discrimination for things they cannot help, like skin color or chromosomes or innate sexual drives. But why should they receive protection for behaviors within their control – wearing cornrows, acting “feminine,” or flaunting their sexuality? After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depression, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my schizophrenia, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. …Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?

I surprise these individuals when I agree.
Yoshino, while deeply respectful of the fights and progress made by the civic rights movement, considers covering to be the next front of the civil rights movement.

Current civil rights law, he points out, protects people within certain protected categories for things they cannot change. But it does not protect people from things they should not have to change.

You can’t fire someone for being black, but you can fire someone for not “acting white.”

You can’t fire someone for being a woman, but you can fire a woman for being too “masculine.” You can fire a woman for refusing to wear make up.

People are stuck between “covering” and “reverse covering” demands. Women are expected to act “masculine” in order to progress in the workplace, but can be simultaneously penalized for not being “feminine.”

White society may pressure African Americans to “act white” while their black peers pressure them to “act black.”

The list goes on.

Yoshino argues that to move forward, we need to step away from group-centered civil rights and focus on supporting authentic selves to flourish.

This isn’t just a matter of law, but a matter of every day interactions. Of sharing your authentic self with others and being open to others sharing their authentic self with you.

We shouldn’t be discussing whether a woman or a man is too “masculine” or too “feminine.” We should allow them to have whatever personality they have, and embrace them for owning it and sharing it.

It’s a tall order.

But, perhaps, with time we can get there.


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