MizzouDiversity keynote speaker urges public to drive social change

By Walker Moskop

COLUMBIA — When Kenji Yoshino attended Oxford University, he said he used to go the chapel and pray not to be gay.

“That young man so ardently wished the annihilation of the person I’ve become today,” he told an audience at MU’s Stotler Lounge on Thursday night.

Yoshino, a civil rights advocate and law professor at New York University, addressed the relationship between assimilation and discrimination during one of the keynote speeches at the MizzouDiversity Summit 2010.

He used his experiences as an openly gay man to demonstrate that in order to gain acceptance within mainstream cultures people “cover.”

Yoshino defined “covering” as when individuals who admit that they’re part of a stigmatized group downplay characteristics associated with that group. He gave examples of a black person dressing “white” or gays and lesbians refraining from being vocal about their sexual orientation. He said when members of dominant groups pressure members of subordinate groups to mitigate who they are, it is a form of discrimination.

When he was a professor at Yale Law School, Yoshino was told by a colleague, “Kenji, you’ll have a lot easier ride on the way to tenure if you’re a homosexual professional (rather) than a professional homosexual.”

He said he was initially affected by this pressure and focused more on teaching and researching constitutional law and other topics not related to sexual orientation. Eventually, he said he’d had enough.

“I’d rather be not tenured and fired for being who I am than tenured for something that I’m not,” he said.

But Yoshino emphasized that assimilation doesn’t only apply to typically marginalized groups.

“All of us are outside of the mainstream in some way,” he said. “So even if we are straight, white and male and look like we are the establishment, we all have secret selves.”

Noor Azizan-Gardner, director of diversity programming and professional development at MU, said she hopes Yoshino’s message can teach MU students to learn to be themselves.

She said she loved Yoshino’s perspective on what drives social change.

“It’s all about storytelling,” she said. “If you can talk about law as storytelling, it’s much more meaningful.”

Yoshino said it’s in the people’s hands to combat the issue of covering.

“We have to respond to it in our individual capacities as citizens and fight it where it exists rather than relying on lawyers to do this generation of civil rights work for us,” he said.

Yoshino said he was fortunate to be alive in a time where he can have an impact on social change.

“If this were only my story, I don’t think it would be that relevant, and I don’t think there would be a need to tell it over and over again,” he said.

Although he said he still covers from time to time, Yoshino said people need to make a greater commitment to preserving individuality.

“We don’t emphasize enough how much power authenticity gives you.”

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