Not long ago, a friend initiated an LGBTQ+ support group in a large multi-national company in Singapore. The executives, human resources and diversity team were thrilled. They provided full support in time, money and resources.
Wouldn't the LGBTQ+ employees be thrilled? To be recognised, supported and appreciated?
As the weeks and months passed, the group remained small, with only a handful of regular members.
What happened? I asked.
Some of the LGBTQ+ colleagues were hesitant to participate. If they did, they're afraid of being discriminated against by their boss or peers.
What is Identity Covering?
Kenji Yoshino, a gay Asian American legal scholar, published a book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights1. Yoshino defines covering as
Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way […] every reader of this book has covered, whether consciously or not, and sometimes at significant personal cost.
Some hide their age by colouring their hair or wearing makeup. Some change accents or tone of voice when conversing with different people. Some deny their association by avoiding their community and "hanging out" with the cool group.
We have all covered before. The negative stereotype of our identity gets hidden in the closet, swept under rugs or stored in the attic, away from judging eyes.
People cover for many different reasons. Some cover to appear more likeable, more desirable or even more competent. For others, covering is a survival tactic; to avoid judgment, discrimination, punishment, imprisonment and even death.
Four Types Of Covering
Once you understand the concept of covering, you can find it almost everywhere, especially with your own behaviours. Yoshino defined four types of identity covering; advocacy, affiliation, appearance and association.
Advocacy-Based Covering is when people choose to champion or not for their group. People may choose to stay silent when others make derogatory remarks about their group. If some decide to speak out and stand up for their group, they inadvertently revealing their identity.
For example, nearly 30% of the population in Silicon Valley consists of Asians2. Yet, technology companies based in the Silicon Valley remain silent about the Anti-Asian violence during COVID193. Employees on the Ellen Degeneres Show remain silent about the racism, fear and intimidation faced in the toxic work environment. The show shut down after a former employee spoke up4.
People avoid behaviours that are associated with an identity. In Affiliation-Based Covering, people distance themselves from the negative stereotypes of an identity. This distancing can be changing accents, language, names, place of living, etc.
For example, Margaret Thatcher hired a voice coach to make her sound more authoritative5. Bruno Mar's real name is Peter Gene Hernandez. Helen Mirren changed her name from Ilynea Lydia Mironoff. Many other celebrities have changed their names too6.
Appearance-Based Covering occurs when people alter their look to blend in. This form of covering focuses on how a person presents themselves to the world. It includes changing their clothes, grooming or behaviour.
Association-Based Covering is when people choose to avoid contact with members of their group. When a person sees another group member, they distance themselves or hang out with people from other groups.
African, Hispanic and Asian Americans act white in the professional and academic setting to get ahead. Acting white means a person alters their identity to disassociate themselves from their group. This could mean hanging out with only white colleagues, speaking with a white accent, hiding the fact of living in a non-white neighbourhood, and so on. It could also mean dismissing and ignoring their own group members9.
Another example is when women in male-dominated industries feel pressured to play like men, which means behaving in a stereotypically masculine way. Depending on the industry, play like men could mean being ruthless, unsympathetic, emotionless, combative, aggressive or competitive.
According to Bain10, women in jazz were told to
... either be "good girls" or "play like men".
In jazz, a woman's talent and her sexuality are seen as incompatible. She could either be pretty and untalented or talented and not pretty. Being good girls meant that a woman's look was emphasised over musical ability. Play like men meant a woman's talent was due to her "masculine" nature. She cannot be both talented and feminine.
Why is Covering Bad?
People cover for good reasons. Though, covering has its downsides, such as encouraging group think, lacking authenticity and a decreasing sense of well-being.
For one, covering encourages group think. Groupthink occurs when people value conformity and harmony over diverse ideas and perspectives. Then, the group makes suboptimal decisions, and people behave irrationally. For example, Tesla employees stayed silent about the pervasive gender discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Until a former employee decided to sue for sexual harassment11.
If we cover an essential part of our identity, we deny an integral part of ourselves. Covering prevents people from showing up authentically. Over time, doubt sets in. Self-confidence and self-esteem fade. Inner conflict arises. The battle between keeping appearances versus expressing authenticity rages within, impacting our sense of well-being.
And so, covering prevents us from being present. Fear stops us from being fully engaged and bringing our whole selves to the community, workplace, school, and our families. Denying our authentic self decreases our sense of well-being12. Menard and Brunet found that a person's sense of well-being is linked to their ability to show up authentically at work. The less authentic an employee is at work, the higher chance an employee experience mental and physical illness.
Can We Safely Uncover?
Each person's situation is different. For some, uncovering is not a big deal. Because other people within the community had uncovered with minimal consequences.
For others, uncovering can cost them their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Covering is used for survival. People cover to protect themselves from certain dangers in society. And so, before deciding to uncover, you need to consider the consequences of uncovering. Here are some questions to help you weigh in on the matter.
- Will uncovering bring me or my loved ones harm?
- Are these perceptions of harm real or not?
- What might the consequences be if I uncover?
- What are the consequences if I stay covered?
- What benefit will (un)covering bring me?
- When is it a good time to uncover?
Don't feel pressured to uncover if you're not ready. Only you can decide when and how is best to uncover. Only you will know your situation best.
But know this, you need not do this alone.
Find the trusted few. Seek their advice and support. Find trusted online communities, and speak to its members, those who have gone through the same experience. Find stories of people who have uncovered before you. Get a sense of what may happen.
Everyone covers. It doesn't have to be this way.
Covering is what we all do to survive in our socially brutal world. We don't have to let this continue.
Yes, people may take their time to uncover. But, we can all take small steps to allow people to safely express their authentic selves.
Celebrate differences. Create safe spaces. Communicate support. Get educated.
We can all do our part to create an inclusive and equitable world.
- Yoshino, K. (2011). Covering: The hidden assault on our civil rights. Random House.
- Population Share by Race/Ethnicity. Silicon Valley Indicators.
- Giles, T. (2021, February 25). Anti-Asian Hate Is Met Mostly With Silence in Silicon Valley. Bloomberg.Com.
- Koblin, J. (2020, September 21). Ellen DeGeneres Returns to Show With Apology for Toxic Workplace. The New York Times.
- Johanson, M. (2015, March 4). Is your voice holding you back? BBC Worklife.
- Michallon, C., & Stolworthy, J. (2020, February 1). 27 celebrities who were born with very different names. The Independent.
- Justice, D. of. (2016, April 13). Marital status discrimination. Equal Opportunity Tasmania; Department of Justice.
- Thomas, D. (2019, June 15). Tattoos at work: Are they still an issue? BBC News.
- Gray, A. (2019, June 4). The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards (SSIR). Stanford Social Innovation Review.
- Bain, V. (2019). Counting the Music Industry: The Gender Gap. VBain Consulting.
- Levin, S. (2017, July 5). She took on Tesla for discrimination. Now others are speaking up. ‘It’s too big to deny’. The Guardian.
- Ménard, J., & Brunet, L. (2011). Authenticity and well‐being in the workplace: A mediation model. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 26(4), 331–346.