On Downplaying Differences: Freshmen to Read 'Covering'

Freshmen entering UNC next fall will be asked to read Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights before they arrive. This year’s selection in the Summer Reading Program concerns sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of “covering” — downplaying stigmatizing identities to assimilate to the cultural mainstream.

The author, Kenji Yoshino, is a Japanese-American gay man who teaches law at Yale University, specializing in constitutional law, law and literature, and Japanese law and society. His book challenges ideas about minority rights and the sometimes-damaging effects of social integration.

“I liked it. I was not expecting to,” said Peter Coclanis, associate provost for international affairs and chair of the book selection committee. “This book offers an excellent introduction to what rigorous critical inquiry is like at the university level. And the central topics treated — identity and self-expression — are central to most 18- and 19-year-olds.” He added, “This will be a provocative read for them. It’s not an easy read.”

UNC asks all first-year and incoming transfer students to read a book in the summer and participate in small group discussions led by faculty and staff once they arrive on campus. The noncredit assignment, an academic icebreaker but not a requirement, stimulates critical thinking outside the classroom environment and encourages new students to engage in the academic community.

Carolina’s program focuses on discussion and dialogue, creating an intellectual climate in which students can come to their own conclusions and turn information into insight.

A nine-member selection committee of students, faculty and staff began meeting last fall to consider books for this year’s program.

Their recommendation of Covering went to Bobbi Owen, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and then to Chancellor James Moeser. Coclanis said he didn’t think Moeser ever had vetoed a committee choice.

“It’s a thoughtful, critical analysis that’s not lurid and doesn’t sensationalize issues,” Owen said. “If you go to Student Stores and get the book, you actually are going to find it in the law section.

“It’s really important that our society talk about equal treatment for people that downplay their differences. We had a president in the 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio, and there were never pictures of him published in his wheelchair. That’s a kind of covering.

“I hope that the conversation is not about sexual orientation — that’s too easy. Could the conversation be about disability, racial issues or gender issues? I think if people start to talk about the ways we cover, in a variety of settings, maybe it would extend the conversation to something deeper.”

The committee chose Covering from more than 160 suggestions made by 224 students, alumni, faculty and community members. Four other books were considered as finalists: A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication; A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah; Escape from Slavery by Francis Bok; and The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.

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