Kenji Yoshino on a Pivotal Identity Moment in His Career

Academic and Author
To what extent are you "yourself" at work? Kenji Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at the NYU School of Law, studies the phenomenon of "covering." Coined in 1963 by the sociologist Erving Goffman, "covering" describes the different ways and reasons we hide aspects of our identities when we're functioning within groups.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kenji Yoshino: When I moved from Yale to NYU in 2008 – I came here because my husband actually is in the city –, my wonderful dean then, Dean Ricky Revesz, said to me, "We want to give you the Earl Warren Professorship of Constitutional Law." I was very touched by this and I knew where he was coming from because Earl Warren is a great figure both in constitutional law and in civil rights law and those are my two research areas. But there was this really long pause where I was agonizing over what to say. And then I thought, you know, you write about advocacy-based covering and so you should not engage in advocacy-based covering. And so I said, I’m not going to just let this go. So I said to him, "Ricky, I’m really sorry but I can’t take that chair." And he was completely gob smacked because I would have been the inaugural chair holder. He had already worked out the indenture. He’d talked to donors so that this chair could be named in this way for me and it was just a really special series of things that he had done.

So he said, "Why not?" And I said, "Well, as attorney general of California Earl Warren interned individuals of Japanese descent, and I cannot" – I was pretty heavy with him in that I quoted Adrienne Rich to him – I said, "'I cannot be honored by a person who has so dishonored my people.'" And so what he said was, "I absolutely understand. Let me go off and think about this for a few days and I’ll get back to you."

So four days later he calls back and he says, "I have a new chair for you." And I said, "That’s great. What is it?" And he said, "It’s the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professorship of Constitutional Law." And there was another silence, but this silence was qualitatively different insofar as I thought, you know, one of us is crazy on this phone call because what difference could that possibly make just adding the words 'Chief Justice' in front of this title that I’d already rejected? So I said to my dean, repressing a lot of responses, "What difference does that make?" And he had a great answer. And his answer was, "In the intervening four days I’ve read a biography of Earl Warren and I’ve learned that when he became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court he apologized for his actions in the Japanese internment and said that he regretted this more than anything else that he had done in his professional life."

"And so wouldn’t it be great," my dean said to me, "if you could have this chair that symbolized how far an individual could travel over the course of a single lifetime because Earl Warren himself went from being that Attorney General who interned the Japanese to this iconic Chief Justice who wrote Brown versus the Board of Education and Loving versus Virginia and all the other cases that you teach so passionately in your constitutional law classes?" And so I said, "That chair, Ricky, I will take."

But imagine if I hadn’t pushed through, right? Imagine if I just accepted the first chair and said I’m just going to engage in advocacy-based covering as an Asian-American and take the Earl Warren Professorship. That chair, which I could potentially have had for the rest of my life, would have just hung around my neck like an albatross. And every time I used it I would have felt, I think, a surge of kind of shame or at least doubt about whether or not I had done the right thing, you know, given that it had such deep emotional salience for me. But now, because I pushed and because we reached a higher level of understanding, every time that name flashes up I think about, you know, those words about how far Earl Warren was able to travel over a single lifetime and how that really is my mission in life, to take people from the place that they are and to bring them into a different place of consciousness and a different place of human flourishing.

And so the chair has an immensely deep resonance for me now, but we wouldn’t have been able to get to that extraordinarily positive outcome, that – positive outcome even sounds like an understatement – that extraordinarily kind of inspirational outcome, if I had decided that I wasn’t going to rock the boat and that I wasn’t going to risk my own authenticity in that moment that mattered.

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Big Think Edge helps organizations get smarter, faster by catalyzing conversation around the topics most critical to 21st century business success. Led by the world’s foremost experts, our dynamic learning programs are short-form, mobile, and immediately actionable.