Monday, September 10, 2007


Responding to a part of my reading of Jouvenel, Mark Olson cites back to his own response to Covering (which I recommended he read) to argue that people "badge" more often than they "cover." (Go ahead, read that again to be sure you get the thread. I'll wait).

"Covering" is when people downplay (but do not necessarily deny) a part of their identity or presentment in order to better move within dominant social circles. For example, a Black person might straighten her hair, rather than wear it natural, because the law firm she works at associates the latter hairstyle with "ghetto" people and not professionals. This woman is not denying her Blackness, but she is covering it--making it less noticeable and more easily integrated within the White mainstream. The cost, most obviously, is that the woman cannot wear her hair as she likes or feels most comfortable with (even though hairstyles have no intrinsic connection to legal performance), and less obviously, often economic costs--buying straightening chemicals is time-consuming and far more expensive than natural styling would be.

"Badging", as Mark defines it, is when people voluntarily alter their appearance to signal their membership in a group. The Amazons of myth, who cut off their right breasts (to better string back their bows) might be an example, or perhaps a fraternal order which initiates its members be giving them a marking, uniform, or tattoo. Olson continues:
Most people don’t cover, they badge. We significantly alter our public persona, behavior and speech in order to signify joining, to willingly if not eagerly show our membership our assent and unity with various groups in our society. The missing part of Mr Yoshino’s dialectic is a recognition of the value men (and women) place on badging, for I found little if any recognition that badging forms a universal and important part of every culture.

The distinction between "Covering" and "Badging" appears to lie on two axis. First, covering is done grudgingly and under (implied) threat of sanction, while badging is done voluntarily, "willingly if not eagerly" to signify membership in a group. I badge when I want to proudly announce my membership in a group; I cover when I need to minimize my membership in a group to move comfortably or effectively in a social arrangement. If I wear my kippah in Synagogue, I'm badging; if I take it off while going to the store in very-not-Jewish Northfield, I'm covering. Second, I'd argue that there is at least an implied difference in the originating point of a "badge" versus a "cover." The former should ideally stem from the bottom up--the people who are badged should, broadly speaking, determine that a badge is necessary and what the badge is. Covering demands, by contrast, tend to come from up on high. They are societal demands, not consented to by their targets, often the expectations of social elites or corporate executives. There are exceptions to this (an army uniform, perhaps), but by and large I think it holds. And even the army uniform I think may be better described a justifiable requirement to cover which is later adapted as a "badge" by the people it is imposed upon.

To start with, I'm not sure why Mark is so sure that people are more likely to badge than cover. Perhaps maybe upper-middle class White Christian heterosexual males are more likely to badge than cover, because there are likely to be fewer characteristics they possess that require covering in the circles they move in. However, I think it is facile to assert, without argument, that a Asian gay male professor is more likely to badge than cover--or that the benefits he gains from badging outweigh the harms he experiences from covering. To be frank, it displays a sort of arrogance for Mark to transpose his social position (in which the "badge" he wears to signify his membership in the cycling community--shaving--outweighs whatever covering he has to do) over and on top of the narrative of another whose life experience has made him cover more than badge. Mark simply has no way of knowing how badging versus covering affects people who are differently situated from him, and he's epistemologically wrong to assume that he knows, much less is so sure that he knows that he'll overwrite their own narratives with his own.

More importantly, "badge" seems to valorize presentation-altering requirements in a way that often just doesn't seem to fit. I had to wear a polo shirt and khakis when I went to work at a law firm. I presume (though never asked) that they expected me to keep relatively cut and short hair. To say the shirt, pants, and hair were a "badge" of my office rings less hollow than it rings ridiculous.

The paradigmatic case I use to illustrate the harms of covering is Jespersen v. Harrah's Casino, and it showcases this and the other problems with being too quick to replace "covering" with "badging." Decided by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year, the court held that Darlene Jespersen could be fired from her position as a bartender at Harrah's after 20 years of service because she refused to assent to a new requirement (for female bartenders only) to wear makeup. Specifically, Harrah's brought in "image specialists" that gave "make-overs" to each employee, creating a "personal best" picture which supervisors were told to compare the presentment of the employee to everyday. For women, this makeover invariably included makeup requirements. Jespersen tried wearing the makeup for awhile, but stopped, saying it made her feel "dolled up" and put a barrier between her and her customers. So she stopped, and in spite of 20 years of undisputed and continuing exemplary service, she was fired.

Let's start with the obvious: it would be absurd to call make-up a "badge" of Jespersen's job, just as much as it would be to call khakis a badge of being a Library Assistant at Williams & Connolly. To call either "badges" twists the meaning of the word so out of sync with common usage as to make it effectively meaningless. Next, we can note another problem elucidated by Jespersen's case, critical to the point I and Yoshino make but overlooked entirely by Mark: the possibility that presentment-altering requirements can be differentially imposed upon different social groups. In this case, only female bartenders were required to wear makeup. In fact, men were prohibited from wearing makeup at all. Two implications flow from this. First, forcing women to wear makeup isn't just a differential burden, it costs them extra money. Men had their own requirements as well, and its true that the bar on men wearing make-up imposes a covering burden on men as well, but eyeballing the schema Harrah's set up makes it pretty obvious that women will have to spend more to adapt to it than men. This is discriminatory on face--it makes it more expensive to be a woman and work at Harrah's than to be a man and work there. Second, the Harrah's case reminds us that sometimes, covering requirements can be premised upon subordinating perceptions of the "proper" position of a given social group. While women should be free to wear anything they like on their face if they so desire, the idea that women "need" to (literally in this case) "cover" their faces, whether with make-up or a veil, is emblematic itself of deep-seated misogyny. Indeed, while I strongly oppose states (or companies) which require woman to be veiled, there is at least somewhat of a glass house here that I wish Mark would recognize. We have an obligation to at least interrogate badging and covering requirements when they perpetuate racist, sexist, or otherwise subordinating ideologies.

Moving forward, look at where the covering requirement originated from. Again, it's ludicrous to suggest that the make-up rules grew out some fraternal bonding initiative amongst the bartenders that Jespersen refused to accede to. This was a corporate policy, sent from on high, that had virtually no relation to Jespersen's ability to do her job but required her to make significant physical alterations at her own expense anyway. Nor was this requirement a reasonable expectation Jespersen could expect to have to endure as part of entering the bartending community. She had been their for twenty years, and executives unilaterally changed the rules on her to require her to mark herself as they liked. Finally, to act as if there is no costs (in a free labor market) to being fired from the job you've held for 20 years is absurd--particularly when the termination is for non-performance related reasons--and since she sued, she has to deal with the costs (monetary and non-) of that as well.

The moral of the story is that, while I sometimes badge and I sometimes cover, being coerced into covering is distressingly common, it's really bad when it happens, it's more likely to happen to already marginalized groups, and it has significant costs that remain worthy of address. By and large, we shouldn't force people to alter themselves so as to live happy, productive, socially tolerated lives. When we do require it, we need to ask why its justified, and we need a pretty good reason. Fostering fraternal bonds or social solidarity can be part of that reason, but it needs to be warranted--the demand for solidarity needs to outweigh the harm of the covering requirement, and the fraternity argument can only be used when solidarity is part of what's at issue (which, in Jespersen's case, it really obviously isn't). A critical view remains, as always, the best choice.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I think you're misunderstanding my point. It's not that covering doesn't exist or that it is a problem. It's that badging is universal and the problem of covering is tied to the universality and desire to badge. It is that part which Yoshino does not address or even, I think, acknowledge.

I will respond more in depth tonight. That (and a first post on Negrophobia which I now have from the library) are the next posts I plan to write, but I'm not sure how much time I'll get in tonight.