Authenticity, Allyship and the Future of DEI

Lessons from Professor Kenji Yoshino

Professor Kenji Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, Director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, and Member of the Meta Oversight Board. He recently shared insights with AESC about his personal journey, work on inclusion and the law. He offers valuable lessons for anyone committed to capturing the value of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their organizations and communities.

Authenticity and Covering

As an openly gay man, Yoshino felt the need to downplay his identity at different points in his career. "No one was asking me to become straight, no one was asking me to pass," he explains. "But they were saying, it's fine for you to be gay and say that you're gay—but make it easy for us to forget that you're gay." Yoshino looked for a word to describe the experience, and found “covering,” which he defines as the pressure to downplay a stigmatized identity to make others more comfortable. “The thing that fascinated me about this kind of demand was that I saw it being made across the board, of all marginalized groups.”

Yoshino's decision to embrace his authentic self was not easy, but it unlocked a new sense of strength and purpose. "Authenticity gives us a huge amount of power," he reflects. "I wouldn't say I was the most brilliant or even the hardest working individual in my graduating class or on the market that year, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do." By being true to himself, Yoshino was able to vocally pursue his passion for LGBTQ rights and succeed in gaining tenure at Yale Law School.

Kenji Yoshino is a legal scholar and professor at NYU School of Law and the Director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. He is the author of four books: Covering, A Thousand Times More Fair, Speak Now, and Say the Right Thing. He is a highly sought-after speaker on the topics of authenticity, allyship and the legal regulation of DEI. Kenji serves on the Board of the Brennan Center for Justice, Meta's Oversight Board and the Board of the Legal Defense Fund.

Is Good Good Enough?

What is the lesson for people who want to be inclusive leaders? They need to be vigilant about not asking others to cover. "You can be a person of incredible goodwill, you can be an incredibly kind person, and you can also be the source of a covering demand that impinges on the human flourishing of the people around you," Yoshino cautions.

Yoshino himself is constantly on the lookout for ways in which he might be asking individuals to conform to what’s comfortable for him. Yoshino says, “If I'm truly interested and being open and inclusive on neurodiversity, that may mean that I have to think more deeply about the kinds of demands for conformity I as a professor might be making in my classroom.” For example, grading people on participation and their ability to answer a question when called upon. “People are different in the way that they process and convey information,” he says. “I'm still constantly having to reevaluate, rethink: Am I creating the environment around myself where I'm living up to my own ideals?”

DEI is Our Past, Present and Future

Yoshino positions DEI within the larger story of American history. "The whole project of America has been expanding who counts as part of 'we the people'," he argues. From the abolition of slavery to the women's suffrage movement to the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, the United States has a long history of marginalized groups advocating for inclusion and equality. While progress has been uneven and much work remains to be done, Yoshino sees cause for hope in the younger generations' commitment to social justice. "Gen Y and Gen Z, I always say, unionize as a generation around issues of D&I," he observes.

Facing Backlash

Yoshino is optimistic about the prospects for DEI work, even in the face of legal challenges and backlash. “Because [allyship] is so ecumenical and universal in its approach, it's going to survive anything that the courts can do.”

Allyship is leveraging one's advantage to the benefit of those who lack that advantage in a particular context. For example, Yoshino says “I'm a man, I'm currently able-bodied, I have a lot of socioeconomic and professional privilege. So, in any of those dimensions, I'll be the giver of allyship. But I'm also Asian American, I'm also LGBT, and so on those grounds, I'm less likely to be empowered, and so I'll more likely be the recipient of allyship.”

He sees the concepts of uncovering and allyship as universal principles that can benefit everyone and withstand legal scrutiny. “Even in the worst-case scenario, no one's ever going to complain about an initiative that benefits everyone,” he says. "The true universality of both allyship and uncovering is the selling point in this day and age because 45% of straight white men report covering. There's no cohort that's immune from the demand to cover," he notes.

As our world becomes increasingly diverse and interconnected, Yoshino believes that DEI work is more important than ever. "To be human, to be part of the human community, is to take diversity as a going-in proposition. The only thing that's left to us as a choice is how we're going to respond to that diversity," he remarks. Rather than retreating into nostalgia, denial or retrenchment, Yoshino calls on us to embrace diversity through a conscious style of inclusive leadership.

Lessons Learned

Ultimately, the lessons from Professor Yoshino's journey and work are ones of resilience, hope and the power of authenticity. By embracing our true selves, standing up for others and committing to the lifelong work of building a more inclusive society, we can all play a part in bending the arc of history toward justice, regardless of resistance. As Yoshino puts it, "DEI will change, but it will absolutely survive. It will just survive in a different form."

Gain additional insights from Yoshino at AESC's Global Conference - New York: Influence & Impact. Register now for Yoshino's keynote on May 15 at the Cornell Tech Center on Roosevelt Island.