Superhero Series: What It Means to Cover or Pass at Work

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Diversity, Equity, and InclusionSuperhero Series

In part two of our Superhero Series, let’s examine the concepts of covering and passing. These two concepts come into play frequently in the land of superheroes, but have particularly important meaning when it comes to certain superhero stories. X-Men is probably best known for exploring these complexities.

X-Men (the recent movie versions) is about many things, but one key aspect to the story is how mutants have to hide their abilities from ‘regular’ humans for fear of persecution. Mutants are humans who display no abilities at birth, and then have powers appear around the time of puberty. Their powers can be lethal: one example of this is when Rogue discovers that kissing someone can kill them. So she runs away and hides her ability for as long as she can. Like many mutants, she looks like a human without any special powers. In X-Men, the ultimate question for the story is: can humans and mutants co-exist peacefully?

A similar theme also appears in this season’s Supergirl. As more aliens find their home on Earth, humans are growing increasingly uncomfortable with (and afraid of) these powerful beings. As a guerilla army of humans (i.e. terrorist group, but not called as such) forms to try to scare the aliens and let them know that they aren’t welcome, the aliens that are first impacted are those that look different from humans, because they’re the easiest targets. This group of aliens are called ‘roaches’ and are attacked both verbally and physically, not just by the terrorist group, but also by people who are simply afraid. Meanwhile, as we discussed in the previous post in this series, Supergirl had no idea that anything serious was happening in her community, because her experience has been so positive. Outside of being a hero to many humans, she is also more accepted because she looks human, and is a conventionally attractive human to boot (see more on beauty bias over here).

Covering and Passing at Work

So, how does this relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion? The reality is that some people who are marginalized may downplay or altogether hide their identities if they choose. To distinguish between covering and passing, when someone covers they have disclosed their identity to others, but are downplaying its significance– as opposed to passing, where the individual is striving to make sure that they completely hide their identity from those around them. As authors Christie Smith and Kenji Yoshino explained in their white paper Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion, “while only some groups have the capacity to pass, all groups have the capacity to cover.” People may cover in a variety of ways– some include changing one’s appearance (think a woman of color who chooses to straighten her hair with chemical relaxers), and avoiding affiliations with a certain group (for example, someone who identifies as queer who avoids discussions of partners and/or pronouns at work).

Historically, we see that people who are outwardly different in any significant way from the dominant or majority groups in society have a harder time being accepted by society, so it makes sense that those who can cover and/or pass for what is accepted as ‘normal’ often choose to do so, especially at work.

Here are some additional ways people might choose to cover and/or pass:
  • Someone who is gay may choose not to talk about their significant other or bring them to any work events.
  • Someone who is of Asian descent may choose to not speak up if they overhear a joke about Asian stereotypes.
  • Someone who is Latinx may choose to never speak Spanish.
  • Someone who was born in another country might work hard to remove any accent

But is this fair to the person downplaying their identity, that person’s co-workers, or the company? We would argue it’s not. Just like the mutants in X-Men and the aliens in Supergirl, it’s critical for the dominant/majority group to find ways to accept difference and not fear it. Too much pressure is placed on the target or subordinated group to conform, but conformity is not an acceptable outcome. Here’s why covering and passing end up being an issue for everyone:

  • The psychological toll it takes on someone to pretend to be someone they aren’t is going to take away from their productivity.
  • The company loses not only that person’s productivity (and perhaps loyalty), but also an opportunity to learn from someone different from those in power.
  • For those in senior or management roles who are covering or passing, it’s doing a disservice to those individuals who share the same identities yet who are earlier in their career, who don’t see people like themselves reflected in positions of authority.
  • It’s simply unfair to the person who can’t feel like they can be themselves without fear of more subtle unconscious bias, or overt discrimination.
Ways to support employees so they can be themselves at work

Here are some ways you can actively help employees feel like they don’t need to cover or pass at work:

  • Have a clearly stated and visible diversity, equity, and inclusion policy that articulates the importance of bringing your authentic self to work, and provide concrete examples of what that means.
  • Be explicit in your language: If someone says something discriminatory, say something to make it clear that that language is not tolerated.
  • Share your own story of difference.
  • If someone shares something personal with you about their identity, thank them for sharing it and keep it to yourself. Their information isn’t yours to share.
  • Run inclusion surveys regularly to collect data on how your employees are feeling with regard to bringing their identities to work.

What have we missed? What have you done to ensure people feel like they can, if they choose, bring their identities to work without fear of discrimination? Feel free to share your thoughts with us on Twitter or email us directly!

If you’re interested in bringing a workshop on how to be an effective ally at work to your office, and explore ways to take action, learn more about our programs.