Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Is Tiger black?

I was in the gym the other day reading a special issue of Sports Illustrated--one primed for the US Open (it was an old copy). And there was an editorial from an African American sports journalist about Tiger Woods--specifically, lamenting Tiger's lack of political activism around issues of race (and I would add gender). The gist of the editorial was that this black journalist was, like many African Americans, initially enthused and supportive of Tiger's golf career--seeing him as someone who had made it into the most hallowed and whitest of institutions--the PGA--and that he could lead a race revolution in the world of golf. And yet, it hasn't happened. Tiger remains the only black PGA golfer in the tour, there are no up and coming new African American golfers set to rival Tiger's record--there are not scores of African American golf athletes infiltrating lily white university golf programs, and Tiger has not taken a stand on key race issues in the public domain. In other words, he's no Jackie Robinson.

And I know I've had similar critiques about Tiger's lack of politicization--and also speculating about how fair that is--for me to want and to demand that Tiger become a political spokesperson for racial justice and gender equity. After all, we are not making these demands on Ernie Els or Jim Furyk or Phil Mickelson. Or even Vijay Singh. They get to be "just golfers" and they have their respective charities and corporate sponsors, and yes they are under scrutiny, but none of them have the pressures to be a symbol in the way that Tiger so clearly is under a media and world microscope.

Yet there was something else about the editorial that troubled me. The dismissiveness of Tiger's claim to be "Cablinasian." There was much "to-do" made when he first coined the word and when he tried to show that he was not simply an African American golfer but a person who had many different racial and ethnic strains in his ancestry. And there have been many people who have called him on his apparent lack of black pride for not claiming a mono-racial African American identity. But Tiger himself said it best when he explained that to claim a black identity would be to disavow his mother and her life, her influence, on him. His Thai mother. Which makes Tiger as much Asian American as African American.

So is Tiger black? I'm not saying he's not because the truth is, he's identified by others and perceived to be "black" because he *looks* black. In other words, if he had more Asian features, if he favored his mother's side of the family more than his father's, phenotypically, perhaps we would be calling him an Asian American or at least a mixed race, hapa, golfer and not simply a black golfer.

I actually do think that Tiger is a black golfer. It's just that he's not only black. He's also Asian American and mixed race and hapa and Cablinasian. He is a multitude and he's got a killer golf swing and so we want him to infiltrate the bastion, the fortress of white privilege--the country club--to lay waste to their belief systems and herald in a new age of racial tolerance and acceptance--to get them where they sleep, so to speak--on the fairway.

Maybe he'll do it one day. Maybe he'll stick it to "the man" and take a political stand and support a cause that is contrary to his Nike endorsement and the galleries that watch him. Maybe not. At any rate, maybe we can start by recognizing that Tiger is both black and not black and that there's nothing wrong in acknowledging the complexity of who he is, just as one day perhaps he will also recognize and embrace and act on that complexity.

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