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How Tiger Woods Lost His Stripes

Henry Yu is a professor of history and Asian American studies at UCLA

The emergence of 20-year-old Eldrick “Tiger” Woods as a golf prodigy this summer said as much about how Americans view race and ethnicity as it did about the sports world’s penchant for ignoring the complexities of race and ethnicity in favor of shorthand cliches.

Woods moved from the sports pages to the front page when he captured his third straight amateur championship and then turned professional, attracting a reported $40 million in Nike endorsements and a place in the ongoing debate about the commercial value of racial identity.

But what was Tiger Woods’ racial identity? To Nike, he was African American; Nike’s initial TV ad campaign emphasized the racial exclusivity that has marked golf in America, stating that there were courses in America at which Tiger Woods still could not play.

Woods’ professional debut had been hailed in August as a multicultural godsend to the sport of golf. As a child of multiracial heritage, Woods added color to a sport that traditionally appealed to those who were white and rich. A Tiger of many colors would forever change the complexion of the game, attracting inner-city children to golf in the same way that Michael Jordan had for basketball, and at the same time selling the sport to a burgeoning Asian market.

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A Times article said that Woods had a “rich ethnic background,” stating that his father was “a quarter Native American, a quarter Chinese and half African American,” and that his mother was “half Thai, a quarter Chinese and a quarter white.”

How did we arrive at these fractions of cultural identity? The racial calculus employed by both print and television media to describe Woods is a throwback to the racial classifications used in the Old South. People were classified as mulatto if they were half white and half black, quadroon if they were a quarter black, octoroon if an eighth and so on. The assumption was that blood and race could be broken down into precise fractions, tying a person’s present existence in a racially segregated society with his biological ancestry.

It is disturbing how little we have changed. The intricate racial calculus that broke Woods into all manner of stripes and hues was a farce not only in terms of its facile exactitude, but also in its complexity. According to the calculations, he is more Asian American than African American: a quarter Chinese on the father’s side, plus a quarter Chinese and a half Thai on the mother’s side, for a total of one-half Asian in Tiger, versus only half African American on the father’s side, for a total of one-quarter black in Tiger. But this is an empty equation because social usage and the major market appeal of Tiger Woods classifies him as black.

This confusion of labels is a direct result of the confusion over race. Choked by a long history of racial segregation and exclusion, Americans want to leave their past behind. The most common technique is through single moments of redemption and acceptance. We place an inordinate emphasis on the individual who transcends racial barriers, as if somehow his example will save us all. “America is not racist,” we claim, “just look at how popular Michael Jordan is.” On the personal level, the claim that “one of my best friends (or co-workers) is black (or Asian or Latino)” is the functional equivalent for claiming that all is well in America. Unfortunately, this emphasis on individual examples has led to an almost complete denial of the hybrid nature of race and race relations. We want racial categories to be neatly represented by individuals, so that a multicultural advertisement will have an African American, an Asian American, a Latino and an assortment of white people. The hope is that all of these differing people will buy the same objects in a shared market of goods.

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Casting Tiger Woods as the embodiment of multiculturalism was a valiant attempt to contain within a single body all of the ethnic diversity that multiculturalism claims to represent. The awkwardness of description and its inevitable failure resulted from our inability to leave behind an obsession with the idea that race is a biological category where every individual has a precise niche. We have reduced Woods’ hybridity, and indeed the cultural hybridity of us all, to one label.

All of us are the products of cultural intermingling. More and more of us are being be born true hybrids, unable or unwilling to say “what” we are. Yet society as a whole, as defined by our true national media in sports and advertising, remains locked in racial thinking that insists on purity of definition, all in relation to white privilege. That is how Tiger Woods was defined, a young African American in a white man’s game. The sooner we see ourselves for the hybrids we are, the sooner we can end privileges and societal structures that rest on claims of racial purity. And maybe then we will find a solution to this country’s problems with race.


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