So, The New Republic’s John McWhorter sees a “certain crowd” that just isn’t giving the pre-post-racial era a chance. He takes me and Jenée Desmond-Harris to task for our bi-biracial evaluation of the “Cablinasian” thing in the context of the Tiger Woods scandal.
Of Tiger Woods and race he writes, “an America in which a brown-skinned celebrity athlete is processed as just a person is big, big news. When do we admit that we have at least passed the halfway point?” McWhorter is on to something—if, that is, we really see Woods as just a person.
He argues that there’s a danger in basing a self-definition of race on the negative impressions of someone else. Which is true—it doesn’t say much for any culture if it solely defines itself by what it isn’t. But he also argues that the days are quickly receding when it is mandatory for “self-avowedly biracial people” to claim their blackness. “Receding,” yes—but “quickly” is relative.
Times are indeed different than when Barack Obama was coming up or Tiger first came on the scene. But my sense is that there are still challenges for young biracial people in terms of finding their cultural niche. I’m not talking about Mariah Carey or Derek Jeter. I’m talking about anonymous biracial people trying to strike a balance between their sense of self and what they encounter in the world—balancing the world as we want it to be with the world as we find it.
Enter Woods circa 1997. Perhaps my piece came across as too pessimistic, but when I wrote that “Cablinasian” “sounded like an overly cute, intellectually frustrating code word for ‘I’m not just black,’” I wasn’t arguing that Tiger had to prove how black he was to the world, or that he wasn’t entitled to think of himself as multiracial, or that his mother’s Thai heritage didn’t count (in fact, in the piece, I say that he downplays his Asian heritage, too). I was arguing that in his career Woods seemed to distance himself from things black unless it suited his image as a barrier breaker.
As The Daily Beast’s Janice Min notes, “Woods’ Swiss-style neutrality on all issues—including race—had unspoken appeal to his sponsors and golf fans.” You can’t knock his success. And I take nothing from his alleged indiscretions other than the plain conclusion that people make mistakes. But I do think that part of Tiger Woods’ public persona, up until two weeks ago, was this idea of him being a kind of über-black who “transcends” race. It might not have been Woods’ idea, but I think it’s fair to say that he went with it.
Apart from his obvious athletic ability, Woods became an icon because at that time and in this place, a young, black, buttoned-down (or not) golf wizard inspired, but also fascinated, because his style cut against mainstream conventional wisdom. “Cablinasian” was the brand—and it sold.
Asian American, African American, and biracial American aren’t mutually exclusive. My point is that he might have been a more compelling sports figure all along if he hadn’t been so cloistered in terms of his bland personality and outwardly unassuming family guy image that sort of concealed a towel-snapping party guy. That doesn’t mean Woods isn’t free to think of himself as multiracial, or simply as a human being. We all have that right. I think it suggests, though, that at least in the early part of Woods’ career, he had an interest in presenting himself that way because it gave him a way to sell himself to the golf world.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.