As the media frenzy over Tiger Woods’ reported marital infidelity gained momentum, I waited for the inevitable disappointment, irrational guilt and surge of frustration. I braced myself for the symptoms I expected: Knot in stomach, distraught head-shaking and melodramatic muttering of “Oh, Tiger, why, why, why? We don’t need this.” The “we,” of course, being black people.
But I felt nothing.
This was strange. Sure, I’m no golf fan, but I have historically been afflicted with the old stomach knot without regard for how far removed I am from the person at the center of the controversy—or whether I even like them. My anxiety has to do with the run-of-the-mill special concern for members of one’s family or nation. In some ways, it’s akin to the phantom pain of an amputated limb. But it’s also infused with ideas of shared fate or linked destiny that are arguably grounded in reality.
I experienced that sense of anxious identification with Michael Jackson, whom I loved, and Kobe Bryant, whom I really didn’t know anything about before his “transgressions,” i.e., his rape trial. I felt it with Michael Vick, even though animal abuse is horrifying to me. Years ago, it hit me when I found out the Washington area snipers were black. This year, Serena Williams’ and Kanye West’s outbursts set it off once again.
It’s the source of the familiar first response—“Oh, God, I hope it wasn’t a black person”—when we hear that someone has committed a brutal crime, as if we, too, are guilty just for sharing the same racial identity. It even carries over to fictional characters, like Disney’s new Princess Tiana. It causes black women to fret that the media almost never get us right, fueling the frustration of skeptics of Precious and the entire Tyler Perry oeuvre.
But there was Tiger, caught in a sex scandal complete with alleged multiple skanks, embarrassing voice-mails and eyebrow-raising texts. And other than the normal workday interest in celebrity gossip, I felt: Yawn. Nothing.
I re-read the texts and scrutinized pictures of the alleged mistresses. Second yawn. I took my racial anxiety temperature and found it to be normal. Interested, but not personally invested, I felt exactly like I did when David Letterman revealed his infidelity. No stress, no angst, no, “Why did you have to do this to us?”
And I suspect that Tiger would be thrilled with my reaction.
As Tiger famously didn’t want to be seen as black, but rather “Cablinasian,” he would have resented any black-specific phantom pain on my part.
When he first announced his creative new racial designation on Oprah, I was in the “Try catching a cab in New York” camp. My reaction was “If you say so. Do you, but good luck with that.”
“I am Tiger Woods”? Not me. I have a black father and white mother and, due to somewhat ambiguous and pale looks, could make a convincing Cablackcreolejewishtina argument, but I’d never want to. Still, my reaction to Tiger’s self-made racial category wasn’t a value judgment about his refusal to self-identify as black as I do. I simply thought that, with his brown skin, it was naive to expect that he would convince anyone otherwise. Yes, race is a social construct. But in this country, the reality is that you don’t get to decide unilaterally that you’re non-black or some multisyllabic race-less combination utterly lacking in social significance. Sorry. This society still divides itself along black/white, either/or lines.
Or so I thought.
Until I realized that I felt no pain in response to Tiger’s scandal. Nor did I detect it in black friends and family, either. We’re not feeling the same embarrassment over his incriminating text messages that we did with then Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s infamous sexting. (And in terms of status, the former mayor’s got nothing on Tiger’s billions or his ubiquitous, squeaky-clean image.)
In the midst of a personally and professionally disastrous situation, this represents a small but significant win for Tiger. I’m not sure whether it was a matter of time or simple persistence, but as David Swerdlick writes, Tiger convinced us somewhere along the way that he was not ours to worry about. I take our indifference over his alleged bad behavior as evidence of his success in the “I don't have to be black if I don’t want to” department. It’s a loss for the institution of marriage, corporate sponsors and the Woods family, certainly. But the collective shrug of the black community might signal victory for those who strive to do what once seemed impossible: Opt out of race altogether.
So congratulations, Tiger. Your life may be falling apart. But you’ll be happy to know, I’m eating it up as run-of-the-mill, vanilla celerity gossip. When I think of your story, I’m pondering marital infidelity, celebrity obsession, alleged female-on-male domestic violence—and maybe even golf lessons—but only in the most race-neutral way. I’m thinking about your wife’s and your children’s well-being much more than I’m thinking about yours. I’m not at all worried about black America at large. Which, I guess, is exactly what you wanted.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a regular contributor to The Root.