Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I've been fascinated by the intersecting stories of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama, and what they say about America today. The following essay came out last weekend in the Orlando Sentinel, Des Moines Register, and Raleigh News and Observer:

By Orin Starn

Separated at birth?

The golf icon, Tiger Woods, and the new political headliner, Barack Obama, are a Castor and Pollux for our times.

Those mythical Trojan twins occupy the night sky as the constellation Gemini. Like them, Tiger and Barack burn bright in the postmodern celebrity galaxy. Their intersecting stories give us a compass for charting America’s changing geography of race, culture and identity. Both men position themselves across old black-white lines in a new hybrid model of multiracialism.

In the past, any African ancestry made you “black” by the bizarre, ineluctable “one drop of blood rule” governing race in America. But Tiger and Barack have mixed origins, the sons of globalization and migration. Tiger’s black American father met his Thai mother in Vietnam-war-era Bangkok. He grew up in sunny southern California like so many Asian-American kids.

Barack is yet another midnight’s child of today’s shrinking planet. His white American mother fell in love with his Kenyan father at a Hawaiian university.

Both men have also experienced racism’s ugliness firsthand. Barack did pro bono housing discrimination work in his lawyering days. Schoolyard bullies once tied Tiger to a tree, then danced around shouting the n-word

Tiger has said he’s proud of being black and calls Charlie Sifford, the pioneering first black PGA pro, his “honorary grandfather.” And yet, in a telling measure of changing times, Tiger calls himself “Cablinasian.” He coined the neologism to convey his white, black, Native American and Asian heritage.

The golf champion and his wife, Elin Nordegren, expect their first child this summer. It will be a tableau right from a Zadie Smith novel: the Thai grandmother, the black father, the Swedish mother and their hybrid child.

The more cautious Obama calls himself a “black man of mixed heritage.” He makes the most of it on the campaign trail. In Kansas, the aspiring president tells heartlanders that he’s one of them. Barack’s white maternal grandparents did indeed come straight out of Wichita. Mixed parentage – or “miscegenation” in that ugly old term – becomes a matter of pride, even a marketable asset.

Far from being exotic exceptions, Tiger and Barack mirror America today. Millions of Americans in this age of great migrations -- from Latin America, Africa and Asia -- have similar mixed origins. What journalist Richard Rodriguez calls America’s “browning” is making us into a more cross-fertilized, diverse nation.

But acknowledging multiracialism remains a tricky proposition in a society that still wants us to pick sides.

Tiger and Barack receive the occasional n-word hate mail. Their desire to maintain multiple allegiances also raises doubts among African Americans. Some black activists, after all, opposed including “multiracial” on the census, fearing it would undermine racial solidarity. One critic goes so far as to dismiss Tiger as a “show mulatto.” And Barack faces questions about whether he’s “truly” African American since his ancestors were not slaves.

Some wariness is in order. We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves prematurely for racial progress. Tiger and Barack had stable, middle-class upbringings. It’s the lack of that security that puts so many millions of poor minority kids at a desperate disadvantage.

And consider the complexion of Barack and Tiger’s professions. Tiger is the lone African American among the 125 golfers on the men’s professional tour (there are none on the women’s circuit). Barack is the only black member of the U.S. Senate.

We have a long iron over water yet to go with race in this society.

But it's understandable enough that Barack and Tiger want to get beyond the tired, old boundaries of American racial politics.

Aren’t we all more than one thing whether we admit it or not?

And new DNA research only confirms that race itself is a fiction in a world of impure, mixed bloodlines from history’s beginnings.

The “one drop of blood” rule was an invention of a society that wanted as many people “black” and thus enslaveable as possible. It’s slavery’s unhappy curse that so many of us still want to believe that black and white are somehow culturally and genetically separate categories, a willed denial of America’s overlapping, multidimensional, intertwined realities past and present.

Does the race-bending of Tiger and Barack augur a change in racial thinking at last? Maybe, and yet it’s never been easy to predict anything as grand as America’s future.

Tiger will be seeking his third major championship in a row at the upcoming Masters Tournament. That would be the better bet.

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Blogger Jennifer said...

Does Tiger still call himself "Cablinasian" now? I did read, somewhere, that he generally does not refer to himself as "black" golfer, or perhaps more specifically, an African American, because to only claim an African American identity would be to deny the existence of his mother and her influence on his life. Family influence, in the case of both Obama and Woods, seem to be something that we can't discount--as well as the environments in which they both work (as you pointed out, they are both the sole African Americans in their respective fields).

Good article--wish I'd seen it when it first came out but I'll be checking your blog since I'm hoping to write about Tiger Woods myself.

5:28 AM  
Blogger Brad Klein said...

Rather prescient, since this line of linked inquiry only appeared in the mainstream sports/golf press in February 2008 or so, as in Sports Illustrated.

Am curious, given the multiple identities and complex career trajectories that any modern celebrity goes through, what you make of Tiger's rather business-like approach to his career and marketing, endorsements, etc. Maybe the lesson is that we can't and shouldn't expect to discern values and politics from a single thread of identity. Or that Tiger's upbringing has been much more focused on individual achievement and self-discipline rather than on social change.

1:21 AM  

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