John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a regular contributor to The New Republic.
For all of the aching desire a certain crowd have had in 2009 to show that America post-Obama isn't "post-racial" - and golly, I wonder if anybody really ever thought we were - the Tiger Woods business of late is a ringing indication that we're well on our way to it.
To wit, what we have seen lately is a golfer who has turned out to be a philanderer. What we are not seeing is a Black Athlete who has turned out to be a philanderer. There isn't anything meaningfully "black" about Woods' "transgressions," nor is there anything about what he has done that corresponds to any racial "narratives" that the usual dutiful suspects are typically trotted out to "remind" us of on a regular basis.
That is, Woods long ago declared himself to be "Cablinasian" to Oprah, and America has bought it. And it is of a piece with so much else: it's the America whose youth have embraced hiphop as mainstream music. It's the America who thrill to a 24 on television with not one but two black Presidents, and then elected a real one. It's the America who watched a thread on the hit sitcom The Office in which black Idris Elba manages the place for a while and is hit on by two of the cubicle-denizen women (including an extremely white one) and no one bats an eye - note that this would have been an eyebrow-raiser ten years ago and impossible five years before that. This is the America that sees Tiger Woods as just a person, evaluating him on - sorry - The Content of His Character.
Yes, Jena, Louisiana. Yes, people feeling that they will be more likely to get a job if they leave out the more identifiably "black" components of their names. Yes, whatever else.
But if we accept that change happens in steps - and I assume we all do - then an America in which a brown-skinned celebrity athlete is processed as just a person is big, big news. We have a Long Way To Go? When do we admit that we have at least passed the halfway point?
Tiger Woods, in designating himself truly a mutt rather than Black By Default, is ahead of the curve. There are those who think he was supposed to declare himself "black" because of how, say, police might see him. But to do that would be to deny that his Thai mother contributed half of his genes and raised him - raised him, unable, as someone not Black American, to do so as a Black Mother. So, Tiger was brave enough to - brace yourself, Soul Patrol - be what he is. Two things. Not just black - and not even mainly black.
Something we can all agree on - in fifty years a lot of people will see it as odd that in our times that was seen as news. We're mixing, a lot. There are now increasing numbers of self-avowedly "biracial" people - the days I knew as a kid when the black-white "mixed" kid was faced with having to "admit" that she was "black" when she was about thirteen, crying at forums where such issues were discussed out of ambivalence over disowning her non-black parent, are past. Tiger isn't, from what is evident publicly, especially deep - but he's prescient. He is the future, just as FDR, hardly deep himself, gave us Social Security, the FDIC and so much more. Sometimes we need to hearken to people who are not given to thinking too very much.
It's interesting watching how people stuck in the old, shall we say, narrative don't quite know what to do with this. David Swerdlick at The Root makes the old assumption that in refusing to identify as black, Tiger must look down on blackness. "Tiger's pre-post-racial vibe backfired because he apparently thought that it made him special. It turns out he's just like everyone else."
But wait - why the assumption that Tiger thought "Cablinasian" was "special"? More specifically, "specialer" than being black? Note the "apparently" - no one knows Tiger thought that. And it's because it's a chancy, not to mention abusive, assumption. Can't it be that Tiger thinks he's Cablinasian because, well, the woman who raised him is Thai? His mother? The woman who raised him, whose physical traits are evident in his face???
The idea that anyone who steps outside of identity as "black" must not like black people is, quite simply, a sign of the lingering stain of insecurity in the race. Think about it - a brown-skinned guy with a Thai mother says he can't say he's just black and he must not like black people? That's extremely 1990. And thankfully, increasingly antique in 2009.
Time to trot out the Blacks in Wax. Here's James Weldon Johnson, erstwhile NAACP head, on how to deal with bigotry - i.e. to translate into our modern terms, how the police feel about you:
I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I will defend and maintain its integrity against the forces of hell.
The elaborate language shows you that Johnson lived in times of open, virulent racism. And so - Tiger Woods today is supposed to identify as a brotha because, despite his Thai mother and Swedish wife and opulent modern American life, he might -- just possibly but not really -- get pulled over?
Are we to base a racial identity on negative impressions others have of us? Please. There is nothing meaningfully progressive in such a notion, unless by progress we mean eternally making white people uncomfortable.
Feel "black" in 2009 as a response to how white people feel about you and you are giving in to a racism which, while ever present, is ever receding. You, with a black man in the White House, are letting racism win. Which is not strength - except in pungency of rhetoric, which is about .00001 percent of what makes a human life meaningful.
Then Jenee Desmond-Harris at The Root is taken by how she, taking in Tiger's adventures of late, does not feel embarrassed that he is "one of us" making the race look bad - in a piece carrying an implication that this is somehow due to a flaw in Woods. The gist is something like "Okay, you said you're Cablinasian, and I'm so appalled that I disown you and studiously pretend that you really aren't 'black'. So there, Tiger Woods."
She doesn't realize that this is the way she's supposed to feel. He's just a person. It's what he said he is, it's what he wants to be, and it's what he is. And it's what we used to say we wanted to be. Interesting - I can imagine a black stand-up routine where somebody said "These wives standing by their men admitting they fooled around - if Tiger's wife was black you know she'd be all over his ass!!! (Ha ha ha ...)." Well, it seems hardly unlikely that Tiger's skinny blond lady came after him with a golf club.
Call it a "black" experience - or evidence that people are people and Tiger has been leading nothing but a human life. Isn't that what we wanted?
Or - I'm trying to wrap my head around the sentiment here - is it that she is disgusted that Tiger doesn't understand that white people are seeing him as a nigger? Yes, I am exploiting my own color here in writing that word - but I mean it and it's necessary here. Is it that Tiger is too callow, with his Swedish hottie wife and such, to understand that white America sees him as a nigger?
According to this "narrative," for example, the media are so interested in Tiger's extramarital sex life because all of his mistresses have been white. Supposedly if he had been sleeping with black women America wouldn't care - this is a major thread in the blogs, such as here. But is this true? Let's say the photos of the Tiger bimbos were of shapely brown-skinned babes - can we really say that the tabloids would suddenly lose interest and go home? Wouldn't this be even better news - i.e. "Looks like Tiger got tired of his skinny white trophy wife and needed some chocolate?" Think about it - "Looks like Cablinasian Tiger's really black after all and he needed himself some flava?"
The real news here is that Tiger Woods, a brown-skinned man as "black" definitionally as our President, has been catting around with white women and America just receives it as a star athlete misbehaving. Oh, I know - surf around on the web and surely you'll find some racist catcalls from lonely, anonymous individuals. "Out there" - the types who couldn't keep a black President from the White House. But what is the national take on this?
He's just some guy. He declared himself "Cablinasian" and married someone of the whitest possible extraction. They have kids, who are even less "black" than he is - expect the plangent autobiography from one of them in about 2025 about what it's like to be the one-quarter-black progeny of a father who dissociated himself from cultural blackness back in the Gay Nineties, which will, by then, be pulled from the book-download sites about three months after posting due to lack of interest.
And here in the present, it turns out that "some guy" fools around, like countless people of his status. The women he did so with were white - and in contrast to the interracial facet that helped keep the O.J. business percolating not so long ago, nobody really cares. He's just a person. Those who studiously disallow him that status -- rather than making peace with the obvious reality and moving on -- are contravening what the entire liberal tradition has been about in this nation. The pursuit of happiness is antithetical to hunkering behind the barricades of wary, defensive ethnic separatism when the times no longer require it. Pretending that they do denies what the Civil Rights heroes of yore devoted their lives to giving us all.
The Civil Rights revolution was about allowing people to not only become President, but to f*** up "post-racially." Let's - as progressives in the true sense - go with it.
By John McWhorter:
Reprinted with permission from The New Republic.
The New Republic