Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tiger Woods and the Thorny Matter of Racial Identity

I thought I'd never be the next person to write about Tiger Woods. That is, until today, when the sensationalist aspects of this incredibly bizarre story gave way to more substantive critiques. In a different time, where concerns about the economy, the passage of health care reform, the uncertainty of a war in Afghanistan, and a variety of matters that collectively form the winter of our discontent, following glorious summer, this would have been endlessly digested and discussed. Woods is at least fortunate that his great fall happened when the rest of the country and the news media was too distracted with other things. If only in future we could give soft news its rightful place in a profoundly subordinate role behind serious matters, but this may be asking too much.

As for Tiger Woods, when a revealing racial dynamic begins to enter the picture after an interested public and tabloid media, desperately churn up wild rumor after wild rumor regarding the scandal, then I have something to work with after all. The New York Daily News, itself at times a scandal sheet, does at least outline something very interesting.

When three white women were said to be romantically involved with Woods in addition to his blonde, Swedish wife, blogs, airwaves and barbershops started humming, and Woods' already tenuous standing among many blacks took a beating.

On the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner radio show, Woods was the butt of jokes all week.

"Thankfully, Tiger, you didn't marry a black woman. Because if a sister caught you running around with a bunch of white hoochie-mamas," one parody suggests in song, she would have castrated him.

In addition to re-emphasizing a stereotypical portrayal of the sassy, no-nonsense Black woman, offensive in and of itself, the unveiled implication behind it as plain as the eye on one's face. Within the Black community, dating or marrying a white woman was seen as a form of social mobility. Or, if you prefer, moving on up to the East Side. Indeed, it still is. Though the comparison may be a bit of a stretch, do also contemplate that both of Michael Jackson's wives were white, as was the mother of his children. The early Twentieth Century boxer Jack Johnson, an undisputed heavyweight titan of his time, broached social mores with abandon, and in so doing surrounded himself with white women. That many of these women were considered of low moral standard, low social class, and often inclined to toil in the service of the world's oldest profession did nothing to decrease the ire of both Whites and Blacks during his career.

Another figure who was very much front and center in the public eye in his day and also had a particular fondness for white women was Richard Pryor, who addressed the matter in his classic 1974 comedy album, That Ni**er's Crazy.

Sisters look at you like you killed your mother when they see you with white women.

A sense of sticking to one's place and staying with one's own kind, though it has decreased with the passage of time, still lives within the minds of many. If it were merely a one-sided assumption, then it could be more easily fixed, but issues this large rarely are.

As one blogger, Robert Paul Reyes, wrote: "If Tiger Woods had cheated on his gorgeous white wife with black women, the golfing great's accident would have been barely a blip in the blogosphere."

The darts reflect blacks' resistance to interracial romance. They also are a reflection of discomfort with a man who has smashed barriers in one of America's whitest sports and assumed the mantle of the world's most famous athlete, once worn by Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.

Regarding the highlighted sentence above, I take some liberty with the author of this column. It's just not that simple, though the AP seems to always wish that it were. Blacks aren't so much resistant to interracial romance, but they are frequently disappointed and dismayed when African-Americans who attain some degree of fame make a concerted effort to exclusively date and then marry Caucasian women, particularly those who are the epitome and definition of what this society deems beautiful. Our culture still pushes the blonde-haired, thin-waisted, Barbie doll look in almost every conceivable fashion, which relegates attractiveness and desirability to a very specific and very discriminatory standard, leaving out a good 90% of the rest of womanhood in the process. This is particular true for women of color. For any minority group, assimilation with the majority has been the quickest way to achieve "respectability", though the resentment it creates in those left behind never subsides.

Regarding a desire for African-Americans to date and marry other African-Americans, the column deems it "loyalty", but this is an inexact qualifier at best. It is a sort of racial pride, but comedian Sheryl Underwood advances the notion a bit farther.

"Would we question when a Jewish person wants to marry other Jewish people?" she said in an interview. "It's not racist. It's not bigotry. It's cultural pride."

"The issue comes in when you choose something white because you think it's better," Underwood said. "And then you never date a black woman or a woman of color or you never sample the greatness of the international buffet of human beings. If you never do that, we got a problem."

Years after Loving v. Virginia, the shock of interracial relationships has subsided. The film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, deeply controversial in its time, produces smiles when viewed in our age because of how dated its subject matter appears to today's audience. Perceiving matters through a strictly racial prism, particularly one with only two settings can only take us so far towards understanding. The irony is that while everyone seems to find no fault in interracial relationships, many are still reluctant to push past their own discomfort or date outside of their own racial group. And I must admit, in all fairness, that I myself am guilty of that as much as anyone else.

So to conclude, we should not summarily assume that with Tiger Woods being proven to be utterly human and wholly flawed that some part of our trusting innocence needs to perish alongside his indiscretions. One of the deepest hypocrisies we continue to advance is holding our heroes to a moral and ethical standard that we feel incapable of achieving ourselves. In a way, it's a bit of a cop-out when we transpose this crusade for perfection felt deep within ourselves onto those whom we idolize. They end up having to do the heavy lifting for our sins and when they fail, pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. Even so, shelving this instinctive impulse that assumes any being will reach some Nirvana-like state before our very eyes based on accomplishment alone might be the best thing we, as a body of people, can do for ourselves. This doesn't mean anything goes or that extramarital affairs should be permissible or that mistakes should always be rationalized away, but it does mean that we ought to consider keeping our indignation at a responsible volume and tempered by responsible expectations.

As it stands, USA Today posits,

So it won't matter that Woods won't be getting that Congressional gold medal and we won't care that the future of his business empire remains steady.

Columnist Christine Brennan writes about it being a long road back but it is a road back.

Still, Woods was an athlete we trusted. We feel a bit foolish with all those claims that he was the one athlete whose only interest was winning. That while others were pursuing outside interests, Woods was beating golf balls and figuring out ways to win.

Former president Ronald Reagan used to say "trust but verify."

Sometimes we are more angry and the bitterness lingers when we didn't see it coming.

So, has Woods spoiled it for other guys?

Does the fact that we got fooled by this guy now make us less trusting of all athletes?

Ronald Reagan quote aside, I don't think trust is the matter at hand here. Or if it is, trust ought to be applied to ourselves first before we place it in the hands of some arbitrarily appointed industry, entity, or agency who has based its entire focus and revenue around a single person who happens to be notable based on a high degree of achievement. This is true in sports, it is true in politics, and it is true in life. Be the change. Above all, be the change. Don't lay the change on someone else's shoulders, no matter how broad you think them to be. That road leads to ruin.

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