Tiger Woods and the American Success Story

by Sigmund Shenscs7891@is2.nyu.edu

Just got a call from Joe giving me a little background on Tiger Woods. Ya know, the guy who was all over the news the other day for being the first African-American person to win some big golf championship? Only according to Joe, Woods isn't simply Black - more like half Yellow, one-quarter Black and one-quarter Red. His mom is Asian (Thai), and his dad is a mixture of African-American and Native-American.

So what? Aren't people people? Well, yes and no. In an ideal fantasy world, skin color wouldn't matter. But in the United States, being a person of color means you don't have rights - only privileges. And the only people with the "right" to give you these privileges (and remind you to be grateful for having them) are the "real Americans", who are continually produced as "normal" through the tools of national culture - the TV (like Baywatch), the movies (like Forrest Gump), the government (like the White House), the magazines (like the National Review), the newspapers (like The New York Times), the high school history textbooks, the national holidays, the immigration laws, and sometimes even the parking lot outside of your neighborhood Denny's.

I'll give one specific example of what I'm talking about. Once on Electric Shadows we got into a discussion of how some U.S. movies and plays will cast white actors to play yellow characters. It came down to some of us talking from the "political" POV ("there's something wrong with that") and some of us talking from the "artistic" POV ("there's nothing wrong with that"). Of course I was on the "political" side of that one, simply cuz I don't buy the idea that there's this pure, abstract thing called "Art" that's indifferent to who's got more socio-political power in the form of money or land or Aryan looks or whatever. Anyway, as a relevant issue, somebody mentioned that in some Vietnamese movie there were white characters played by yellow actors. Although she didn't explain how exactly this was relevant, the implication was clear - "they" put yellow players in whiteface, so why can't "we" put white players in yellowface? Isn't that fair?

Well, I didn't want to speak to that cuz I was tired, plus people on both sides had put sincere effort into winding the argument down and making peace with each other. But it bothered me anyway, and I'll tell ya why. That implication, as I saw it, was based on the assumption that "they" who make Vietnamese movies are yellow and "we" who make U.S. movies are white. Well, I think it's perfectly OK to think of Vietnam as being yellow, just like Germany or France would be white and Jamaica or Kenya would be black. But since when is the U.S. just white? Since white people started saying "Let there be white", that's when.

The truth is that obviously red people were here before whites even were, black people were brought over as slaves and yellow people were brought over as exploited labor more than a hundred years ago. At this point, when I start trotting out the PC cliches, some will respond with another cliche: "If ya don't like how things are in our country, why don't you just leave and go home?" Well, I say this is my home just as much as it is anybody else's. I also say that the wealth and power of the United States was not only built on the good ol American resourcefulness of the whites who settled it and the whites who continue to write the laws and history books. It was also built on the blood and sweat and trampled human rights of black slaves, yellow cheap labor, and working class cheap labor of all colors, including white. It was also built on the opportunism that followed the end of World War I and World War II, when civilian cities in Asia and Europe were getting decimated, while the closest we came to getting invaded was an attack on a military base that wasn't even in the continental United States. It was also built on the U.S. military, economic, and dare-I-say-it even cultural imperialism that followed the crumbling of the old empires of England, Spain, France, and Japan that allowed us to move into places like the Mariana Islands, the Hawaiian Islands, and Puerto Rico. So I say if the money and the power of the United States belongs to anyone, it belongs to everyone in the world of every color. So no, "we" are not white. And "we" need to continue to try hard to get used to that fact.

So what does any of this have to do with poor Tiger Woods? Hey, I have nothing against the man - I'm happy for him. And like Michael Chang, he's helping people of color to move into a sport dominated by people who are white and also financially middle-to-upper class. But the way I see it, making a big deal over the fact that he's the "first Black-American to win the so-and-so" sounds a lot like the mainstream culture congratulating itself over a bogus kind of "equal opportunity" - look, even a Black person can excel in a suburban, middle-to-upper class sport (golf ain't exactly basketball) if only he's willling to work hard! The implication: all you people of color talkin about racism and how it's unfair should get off your butt (get off welfare, Affirmative Action etc.) and start working like "us", and soon you'll be making enough money to play golf and hang out in country clubs too. (Maybe not now, but "soon".)

But if they had to mention that he was half Asian, a quarter African and a quarter Native American, that'd mess up the feel good story in a number of ways.

1. First of all, it would imply that there's such a thing as people from mixed backgrounds, none of which have to be white. That people of color can get together and fall in love and have nothing to do with the colonizing white father. Looked at this way, Tiger Woods stops being a success story built on the dialectic of the driven Black Man and the fair-minded, welcoming White Man, who encourages individualism and then hands out rewards for hard work. It turns Tiger Woods instead into a symbol of how anything is possible - even a colored person beating white people at their own game - if only the different marginalized races of the U.S. would get together and make families and alliances amongst themselves. Tiger Woods then turns into a kind of superheroic figure, combining the powers of Black, Yellow, and Red. In the storm of that many-sided dialectic, the paternalistic white country club starts to seem less involved - less relevant, and even less important, for all its power and money and "normality". The old national narrative of "W + B = American Success Story" gets transformed symbolically into a new possibility of "B + Y + R = New American Who Attains Success In Spite of the Old Stories".

To a conservative interested only in maintaining the status quo, the old "balance of power" that was historically engineered through the strategy of "divide and conquer", this new equation might seem scary. Why do I say that? Because the mainstream media has shown a marked willingness to suppress any evidence of this kind of new possibility in the past. During the Persian Gulf War, all we heard was of how Iraq was isolated and even Saudi Arabia and Iran were begging George Bush to personally come over and kick Saddam Hussein's ass for them. What did not get such central coverage in the news was the explosion of protest demonstrations among the students and common people in the Middle East (including Saudi Arabia) who wanted the U.S. to stay out. I admit they got coverage, but only as side show freaks in the greater media circus - the real spotlight was on the political leaders of the Persian Gulf (who would never have antagonized the U.S. for anything because their riches were tied up with U.S. corporations).

Likewise, when the People's Republic of China started staging aggressive missile tests off the shores of Taiwan, much of the hysteria over the coming invasion of Taiwan (and the speculations about the impending, inevitable World War III between the U.S. and the P.R.O.C.) came from the U.S. media. Again, the story was coming from the political leaders of Taiwan - politicians as corrupt as any in Asia, who had slaughtered thousands of native Taiwanese when they conquered the island themselves, and imposed a state of martial law for decades afterward. The story did NOT come from the people, who were generally more cheery and even blase about the situation. Even Asiaweek, a conservative magazine (well, by my standards anyway) published by Time Inc., downplayed the Chinese threat to Taiwan. They were capable of seeing this side of the story because unlike the mainstream U.S. media, they were interviewing the common people of Taiwan, not just the politicians who had built their careers on negotiating with the U.S.-dominated world economy.

The point of all this is that the media helps to produce and perpetuate the narrative of Uncle Sam as the peacekeeper, the global sheriff, the benign father without whose wise, gentle hand the foreign countries outside - and the peoples of various ethnic descent inside - would go nuts and rip each other to shreds. (Nevermind that this engineering of peace is sometimes more a result of bullying than wise negotiation, as in our "diplomatic mission" to Haiti.) There is a widespread feeling that only the white mainstream culture can bridge the gap among all other cultures. One place I saw this expressed was in Smithsonian Magazine, which presented an entire article devoted to Native Americans who have embraced capitalism. Out came the historical references to Native Americans who hated Blacks, and swept under the rug remained the too-many-to-count examples of solidarity among Blacks and Reds, as we see alluded to in Toni Morrison's Beloved, and as we see now in Tiger Woods's father.

2. The truth about Tiger Woods would also mess up the media fairy tale by making clear that he's more Asian than African. Of course, this doesn't mean it's right to simply label him differently, but if the media were to admit that they'd made the mistake of saying one quarter was more than one half, then we might be tempted to wonder why. (You could point out that numbers and fractions don't matter when it comes to scientifically bogus quantities like race, but they're the ones who reported the story like that, not me.) This simple mathematical error was made because patriarchal cultures in general are often unwilling to admit that the background of the mother is just as significant as the background of the father. This is one of the reasons why I personally am more troubled by mixed relationships where the male is white than mixed relationships where the female is white. I understand that my double standard implicates me in that patriarchal bias. I don't claim to be better than anybody else. I do think that a commitment to feminism requires that we at least admit our biases, so that we can get them out in the open and talk about them. But the U.S. media is not known for its willingness to do that - it allows that kind of discussion in talk shows, but not in "the news". (When I hear a radio news program air a retraction where they say something like "after thinking it over for a couple of days, our writers have decided that we reported that story in a way that was kinda sexist, and we're really sorry about that," then I'll take back what I just said too.)

3. The third way in which revealing the complexity of Tiger Woods's background would mess up the perfect feel-good story is that it would remind us that whites are no longer the majority in this country - they are only the biggest minority among a plethora of different peoples. And that is why I still have faith in the United States - not because I trust in the white rich people who define the national culture by running the government and the media. I trust in the power of diversity, and the potential of a land where people of every background can and will reclaim their inheritance, an inheritance of wealth that was stolen from every people on earth, including the old colonial masters of Europe.

So why am I saying all this? Am I saying news sources like 1010 WINS in New York ought to go ahead and air a "retraction" saying they were wrong, Tiger Woods isn't African American, he's Asian-American? Of course not. First of all I personally have never heard a radio news station air a retraction. In a newspaper it's ok, cuz you can hide it in a corner, but on the radio you can't even admit to having played the wrong tape - you're supposed to just cut to a commercial, or go on reporting the news as though nothing happened. Second of all, it's not right to say he's "Asian" either, unless he happens to identify himself that way, and maybe he doesn't. What I am saying is that this kind of factual slip-up should not be dismissed as a neutral and meaningless error, but rather as a kind of Freudian slip, a mistake that can illuminate the hidden assumptions and unspoken narratives about race, parenthood, class, "hard work", "success" and "social progress" that underly the national discourses promulgated by the TV, radio, the movies (hell, even the internet) and the newspapers.

But the truth is that this probably will be forgotten. And I'm tempted to say that that's because the mainstream culture would prefer a simple lie over a complicated truth. I admit I have no evidence for that assumption. But I wonder what evidence the newswriters at 1010 WINS had for assuming that that was what their listeners wanted to hear?