100% Cablinasian: Getting the Race Facts Right on Tiger Woods

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

Update: You can find a follow-up, clarification and response to the comments on this post here.

Thanks to Carmen, Andrea and Latoya for helping me flesh out my thoughts!

One night last summer, my Vietnamese friend Winston began recounting the number of top world athletes who also happen to be Asian. “Manny Pacquaio…Yao Ming…Ichiro Suzuki…Tiger Woods…”

“Hey wait,” another friend interrupted. “Can Asians really claim Tiger Woods? What, just because his great-grandmother is Asian he’s proof of Asian superiority?”

“Are you kidding?” Winston responded. “He’s more Asian than anything else.”  Immediately, multiple super phones were put to work verifying this.

This is what Tiger Woods’ Wikipedia page says:

Earl, a retired United States Army lieutenant colonel and Vietnam War veteran, was of mixed African American, Chinese and Native American ancestry. Kultida (née Punsawad), originally from Thailand, is of mixed Thai, Chinese, and Dutch ancestry. This makes Woods himself one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Thai, one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American, and one-eighth Dutch. He refers to his ethnic make-up as “Cablinasian” (a syllabic abbreviation he coined from Caucasian, Black, (American) Indian, and Asian).

As you know, I am not a fan of referring to mixed race people in terms of percentages and fractions. But I was startled to discover that
1) Tiger Woods is in fact more Asian than anything else.
2) Tiger Woods’ parents are also mixed race – both of his parents can (and probably do) identify as people of colour.

Actually, Tiger Woods is just as Asian as I am.  I was stunned by this information. Why had I not known this? I always assumed that Tiger Woods’ dad was black and his mom was white, and that his Asian connection was a little more indirect, a la Barack.

It seems like I’m not the only one who misconstrued the complexity of Tiger’s roots.  By now we’re all familiar with the outrage around Tiger Woods’ racial taste in women.  Newspapers, blogs and Twitter feeds have blown up with commentary that Tiger’s apparent penchant for white women is just more evidence of how he tries to create distance between himself and black folks.  In essence, because he chooses to bed white women instead of black women, Tiger is not a real black person.

I’m not going to talk about the fact that it is absurd and small-minded to try and mandate the lovelife of an individual by threatening them with explulsion from a racial community.  What I am bothered by is that in all this race vetting, folks can’t even bother to get Tiger’s race right.

In an article alternatingly titled “Tiger Woods alienates black community with white lovers” and “Tiger’s troubles widen his distance from blacks,” Jesse Washington writes

…Woods’ already shaky standing among many blacks took a beating…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 the whitest of all sports and assumed the mantle of world’s most famous athlete, once worn by Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.

But Woods declines to call himself black, famously choosing the term “Cab­linasian” (Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian) to describe the racial mixture he inherited from his African-American father and Thai mother.

A comment that we didn’t publish on the Tiger Woods piece we ran last week articulated the anger around “Cablinasian,” suggesting it is offensive for Tiger Woods to call himself Cablinasian because most African-Americans are some mix of white, native and black – why does Tiger Woods get to have a special name for it?

Yes, definitely African-Americans in general have mixed heritage.  But there is a distinct difference between having interracial pairings embedded in your family tree, and having a mom who is straight-up Asian.  Look at that adorable picture of Tiger and his mother! If that’s not a picture of a proud Asian mama (she is even wearing the visor, favourite of sun-dwelling Asian ladies worldwide), I don’t know what is.

Here’s the thing.  Sure, I can understand why the black community is hurt that Tiger isn’t more out and out as a black man.  As I non-black person of colour, I share that disappointment.  Here is this black guy who is maybe the greatest golf player ever, and he doesn’t particularly align himself with the black community.  When I asked Latoya about this, she suggested that part of the hurt may come from the fact that Earl Woods was outspoken about racism, black folks and sports.  When Woods Sr. passed away, Tiger didn’t continue the tradition.  Yet reading an old interview with Woods Sr from 2002, it seems like Tiger’s dad was a little murky on the place of racial activism on the golf course:

Asked if he would support the NAACP boycott, Tiger Woods replied… ‘I’m a golfer. That’s their deal, not mine.’

‘Quite right too,’ Woods Snr says. ‘I respect his right not to take up every cause. The media wants poor little Tiger to be a spokesman about everything.’…

‘Tiger is still living his life and he does not want race to be an issue in his life,’ he says, which isn’t strictly true. When Tiger signed his first contract with Nike (for $40m) he was more than happy to read from a script that tackled a race ‘issue’ – denying blacks access to golf course – in the commercial cause of selling golf shoes…’I’ll tell you what I think,’ [Woods Sr] says. ‘One guy summed it all up, Rodney King, the guy who was beaten up by the LA police. “Why can’t we all just get along?” he said. That’s the most beautiful thing I have ever heard in my life. Why can’t we all just get along?’

While they have quite different heritages, it strikes me that there’s a parallel between Woods and Obama; while Obama (so far) hasn’t turned into the anti-racist crusader that we all dreamed he’d be, as Cornel West has said, just visually speaking it is a beautiful thing to have “a black face in a high place.”   It seems like that’s all Woods is going to give to the black community – just by standing on the green he represents them.  Beyond that he’d rather pretend (at least according to Woods Sr) that race doesn’t matter.

And considering the pigheaded way that both white and black America treat him, I’m starting to understand potentially why that is.  Maybe Tiger Woods doesn’t talk about race because no one really wants to listen to his experience as the mixed race child of mixed race parents.  Instead white and black America insist that Woods choose one or the other.  It’s bad enough that people are reading out that tired old script about how mixed race black folks always turn out to be race traitors.  But in Woods’ case its not even the right script.

His racial background is not the same as Mariah Carey’s, Alicia Keys’, Drake’s or Barack Obama’s.  He is not “biracial” where “biracial” is code for “black and white.”  He doesn’t have a white parent.  His immediate family members are black, Asian, Native and white.  And also, he doesn’t really look like a black man.  While I find physiognomical discussions kind of gross, Tiger’s face is actually very Southeast Asian.  Know any Thai folks? Filipinos? Malaysians? That’s what Tiger looks like.   He’s designated as black because Americans are not particularly familiar with Southeast Asian looks, similar to how my Arab friends are often thought to be Latin@ when they are in the Southern US.

Is it sort of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic to be complaining that when folks discriminate against Woods’ mixed raceness, they’re not getting the races right? Maybe.  But this inability to see more than two tones it’s pretty indicative of America’s race problem, and the trials that some mixed race folk deal with everyday.

When you are biracial, it’s hard enough for our racist culture to understand how that works.  When you throw two more races in the mix, North American culture’s collective head explodes, and just chooses to decide that two of the races don’t exist.

F. commented on last week’s post:

What’s that joke about when Tiger succeeds at something, the media harps on about him being a part-white “Cablinasian”, but when he screws up, suddenly he’s just plain “black”?

I’m sure it is true that the media considers Woods more black when he screws up.

But the insistence on designating Woods as solely black – and getting mad when he tries to articulate his ethnic heritage in a way that feels true to him – is about more than media bias towards black crime.  It’s about our need to simplify all complex racial phenomenons into the binary of black and white, effectively erasing anyone who doesn’t fit  inside.

Tiger Woods seems like a jackass.  He cheated on his wife in a particularly flagrant way.  But that’s no reason to deny him the right to self-identify.

Even jackasses should get to tell us themselves who they are.