Watching Tiger Woods‘s steep fall from grace over the past eight years, I’ve often wondered how his career might have gone differently if he self-identified as Black, instead of “Cablinasian,” a word he infamously coined on Oprah to honor the full extent of his mixed heritage.
Growing up, the most consistent reminder my parents gave me about navigating the outside world was that no matter how light my skin got in the winter, I was a Black man in America. That self-awareness taught me how to handle being followed by security in stores and hassled by cops on the street. But I also understand why some people have a hard time categorizing me and Drake in the same racial group as 2 Chainz and Migos. The easy explanation: Only in America.
This weekend, Tiger officially learned how his country sees him after he was arrested for DUI in Jupiter, Fla. Beneath his severely oxygen-deprived hairline and sad, sunken eyes, Woods was listed simply as a Black man. He’d failed his government-issued paper bag test and it appeared that he finally understood why every male with melanin who steps foot on American soil, from Shaun King to Idris Elba, is Black when the red and blue lights come on.
Growing up, the most consistent reminder my parents gave me about navigating the outside world was that no matter how light my skin got in the winter, I was a Black man in America.
Both Black and white America have long understood Tiger as a multicultural icon — less impactful than Barack Obama, but nothing like a transracial Rachel Dolezal. Woods has enough melanin for Black America to claim him as a symbol of power and pride; and he mastered the art of putting mainstream America at ease with how he spoke and carried himself. But Eldrick wasn’t worried about choosing sides in America’s culture war; he was focused on himself, and all that he stood to gain by playing both sides of the fence.
When Tiger was exposed for sloppily cheating on his wife in 2009, he instantly lost white America’s embrace. Millions in endorsements disappeared, and he went from being a beloved great athlete to a Family Guy punchline in a matter of months. He wasn’t quite as hated as Mike Vick or O.J. Simpson— he didn’t kill any dogs or white women. His crime was defrauding the millions who’d welcomed him into their living rooms as a wholesome beige hero for their kids. As soon as they saw the proof that he was cheating on his pristine European queen with Denny’s waitresses, it all came crashing down.
By that point, Tiger already burned his bridge with Black America at the beginning of his career, when he told Oprah his Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian roots made him “Ca-Bl-In-Asian,” not Black. No matter how many rappers shouted him out, he couldn’t be a Black hero if he didn’t even consider himself Black. But it’s possible that his arrest and subsequent categorization will have him thinking more like Colin Kaepernick than Sage Steele in the future.
Despite the 14-time champion’s claim that this weekend’s DUI wasn’t alcohol-related and was instead caused by a bad mix of prescription medications, his terrible mug shot and the super-rare matching headlines from New York’s corniest sleaze rags signal rock bottom for the once beloved legend’s image. The only place to go now is up.
Woods can still re-enter the good graces of America as a whole, by simply being himself. If he likes getting lit with young waitresses, he should own it and sign endorsements with Trojan and Hennessy.
When you remember that Tiger was a child prodigy, his identity issues make even more sense. He was thrust into stardom before puberty by his father, Earl Woods, an intense army vet who would have made LaVar Ball look like a mild-mannered soccer mom. Earl’s laser focus guided Tiger to national prominence as a young boy, way before he joined Stanford’s elite golf team and began eyeing the PGA Tour while he was still a sophomore.
He went pro at 20 years old and won almost $500,000 in his first Masters tournament. His utter dominance of the pro golf world during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s will never be erased from history. But within three years of his father’s passing in 2006, Tiger went from being known as the world’s best golfer to one of its most disgraced heroes.
Tiger went from being known as the world’s best golfer to one of its most disgraced heroesEight years later, his DUI mugshot shows the face of the man we’ve all cheered for, but have never really known.
My hope is that Woods finds comfort in his unique identity. That he realizes he doesn’t have to deny or distance himself from any part of it to fit in. Regardless, it doesn’t matter how the golf legend chooses to identify racially, but he probably learned a brand new lesson when those red and blue lights started shining on him.