|Wednesday, May 22
Will Tiger ever show the color of his stripes?
By Greg Garber
It was midnight when the plane landed in Thailand five years ago, and Tiger Woods might have preferred to slip away quietly to get some rest. But despite the late hour, his arrival was an event that commanded live television coverage and drew fans who welcomed him with flowered necklaces.
Never mind that he wore a Buddhist amulet around his neck, a gift from his grandmother, for Woods said that he had only a passing interest in the religion. Never mind that Kultida said her son's future bride would, preferably, be Thai, for Woods later declared to the local media there that "I will marry whomever I fall in love with." And never mind that the King would later issue a commendation for Woods, for his busy schedule wouldn't permit a visit with Thai royalty.
It is perhaps the first example of what critics claim is Woods' seeming reluctance to fully embrace his racial heritage. In reality, any of his many heritages.
Perhaps no one better represents the concept of America's lineal melting pot than Woods, whose racial diversity makes for a virtual kaleidoscope of cultures. "Cablinasian" is the word-blend he coined to identify who he is, a one-size-fits-all definition of his CAucasian, BLack, American INdian and ASIAN ancestries.
But while Woods has mastered being all things to most people, he makes no attempt to be all things to any one people. It is not enough that he appeals to the masses, but racial groups want desperately to make sports' most successful, if not recognizable, athlete their poster child. He's already their hero.
Woods, she notes, has shown up to receive awards from African-American organizations.
"He can say he cares about it, but I don't know from his perspective what it means to be Asian American," Narasaki said. "He's never characterized himself as Asian American. It's his choice."
Just months after Woods' trip to Thailand in 1997, he won the first of his three Masters titles. Widely noted as the youngest champion of golf's most prestigious event, he also was hailed as its first African-American champion.
Woods said nothing to clarify his ancestral roots.
For the record, he is one-quarter Thai, one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Caucasian, one-eighth African-American and one-eighth Native American. But his mother, Tida, says Tiger "is more Asian." By way of explanation, she added, "A mother raises her son, and he had an Asian mother."
Unlike African-American athletes, Asian Americans and Native Americans have yet to make a profound impression on professional sports. While these diverse groups have been quick to claim Woods as their own, he has been reluctant to address the question of which group he identifies with most. In interviews over the years, including on "Oprah," Woods' standard response has been that he is a product of all his backgrounds. He has said he doesn't want to deny any part of his heritage.
Attempts to further clarify his position, through Woods' representatives, were unsuccessful. Despite numerous requests for interviews by ESPN, Woods has declined to discuss the matter further.
Certainly, it has done nothing to hurt his fame. His Q-rating, a familiarity index, places Woods at stratospheric heights few others than Michael Jordan and the Harlem Globetrotters have reached.
"His popularity in Asia is staggering," Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, said. "Whether it's Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia ... We all know how popular he is here ... when he commits to an event, we see TV ratings increase dramatically. Internationally -- in Asia, in particular -- he's more popular than he is here.
"It's true. His mom and her heritage and how she helped raise him have a lot to do with his popularity in the Far East."
Few, if any, have written so eloquently about race in America as Clarence Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Recently, he underlined the debate over Woods with a description of a stand-up routine by comedian Chris Rock:
"He had a big ladder and was describing the progress for African-Americans over the years," Page explains. "So he goes, 'Tiger Woods. 1996. Five steps up for African-Americans. ... Oops! We can only claim one-eighth of him. ... Back down the ladder a few rungs.'
"There's a tug of war over Tiger Woods, and sometimes the tug of war is inside the same people," Page said. "On the one hand, they want to embrace Tiger as their hero, the hero of their group. On the other hand, they want to reject Tiger Woods' belief that he doesn't belong to just one group."
Breaking it down
[ ] Black
[ ] Native-American
[ ] Chinese
[ ] Other Asian-American
Whether or not Woods checked all five boxes is not known, but the chances are that he did not. A total of 281,421,906 people were accounted for by Census 2000 and a mere 8,637 claimed five different heritages. Interestingly, 6,826,228 people -- 2.4 percent of the national total -- checked at least two boxes; California, the state Woods hails from, was the only in the country to have more than 1 million people officially list themselves as multi-racial.
The opportunity for Americans to account, specifically, for all of their diverse cultures grew out of a heated debate that came to a head in 1997. Wisconsin congressman Thomas Petri was the sponsor of HR-H30, a bill that would have allowed those with mixed racial heritage to check a box marked "multi-racial" on the Census 2000 form. Petri referred to it in several public forums as the "Tiger Woods Bill."
Although the bill failed, a panel studying the question recommended that census-takers be permitted to check as many applicable boxes as they wished, instead of the previous one-box rule by which unnamed groups were lumped into an "other" category.
Not surprisingly, this didn't play well with the various national interest groups affected.
"People should be able to self-identify," insisted Narasaki. "The question is, what are you going to do with the data? Regarding Asian Americans, African Americans or Latinos, what number do you look at if they check one box, two boxes or more? If you don't have accurate numbers, then it means it's going to be very difficult to know when discrimination takes place and to prove it."
The Association of MultiEthnic Americans, on the other hand, was thrilled with the census change. "Our interest was in getting an accurate count and letting people claim their full ethnicities," said AMEA president Nancy G. Brown. "For a lot of people, this was a concept that was very new. Some were thinking that there would be flight from their group, which did not happen.
When (and if) Woods filled out his census form, which boxes did he check? That is not public information.
"I think he feels like, you know, it's a cross of so many things," Steinberg said. "He wouldn't say, 'This is how I feel.' Or, 'This is what my single heritage is.' I think Tiger feels like it's a wide array, a wide grouping."
Dreaming the dream
The Foundation has presented 25 clinics in places like Chicago, New York, Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix and Long Beach, Calif., among others. This year, though, Burns is trying something different. There will be one large clinic in Orlando with young golfers invited from five cities. Airfare and a three-day hotel stay will be provided for each golfer, plus a parent. The goal is, in the words of foundation president Earl Woods, to make big dreams come true for underprivileged kids.
It all starts with the image of Tiger Woods.
"Tiger transcends so many things," Burns said. "When you talk about racial and ethnic barriers, he transcends them. One of the stories I always get is a 65-year-old, 70-year-old person who doesn't even like golf. The majority are white, Caucasian people, and they say when he's on TV they just have to watch.
"I find that so amazing that a 26-year-old African-American-slash-Thai kid can draw that sort of audience."
Woods has had some help along the way. From the beginning of his career, Nike has crafted television commercials with a social conscience. The earliest spots, part of a strategic attempt to define an image, only managed to muddy the water.
The first controversial Nike commercial featured children of different races saying, "I am Tiger Woods." Applauded in some quarters, it was also criticized as grandstanding.
Perhaps in response, Woods poked fun at himself in an ABC promotion for the Byron Nelson Classic. He was shown sitting in a golf cart with commentator Curtis Strange. "Tiger, you have a multi-ethnic background ... is there a group you wish you were part of?" asks Strange, the straight man. Woods smiles slyly and answers, "I guess, Boyz to Men."
Later there was a tribute to the black golfers who preceded him. Older African-American golfers, notably Calvin Peete and Jim Dent, have criticized Woods for not acknowledging that he is a black golfer.
Woods has not shared these grand visions with the media.
"Listen, he didn't ask to be a civil rights leader," Page said. "He's a jock. Michael Jordan, black folks want him to give half his money to build public housing. It's remarkable what people put on people.
"What's important is that Tiger has helped the country relax about the question of race. Following the decade of O.J. Simpson and Johnnie Cochran and Clarence Thomas and the L.A. riots, Tiger has helped open up the discussion of what is race. Jackie Robinson did more to integrate American society than any other single individual. In the future, people will look back the same way on Tiger Woods."
His chief goal is to win as many major golfing championships as possible. He seems comfortable and content in the world of the rich and famous. Once asked his opinion on race relations, Woods replied, "We're making progress slowly but surely."
Questions about gun control, race riots and South Carolina's Confederate flag will prompt similarly benign answers. In the end, Woods has served as an example of racial harmony simply by being himself.
This, Naraski grants Woods. To underline the changing world, she mentioned that she was headed to Des Moines, Iowa, of all places.
"Clearly, Tiger Woods is ahead of his time."
Brown, of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, doesn't think Woods will be leading any demonstrations any time soon. Certainly, he isn't scheduled to speak at AMEA's upcoming first national conference in Tucson that will focus on multi-racial youth.
"He's on a different mission right now," she said. "He's still growing up and doing what he needs to do. I'd love it if he'd come out as a spokesman for the multi-racial movement. But what he's doing is very political and important, too.
"Just the fact that he claims all his heritage and makes no bones about it. I guess we have to be happy with what we can get. Maybe when he gets older he'll feel differently.
"I hope so."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com