Is There Room In This Sweet Land Of Liberty For Such A Thing As A `Cablinasian'?

Face It, Tiger: If They Say You're Black, Then You're Black

April 29, 1997|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI -- Three stories. One you may already know: Tiger Woods, the young golf champion, who looks black, told Oprah Winfrey last week that he is not. Or at least, not just. Mr. Woods, whose ancestry is Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian, told the talk-show host that he considers himself a "Cablinasian."

If you want to know why that makes me wince, listen to the second and third stories. One deals with Homer Plessy, who looked white. In 1892, Plessy, who described himself as "one-eighth" black, was ejected from a Whites Only train car. He took his grievance all the way to the Supreme Court -- and lost.

The other is about Gregory H. Williams, now Ohio State law school dean, who also looks white. But back in 1954, when he was a boy, he learned that his father was "half black." Williams' life of middle-class comforts promptly crumbled into an abyss of poverty and humiliation for a time.

So we have a black guy who isn't black, but two white guys who were.

Not ironic enough for you? Then try this: White golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is catching hell for racially disparaging remarks he made about Mr. Woods, the black man who isn't.

By tradition, as the winner of this year's Masters Tournament, Mr. Woods will be responsible for deciding the menu for next year's Champion's Dinner. Mr. Zoeller fretted that the "little boy" might "serve fried chicken next year. . . . Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve."

Good eatin', Fuzz

Let me begin by advising Mr. Zoeller that you can do a lot worse for a Sunday dinner than fried chicken and collard greens. Top it off with some rice and gravy, and you got yourself some good eatin' there, Fuzz.

Next, let me respectfully point out to Mr. Woods that it wasn't his Asian ancestry, his Indian roots or, Lord knows, his Caucasian-ness that drew Mr. Zoeller's nasty humor. Rather it was the fact of being black.

It's at times like these that I really wonder about the nation's nascent "biracial" movement. Meaning those half-blacks, quarter-blacks and others who push for new census categories and phraseology to reflect the fact that they are other than just black. It's a splendidly logical argument that unfortunately flies smack in the face of everything 221 years of American history has taught us about race.

Which is that black matters. Indeed, matters more than almost anything else you are. Ask Homer Plessy. Ask Gregory Williams.

I'm not without empathy for those who insist on acknowledging a multitiered racial heritage. Recently I met a black woman with a white husband who argued that to call her children black instead of biracial is to accept an old racist conceit: that white is a thing of such pristine purity that it becomes tainted and changed by even a drop of black blood.

Good point. But I'm still not ready to jump on the biracial bandwagon.

"Black Japtalians"

In the first place, despite all the recent hype, that bandwagon is not exactly new; many black people can shake from the family tree someone who isn't black. So what does "biracial" mean? You think Cablinasian is funny? We had a silly phrase of our own when we were kids: "black Japtalians."

In the second place, in some instances, the desire to be biracial seems more than anything else a desire to escape being black. To escape the onus attached to that word. Given black people's long and torturous history of self-loathing, I'm always suspicious of anyone with brown skin who says he is something else.

In my experience, that suspicion is typical of us people in marginalized groups. They need numbers in order to impress politicians and social scientists with their strength and clout. More, they need heroes in order to put an appealing face on that which has been labeled defective and poor. And so, the group is eager -- anxious -- to claim its own. And, ultimately, wary of individual members who opt out.

Why do you think gay groups are so eager to "out" high-profile gays? Why do you think advocates for the disabled were so desperate to see the new memorial to Franklin Roosevelt portray his paralysis from polio?

Why do I care?

And why do you think Tiger Woods means a thing to me, a guy who cares less than a little about golf?

It's simple. I want to claim him. I want him for my side.

No, I'm not unmindful of how silly that sounds, how childish is all this talk of one-eighths and half-black. I know anthropologists will tell you that "race" as we define it is meaningless -- carries no scientific weight. African-American, white, Irish, Polish, Chinese . . . at some level, just empty labels.

My only reply is even sillier and more childish: I didn't start this. I'm just trying to survive it.

Race may carry no weight in the world of science, but it has plenty in the world of American women and men. Let the black anthropologist who doubts it try hailing a cab in New York City.

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