September 08, 2007

Black and White or Rainbow Colors: Tiger Woods and the “One Drop Rule”

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Recently, golfer Tiger Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, became parents. Given that Nordegren is white and Swedish, this announcement made me wonder what, if anything would be made of the race of any of the members of this young family. I thought about this because ten years ago, a then 21-year-old Woods had already captured the prestigious Masters title and the minds of many Americans. Despite all of this, Woods was the subject of heated debate in diverse forums because he expresses a preference not to be identified as African American.

I recognized that trouble was brewing when the African-American host of a popular, nationally syndicated radio program repeated the statement Woods made on the Oprah Winfrey show that he was “Cabilnasian”. Woods said that he had made up the term "Cablinasian" to describe his racial background, and preferred not to be called African American. The radio host criticized Woods and suggested that African Americans would reject Woods unless he explained himself. The host was right: Woods later felt the heat for daring not to be described as African American. 

clip_image002[1]One week later, the Reverend Jesse Jackson expressed sympathy for Woods. By rejecting the label African American, Jackson said the youngster had no base upon which to stand. Woods had said that his background is African American, Asian, Caucasian, and Native American; just as white Americans might describe themselves as French, English and Italian, for example. At the time, the media described Woods as the first African American and Asian American to win a major golf tournament and various writers quantified each aspect of his background.

I fully understood the need for African Americans to claim Tiger Woods. He is a clip_image003[1]young man who excels at a sport synonymous with white upper-class privilege. Woods had just set a record by becoming the youngest Masters champion. Because we are bombarded by images of African Americans (particularly young males) committing various heinous acts, there is a steady call for more positive role models. Woods would seem a perfect antidote to many negative representations of our youth, so when he rejected an African American identity it seemed as if he had abandoned those with the greatest need. Woods’s claim about the diversity of his heritage seemed like a rejection of African Americans, or even a form of self-delusion. 

This controversy takes place within the context of historical racism and prejudice against people of African descent in the U.S. The hatred for persons of African descent was so encompassing that for years having just "one drop" of “black” blood was as an invitation to subhuman treatment. In pre-Civil War America, white “masters" frequently raped African women they considered their property; any resulting offspring were classified as black, as enslavers did not want to bestow humane status to this group of “mixed” race people. Thus, the "one drop rule” was born—any one possessing even “one drop” of African blood was “black”. 

The persistent denial of non-African roots of African Americans and the “minority” roots of whites is a clip_image005[1]legacy of such racist ideology. We have become used to simplistic racial categories (black or white, for example) as a shorthand way of navigating the world. It seems that for Woods, his Native American and African-American father and Thai, Chinese, and white mother could not have produced an African- American child. It’s sort of like saying that yellow, green and purple make purple, and not a fourth color consisting of all of its parts.

One argument advanced against recognizing multiracial identities emphasizes that Tiger Woods and others who are (noticeably) of African descent, will be seen and treated by most Americans as African American, regardless of their mixed racial heritage. Whatever Woods chooses to call himself, because of the color of his skin he may be subject to what many consider the racist comments of people like Frank Urban "Fuzzy" Zoeller. Zoeller, a professional golfer playing at the same Masters tournament that Woods was about to win, referred to Woods as “that little boy” and said that Woods should not request that they "serve fried chicken ... or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve" at next year’s Masters’ dinner. clip_image007

Social factors have incredible power to shape how we think about the world and about ourselves. Wood’s attempt to construct his own, and therefore, new racial identity is a fascinating example of the relationship between our private ideas and societal norms such as the “one-drop rule”. For going against the norm, Woods received a variety of informal sanctions—and this may be at least one reason why he has not publicly discussed his being “Cablinasian” again, and he has certainly not referred to it when he discusses the birth of his daughter.


Usually, we think of race as “fixed” and presume that the racial classifications we are familiar with are “real” and “natural” without thinking about their origins, functions, or consequences. Racial classifications are seen as absolute biological categories, rather than the social constructs that they are. As social constructs, racial classifications will and have changed over time. This is one example that encourages us to think about why racial categorizations in the U.S. are the way they are and under what circumstances there are changes. Can you think of what, if any, benefits there are to things remaining the same versus changing?


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It’s sort of like saying that yellow, green and purple make purple, and not a fourth color consisting of all of its parts.

number of people who are rejecting the 'one drop' rule that has pervaded both ... press about President Obama's and Tiger Woods's racial classification...

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