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Gary Younge

When asked to fill out forms at school, Tiger would tick African-American and Asian. Photograph: Getty Images. Digital illustration by Guardian Imaging Studio
Tiger Woods: Black, white, other

On 13 April 1997 Tiger Woods putted his way to golfing history in Augusta, Georgia. The fact that he was the first black winner of the US Masters was not even half of it. At 21, he was the youngest; with a 12-stroke lead, he was the most emphatic; and finishing 18 under par, he was, quite simply, the best the world had ever seen.

But the fact that he was black explained much of the excitement. Golf in the US was never just a game. Long regarded as the bastion of the white, Christian and middle class, it was a gatekeeper to respectability and networking, open principally to local and national elites. Black players had been allowed to compete in the Masters in Augusta only since 1975. Until 1982, all the caddies in the tournament there had to be black. And until 1990, Augusta didn't allow black members and even then conceded only because, if they hadn't changed their policy, they would have lost the right to host the tournament.

Woods apparently understood the symbolic meaning of his victory beyond golf. He was quick to thank Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Ted Rhodes – three former black golfing giants who had never been granted full recognition for their achievements – for forcing open at least some courses. His sponsors were no less aware of his broader significance. Woods appeared in a commercial for Nike saying, "There are still courses in the United States that I am not allowed to play on because of the colour of my skin."

Given the emphatic nature of Woods' triumph, he was consumed both as an example of unrivalled sporting prowess (like Björn Borg, Michael Jordan or Pelé) and as a representative of racial breakthrough (like Althea Gibson, Jackie Robinson or Lewis Hamilton). His racial identity was understood by those who embraced his achievements and those who sought to disparage them.

But within a fortnight of black America gaining a new sporting hero, it seemed as though they had lost him again. From the revered perch of Oprah Winfrey's couch, Woods was asked whether it bothered him being termed "African-American". "It does," he said. "Growing up, I came up with this name: I'm a 'Cablinasian'."

Woods is indeed a rich mix of racial and ethnic heritage. His father, Earl, was of African-American, Chinese and Native American descent. His mother, Kultida, is of Thai, Chinese and Dutch descent. "Cablinasian" was a composite of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian. When he was asked to fill out forms in school, he would tick African-American and Asian. "Those are the two I was raised under and the only two I know," he told Oprah. "I'm just who I am ... whoever you see in front of you."

It's not difficult to see where Woods was coming from or to sympathise with what he was saying. Few people relish having their identity reduced to tickable boxes. "By choosing to embrace all of who he is," argued Gary Kamiya in, "an entity for which there is no name, except one that sounds like a tribe from the imaginary country of Narnia – Woods, the goofy 21-year-old with the golden-brown skin and the beautiful swing, has become a messenger for a larger truth: Our race does not make us who we are."

True. And yet, if that is the case, Woods' insistence represented not an advance but a retreat in our efforts to retire race as a restrictive category. For far from abolishing racial categories by coining "Cablinasian", he simply created a whole new category just for himself.

Some black Americans, not unreasonably, felt Woods was trying to write himself out of their story. Most recognised his right to call himself whatever he wished, but many also objected to the choice he had made. "When Tiger admits having a problem with being referred to as an African-American, it is as if he thumbed his nose at an entire race of people," wrote Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun‑Times. "His actions are as conflicting as they are confusing. On the one hand, Tiger Woods gladly accepted the mantle of hero. On the other, he wants to transcend race, at least the African-American part of it. Such a feat would be possible in a color-blind world. In such a place, I would not be a black columnist. There also would be no black politicians, ministers, leaders, athletes or businessmen. There would be no barriers and no barriers to break."

Elsewhere in the paper, the editorial writers disagreed, praising Woods for his ability to shed the confining skin of antiquated racial terminology and write himself into a bigger story. "Our view is that Woods represents the best of the American dream," claimed the editorial. "That we are a nation of immigrants – even forced to come as slaves – whose descendants have sloughed off old identities to become something new. He justly rejects attempts to pigeonhole him in the past. Tiger Woods is the embodiment of our melting pot and our cultural diversity ideals, and deserves to be called what he in fact is – an American." Given that there are more black people in the world than there are Americans, why "black" should be considered more a pigeonhole than "American" is not clear.

And when Woods was more recently struck low by sexual scandal, his bespoke racial category bequeathed its own particular stigma. In different times with a different personality, the almost identical procession of blond-haired women with whom he had affairs might have prompted a circling of the wagons around race and gender. Instead these transgressions were not understood as the tarnishing of racial purity but the contamination of a commercial brand. Those called to the podium to claim ownership or express distance were not the likes of Jesse Jackson, but Accenture and Nike – his sponsors. It was a brand, as James Surowiecki argued in the New Yorker as the story was breaking in December 2009, that was built on "the embodiment of bourgeois virtues: dedication, hard work, single-mindedness".

At root, all identities are created by us to make sense of the world we live in. That doesn't mean that there are no differences between people. Black people generally look different from white people, who in turn look different from Asian people. But the meaning assigned to these differences is a matter of social construction.

There is no essential difference between people on different sides of national borders; it is by attempting to pass off as eternal, innate "national characteristics" what is socially acquired and ephemeral on either side of the line that the nationalist and xenophobe peddle their wares. Often, the emphasis on racial and ethnic differences is rivalled only by the negligible basis for those differences in biological fact. The outward differences of skin, eyes, lips, nose and other physical attributes are just that – outward. It is only thanks to the way race is constructed that these physical differences are transformed into racial characteristics.

In 1998, the American Anthropological Association declared, "Evidence from the analysis of genetics (eg DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic 'racial' groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means there is greater genetic variation within 'racial' groups than between them." In short, we really are more alike than we are unalike. If race is an arbitrary fiction, then "race-mixing" is a conceptual absurdity. To the extent to which "mixed race" makes any sense at all, we are all mixed race.

Where blacks and whites in the US are concerned, race was specifically constructed in order to preserve the power differential between master and slave, and to protect the master's property and outward integrity, even as he consorted, usually by force, with his female slaves. To ensure that the progeny of these liaisons could never have a claim on the wealth of their fathers, racial classification was governed by the rules of hypodescent, or the "one-drop rule" – that anyone with a single drop of black blood should be regarded as black. So while there were light-skinned black communities – particularly in places such as Louisiana – these would never have been considered "dark-skinned white communities".

Economically and politically, all of this made perfect sense. Intellectually, it was and remains a nonsense. As Barbara J Fields pointed out in her landmark essay Ideology And Race In American History, it meant that "a black woman cannot give birth to a white child" while "a white woman [is] capable of giving birth to a black child".

Arbitrary in its conception and definite in its application, "one drop" is a pernicious and easily ridiculed rule. Nonetheless it remains the rule to this day. Choosing to ignore something or declaring it invalid does not abolish it. That said, the construction of race in the US has evolved over time: there is nothing to suggest that it won't keep doing so.

In this respect, Woods' decision to come out as a Cablinasian could not have been more timely. The day before he was on Oprah, Congress held a hearing to explore how the federal government measures race and ethnicity. "Tiger Woods is not alone in wanting the racial background of both his parents and all his relatives reflected in how people describe him," said Douglas Besharov of the rightwing American Enterprise Institute.

On this point, Besharov was quite right. In the 10 years after the Supreme Court's 1967 decision of Loving v Virginia declared bans on mixed-race marriage to be unconstitutional, various strands of a mixed-race movement emerged in the US. Some were started by mixed-race couples, others by those who adopted across the colour line, yet others by mixed-race people themselves. Through various networks, they provided advice and support, and sought to make their voices heard in national and political forums. From the late 80s to the mid-90s, one of their central priorities was to ensure that government bodies gave the option of putting mixed race on official forms. This battle reached its greatest intensity in the mid-90s as activists fought for a specific "multiracial" category on the census.

"Whether he wants to or not, [Tiger Woods] is sort of becoming the poster person for multiracial identity," said Ramona Douglass, the president of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA). Following the hearing in 1997, one Republican, Tom Petri, introduced legislation backing the multiracial check-off for the 2000 census. He called it the "Tiger Woods bill".

Some made great claims for what the inclusion of such a category might achieve, but many civil rights leaders argued against the multiracial box, viewing it as a direct assault on their ability to redress racial inequality that would dilute resources earmarked for minorities. "It would be much more difficult with this additional category to measure the effects of discrimination in our community and to be able to adequately redress them," said Kweisi Mfume, then leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

When the US census put out trial questionnaires with the multiracial box on it, they found that different people understood "multiracial" to mean very different things. "One of the largest percentages of people who filled out the multiracial category were people who would not generally be considered multiracial at all," said Ruth B McKay, an anthropologist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "They were people whose parents were of Irish and Italian origin or white American and French – people who are generally considered white. They were mixing race and ethnicity."

Congress passed a version of the Tiger Woods bill. With multiracial people in mind, the census bureau decided to amend its categories for 2000 to include the option of ticking two or more races and specifying which ones. In the end, only 2.4% of Americans claimed it – less than half of those who chose "other". Meanwhile, the proportion of African-Americans effectively remained unchanged (it actually rose by an insignificant 0.24%).

Nonetheless, in this entire saga, two important principles had been established. First, everyone has the right to call themselves whatever they want. If Woods wants to call himself Cablinasian, or Teresa Heinz Kerry (the white millionaire wife of former Democratic hopeful John Kerry who was born in Mozambique) wants to call herself African-American, then we should respect that.

Second, with this right comes at least one responsibility – that if you want your identity to have any broader relevance beyond yourself, it must at least make sense. I found this out the hard way when I was 17 and living in Sudan. Until that time, I never described myself as British, even though I was born there. During my childhood, so many white British people had constantly reminded me of my "foreignness" – "Go back to where you came from"; "Where are you from originally?" – that Britishness didn't seem like a viable thing to claim. So instead, I told people I was Barbadian, where I had been for just six weeks on holiday as a four-year-old.

However, when I went to Sudan, the fact that I was a black man who did not speak Arabic would prompt a question about where I was from. Initially, I told them Barbados. They had never heard of it. A few would ask what it was like. I would make something up from memory. Then I started saying that my mother was from Jamaica because, thanks to Bob Marley, they had heard of Jamaica. Before long, I was claiming I was from a place I had never been to and where I had no family. As a response to such a simple question, this was clearly unsustainable. In the end, I had simply to admit that I was British and reorganise my sense of self accordingly.

Similarly, those who insist that, because Barack Obama has a white mother and grandmother who raised him, he could just as easily be described as another white president as the first black president are in a losing battle with credibility. "Obama's chosen to identify as an African-American male," explains Jennifer Nobles, the campaigner for multiracialism. "It's the same thing with Halle Berry. That's their choice and it makes sense. But he could identify as white. The trouble is no one would receive it that way."

"But if no one would receive it that way, then it would have no meaning," I suggested.

"In theory he could call himself white, but in reality it doesn't work because people see he's that way and understand him that way. On paper he could be the next white president."

"And where could that theory be applied?" I asked. "Who would look at that piece of paper and understand it?" Nobles shrugged. She conceded that the distinction between how he might describe himself and how that description would be comprehended was a problem. But, according to her, it was a problem only because of how everyone else misunderstood race rather than how she understood it. This discrepancy cannot stand.

"A tree, whatever the circumstances, does not become a legume, a vine, or a cow," explains Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Ethics Of Identity. "The reasonable middle view is that constructing an identity is a good thing (if self-authorship is a good thing) but that the identity must make some kind of sense. And for it to make sense, it must be an identity constructed in response to facts outside oneself, things that are beyond one's own choices."

A society in which "Cablinasian" makes sense has yet to be created. Like a Rwanda full of Hutsis, it exists only in the imagination. That does not necessarily mean that such a society could not or should not emerge. But "the facts beyond one's own choice" do not yet allow it. Identities may be constructed and can be built differently. But we can only work with the materials available.

This is an edited extract from Who Are We – And Should It Matter In The 21st Century? by Gary Younge, published by Viking at £14.99. © Gary Younge 2010. To order a copy for £9.99, visit In the first of the Guardian & Observer's Meet the Journalist series, Gary Younge will be in Kings Place on 17 June to talk about his new book.

This article was amended on 2 June 2010 and 29 June 2010. The original referred to Björn Bjorg and to Tiger Woods' mother as Kutilda. These errors have been corrected.

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