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Woods and Obama: Being a Hybrid is Hard Work

Two multiracial superstars are the reluctant spokesmen for a new conception of Everyman.

Last year, as Barack Obama's race toward the Democratic nomination was heating up, Duke University cultural anthropologist Orin Starn published an op-ed where he compared Obama to Tiger Woods. Both men, Starn wrote, "position themselves across old black-white lines in a new hybrid model of multiracialism": Obama, the product of Kenya and Kansas, and Woods, the "Cablinasian" — white, black, Native American and Asian.

On one level, Obama and Woods are members of a U.S. Census category of persons reporting two or more races, which according to 2006 estimates, numbers more than 4.5 million Americans.

But their way of articulating their identities is not only about being multiracial. Both men anchor themselves in the American home but are the products of, and feel comfortable in, the wider world. In this way, Obama and Woods have placed themselves in the flow of scholarly humanities research of the past decade that views identity not as racially and culturally pure but something that is constructed, mixed and transnational. Sociologist Paul Gilroy's influential The Black Atlantic, which argues that black identity is formed in the intellectual exchanges between America, Europe and Africa, is but one example of this shift.

Obama presents himself as the product of the south side of Chicago, Indonesia, Kenya, the American heartland and Hawaii. Woods, the son of an African-American military man, named after a Vietnamese friend of his father's (Tiger, not Eldrick), wears Thai fighting colors (red and black) when playing on the final day of a tournament, in homage to his Thai mother. In an academic world where terms like hybridity and cosmopolitanism have great currency, Obama and Woods are wealthy men.

The scholarly literature on cosmopolitanism — the idea that we are citizens of the world — is particularly rich, as exemplified by Martha Nussbaum's essay "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism," published in the Boston Review well over a decade ago, and the wide-ranging response it elicited from the likes of Judith Butler, Amartya Sen, Robert Pinsky and the Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose phrase "cosmopolitan patriot," in another time, would be the ideal Obama campaign slogan. 

However, as recent controversies surrounding Obama suggest, and a quick glance at Woods' decade-long dominance in golf shows, in the world of racial and presidential politics, having a hybrid identity is hard work. For both men, their identities are the source of their strength and their troubles.

Obama has the uncanny ability to be many things to many people.

He is regularly referred to as the first African American to be nominated to the Democratic ticket for the American presidency. In his now famous Philadelphia speech on race, he equally aligned himself as the "son of ... a white woman from Kansas ... raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression." Young people see him as a youngish professor type, old enough to profess but young enough to be hip and recognizable. Even those who won't get to vote for him in November are intrigued. Recently, the Indian press was abuzz with the possibility that Obama carries with him a figure of the Hindu god Hanuman for good luck. I was sold the first time I heard him say "Pakistan" with the right inflection on stan.

He makes it all look so natural and unrehearsed. In their own ways, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have played the everyman card. Bill stopped at McDonald's, George cut a lot of brush. Obama is the everyman for the age of globalization. The GOP has of course taken advantage of Obama's ability to be many things to many people and presented him as a flip-flopper.

But as this past month has shown, there are particular costs to being this new kind of everyman.

First, Jesse Jackson asked the question Obama has gotten since he entered the race. Is he black enough? In saying that Obama was talking down to his black audiences, Jackson suggested that there is a gap between Obama and his African-American constituency that is not simply an ideological one about how best to deal with the state of black families.

Just as the Obama camp was dealing with Jackson, another, recurrent question came up. Is Obama a Muslim? The cartoon on the cover of The New Yorker was playing with a larger perception that the Obamas have simultaneous ties to al-Qaeda and militant black nationalism. A recent Newsweek poll showed that 26 percent of voters think Obama is Muslim (although that number has fallen). By now, there has been plenty of ink, pixels and chatter about the satirical value of the cartoon. Both the poll and the cartoon controversy suggest the cost of having a hybrid identity. If he can be all these different things, why not a Muslim too?

When Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters in record fashion, the symbolic value of the victory — won at Augusta National, which didn't admit its first black member until 1990, and still doesn't allow female members — was not lost on many. The most segregated of American sports had its Jackie Robinson.

A decade later, the change that Woods' victory was supposed to usher in has yet to arrive. The PGA Tour continues to be primarily populated by white players. Since 1997, Woods, Michael Campbell and Vijay Singh are the only non-white players to win one of golf's Major championships. And with Woods' recent season-ending surgery, the sport has gone into rewind mode. The final round at the recent John Deere Classic seemed like a rerun from an event in the early '90s.

What role has Woods played, or for that matter not played, in bringing a change that reflects American diversity? Of course this type of change doesn't happen overnight. Arthur Ashe won his first Grand Slam in 1968; it took until 2000 for Venus Williams to win her first.

But unlike Ashe, Woods has not engaged in the same type of broader civil rights conversation. In this, he is closer to the mold of Michael Jordan, who let the sport take precedent over everything else. Recently, Woods kept his distance and said through his agent that the golf commentator Kelly Tilghman meant no harm when she said that young players who wanted to challenge Woods should "lynch him in a back alley."

But it would be wrong to say that Woods has had no effect on diversifying the sport.

Golf has always been a narrowly international sport, a Scottish game that became big business in the United States. South African, Australian, British and American players have dominated all ranks of the sport. But recently, there has been an increasing presence of elite players from Argentina, Korea, Japan and India. Nowhere is the truly international presence felt more than in the women's game. Swedish-born Annika Sorenstam has been atop the game for well over decade, a spot recently challenged by the Mexican Lorena Ochoa, who won the first of this year's majors. Yani Tseng from Taiwan and Inbee Park from Korea have won the other two majors played this year.

Woods is not the cause of the internationalization. But he has become its greatest symbol.

Though African-American and Latino players are not entering the professional ranks in high number, the PGA is slowly diversifying in other ways. Anthony Kim, the Korean-American child of immigrants, has won twice on tour this year, including a tournament hosted by Woods. As a kid, Kim watched Woods win the 1997 Masters. "I remember in my mind, putting my face on his body."

Kim is not the child of the Woods era we expected, but his presence makes perfect sense.

The case of Obama and Woods shows us the complex and slippery nature of identity. They demonstrate that terms the media and pollsters often like to use — "black voters," "women voters," "white working-class voters" — sometimes obscure more than they illuminate. And in Obama's case, he shows us that his brand of the everyman might be the bridge to the various constituencies in America, which leads him to the White House.

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