My race? You can mark me down as multiracial

The golfing hero Tiger Woods identifies himself as Cablinasian, a mix of Caucasian, black, American-Indian and Asian

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What next for Tiger Woods, who must already be an even-money bet for Time magazine's Man of the Year, although 1997 is not yet a third of the way through? A fortnight ago, he blasted the sport of golf into a new age. Now he threatens to detonate a bomb under an even older and more pervasive American practice: that of identifying people by their race.

Yesterday he appeared on that most influential of American tribunes, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and introduced a new word into the language. He did not regard himself as black, but as "Cablinasian", a compound term covering his own exotic provenance: a dash of Caucasian, a dollop of black, a leavening of Indian and a topping of Asian, in his case part Thai and part Chinese.

Now young Tiger was being a mite disingenuous, having dedicated his victory at Augusta not to Cablinasians but to black golfers past, so long denied the right of even competing there. For the average American, too, as he well knows, he is a black. Indeed even his own father, referring to the traditional attire of the Masters winner, described him as "a black in a green jacket". But the age of the Cablinasian has dawned, and not before time. America's way of classification by race is collapsing under the weight of its absurdities.

The practice is as old as the country, dating back to the new republic's first census in 1790, with its three categories of "free white male", "free white female", and "slave". Later the process was refined, with the addition of "mulatto", "quadroon" and "octoroon". But early this century these niceties were scrapped, and replaced in practice by the infamous "one drop" principle that helped seal the segregation of the races in America. One speck of black in the pot of white paint, this theory ran, and purity was irretrievably lost.

From the Fifties on, of course, attitudes to race (official ones, at least) changed. Jackie Robinson played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the civil rights movement developed, along with the noble-minded programme of affirmative action, designed to combat racial discrimination in school and workplace. Suddenly that drop of black blood could have advantages in a white world. Claim it, and a place at college, on a training course or in federal or local government might be secured under quotas reserved for blacks and minorities, despite academic results that, had you applied as a white, would have been too poor to qualify.

The system, of course, could be, and has been, abused - one reason why affirmative action and quotas are so unfashionable today. Perforce, a person identifies his own race; hand that task to a government bureaucrat and you summon the shades of Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. But racial self-identification fails for other reasons, too. The present American census form offers seven specific choices: black, white, Hispanic, American Indian, Alaska native, Asian, and Pacific islander, plus an eighth category of "other". In the 1990 census, almost 4 per cent of the population opted for this last, despite its connotation of subspecies or second- class citizenship. If nothing changes, one of this number, when the next census rolls around in 2000, will be Tiger Woods. Thanks in part to him, however, there is a distinct chance that the situation may change.

Our Cablinasian Masters champion is but one of the millions of Americans who can only be classified as multiracial. By 1994, according to the US Census Bureau, there were 3 million interracial couples in the country, and even black Americans, traditionally less prone to marry outside their race, were doing so three times as often as they did in 1970. The method of counting them, however, no longer measures up. (Nor, incidentally, does the language. Spanish has the word mestizo for people of mixed race, to which no equivalent exists in English.)

Why, the ever-growing multiracial contingent argues, should its members tick a single racial category, denying a half or a quarter of their heritage? The present classification may suit the purposes of affirmative action. But does a multiracial person belong to a minority - and, if so, which minority? Theoretically there is another answer, of ticking more than one box on the census form. But in a country addicted to statistics, that would create the statistician's nightmare of totals adding up to more than 100 per cent.

True, black Americans do still often argue for the status quo as a means of preserving a sense of ethnic identity, or, in the case of radicals such as Louis Farrakhan, of strengthening demarcation lines between the races. Already, however, several states have taken the obvious step of adding a "multiracial" category to their official forms, and this week the Congress held hearings on whether to make similar changes to the census form and other federal documents.

But why not make the advent of the Cablinasian Tiger Wood a cue for a bolder, even better move - that of scrapping official racial classification in its entirety? One strand in the eternal American dilemma over race is the contradiction between the goal of fostering a sense of racial pride and identity, and the notion of America as melting-pot, where every ethnic and racial tension one day will miraculously dissolve. These aims ought not to be contradictory. But in an imperfect human world they are, and formally categorising people by their race only makes the problem worse.

More so even than General Colin Powell, Tiger Woods offers some balm for America's racial wounds. Beyond his graceful manner and amazing athletic ability, he embodies something new in America, of multiracialism on the march. Not that awful, twisted parody of multiracialism that was the OJ Simpson affair, but a reality that flies in the face of his country's obsession with racial differences. Like ever-growing millions of Americans, he is a walking melting-pot. If, from his example, America can somehow devise a new concept of race, the benefits will be for all of us.

Take this writer. English by culture, British by passport; and beneath that in my veins courses a dollop of Irish, a drop of Jewish, a pinch of German, combined with a heap of Anglo-Saxon. Scratch the skin, and we're all multiracial.

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