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

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Metail Ltd: Business Development Manager for Asia Pacific

£35,000 - £40,000 based on experience : Metail Ltd: As a Business Development ...

Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Owner

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product ...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - £17,000 Basic, OTE Uncapped

£17000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company are looking for a S...

Recruitment Genius: 1st / 2nd Line Technical Analyst

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 1st / 2nd Line Technical Anal...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The memorial to the 7/7 bombing victims  

After the London bombings on July 7 I was dubbed a 'British Muslim' for the first time - suddenly my religious identity took centre stage

Sabbiyah Pervez

Budget 2015: George Osborne should earn his reputation for courage by abolishing free TV licences for the over 75s

Christopher Bland
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate