Friday, February 15, 2008
Still Thinking About Tiger: "with friends like these...?"
Kelly Tilghman apologized a couple of weeks ago, but Tiger Woods had forgiven her long before that. Tilghman, if you have already forgotten, is the Golf Channel TV anchor who made an on-air joke at Tiger’s expense last month, a joke that ended with a punch-line about other golfers needing to “lynch him in a back alley” if they wanted any real chance at success. His last two victories at Buick and Dubai only reinforce her point about his dominance of the sport.
Woods didn’t so much forgive Tilghman, truth be told, as dismiss the entire story out of hand. His camp called her comments “a complete non-issue” and argued that they weren’t meant as a racial slur at all. Tilghman was suspended for a bit, but chalk that up to Reverend Al Sharpton’s interventionist calls for her firing. Woods isn't the one who demanded her head.
Of course, Tilghman is just the latest in a current spate of broadcasters and celebrities who have been sanctioned (or just publicly embarrassed) for insensitive statements--think of Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, Isaiah Washington and, of course, Don Imus. But one thing that makes the Woods-Tilghman affair different is the fact that Tiger himself, the butt of her lynching comment, didn’t express public outrage at all.
In the Imus controversy, those Rutgers basketball players who were the target of his "nappy headed hoes" remark actually held a press conference to express their anguish, some players even allegedly exploring the possibility of legal action. When Michael Richard called his Black hecklers “niggers” during an on-stage meltdown last year, they immediatly responded with white-hot indignation, storming out of the comedy club. But Tiger wasn’t offended. He simply wanted everybody to move on.
Tiger’s response exemplifies some of what makes the current state of race relations in American society so unprecedentedly complicated. Even explicitly racial statements (and any talk about lynching a black man in America will continue to be a racial statement for many, many years to come) often get denied and downplayed in public circles. Speakers claim not to have meant them in racist ways, and they are sometimes even insulted by the very accusation of racism.
This reminds me of a recent example of some white female students at a Florida university who borrowed jerseys from their Black friends on the school’s basketball team and, with the Black athletes’ knowledge and blessing, went to a local party wearing those jerseys and donning blackface--posing as those basketball players (an example I mention in Racial Paranoia). When the administration expressed disapproval, all the students invloved, the Black basketball players and their white college-mates, were shocked and a little annoyed. The women didn’t mean the action in a racist way. And their Black friends had even helped them prepare for the party. So, why were other people making it into a racial issue? From the students’ perspective, this was simply a case of friends poking “good fun” at one another. Their personal ties were supposed to trump the weighty history of blackfaced minstrelsy as a denigration of Black culture. And for those few students, it ostensibly did.
Woods can dismiss Tighlman’s statements on similar grounds. The two are old friends. They have been professionally acquainted for over a decade, and Tiger can use those intimate facts to justify a generous assessment of her intentions and motivations.
Making racism about intentions is obvious and seemingly justifiable. However, in a politically correct moment like the present, a time when very few people are willing to hazard the public scorn and shame that comes with expressing unabashed racism in mixed company (which is why the Internet’s relative anonymity unleashes such virulent and unapologetic performances of racial hatred), reducing racism to people's intentions also transforms it into a kind of impenetrable “black box” that allows everyone, even the most disingenuous, a degree of plausible deniability.
When is calling a black person “nigger” and talking about lynching him not considered racist? When the perpetrator can claim that the statement doesn’t represent what is really in her heart of hearts. She may have accidentally said a bad thing, but she is still a good person deep down inside. Richards and Imus each used this exact reasoning in their own defense.
Any notion of racial actions disentangled from supposedly non-racist hearts is exactly the kind of rhetorical move that only works in the context of longstanding and intimate social relationships. Woods and those Floridian students called on these kinds of inter-racial intimacies to brush aside and forget any of the larger political and social implications of their friends’ gestures. But for people disconnected from these specific interpersonal histories and intimacies, who aren't a part of these particular social networks, it all looks and feels like just another example of internalized racism, of blacks "selling out," and of whites wanting to have their racist cake and eat it, too.
Americans need to do a much better job cultivating diverse social networks. We still live in racially segregated worlds, even when we labor side by side at the job or happen to watch the same reality shows on TV. Hopefully, more of us will work proactively to desegregate our friendship networks, but we also have to be careful that we don’t allow our comfort with particular individuals from across the nation’s deeply etched (and structurally pre-determined) color lines to reproduce racisms of old--only with a more powerfully new and non-falsifiable escape clause.