In 1997 black America gained a new hero when Tiger Woods putted himself into history at the US Masters. Within a few weeks, it had lost him in an unlikely fashion—to a bespoke racial identity articulated on Oprah’s couch.
Does it bother you being termed “African-American”? Oprah asked him.
“It does,” said Woods, whose father was of African-American, Chinese and Native American descent and whose mother was of Thai, Chinese and Dutch descent. At school he would tick “African-American” and “Asian.” “Growing up, I came up with this name: I’m Cablinasian [CAucasian, BLack, INdian and ASIAN]. I’m just who I am…whoever you see in front of you.” According to an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, Woods could not have been more praiseworthy if he’d scored a hole in one wearing a blindfold. “He justly rejects attempts to pigeonhole him in the past,” claimed the editorial. “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.”
It is a peculiar fact of modern Western rhetoric, as prevalent among liberals as conservatives, that nationality is understood as a liberating identity, whereas ethnicity, race and other markers are regarded as confining. There are far more black and Asian people in the world than there are Americans. Racial identity is no less diverse than national identity. But somehow to describe Woods as black or Asian traps him in a pigeonhole, while to define him by his nationality sets him free.
Such was the ostensible motivation of the Arizona officials who banned Mexican-American studies from the Tucson schools. Tom Horne, the state attorney general who surfed into office on a wave of anti-immigrant bigotry, wrote the legislation, which claims the curriculum “advocates ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” By the end of January officials were going into schools and boxing up Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one of the books banned for “promoting ethnic resentment.”
It should go without saying that any education worthy of the name teaches children as individuals. It is equally axiomatic that being an individual does not prevent you from also being part of of one, indeed, many groups. At one and the same time we are always several things and just one, ourselves.
Horne’s goal was not only to erase the teaching of Mexican-American studies but to collapse Latino identity into white American mythology—to rewrite history so fast it smudges because the ink is not dry on the first draft. He wasn’t really referring to nurturing Latino students as individuals (indeed, he targeted them as a group) but raising them as “patriots” for a country that exists only in his imagination. “American” and “individual” are not synonymous—indeed, they are no more, or less, antagonistic a pairing than “Latino” and “individual” or “American” and “Latino.” And while being American may carry more privileges, it is no more, or less, worthy a category than being Latino.