The Sum and the Son of Many Parts


Boston -- He arrived at the Masters tournament with all sorts of monikers, statistics, and expectations added to his name. Eldrick Woods was "Tiger," the golf "phenom," the prodigy, the amateur champion playing for his first time with the pros.

The 19-year-old from Stanford University was also, the sports writers all calculated, the fourth black to play the white-bread golf event in 20 years, the first black in seven years. He was compared to Jackie Robinson, to Willie Mays, to Michael Jordan.

But before Tiger Woods had left Augusta, Georgia, in time to make a 9 a.m. Monday history class, he had firmly and repeatedly parsed his identity in his own way. He was not the designated black hope of a white sport. "My mother is from Thailand," he said. "My father is part black, Chinese and American Indian. So I'm all of those. It's an injustice to all my heritages to single me out as black."

These were not the words of a young man trying to "pass," to deny his heritage, to reject the shade of melanin that would have categorized him as "Negro" under not-so-ancient race laws. This was a voice from a new generation of Americans who resist the cultural pressure to make one choice, who say I am the sum and the son of many parts.

For too long, slavery and racism have left a legacy in America that author Shirlee Taylor Haizlip calls either "an anxiety about authenticity or a paranoia about purity."

We look at the diffuse range of skin tones, hair types, eyes, noses, lips and try to force them into a handful of allotted races. More often than not we ask of some subtle shading, some "exotic" feature: "What is he?" "What is she?" Not who, mind you, but what.

Today our country may be more of a genetic melting pot than at any time in history. Yet we are often and oppositely as obsessed with ethnic and racial categories as any 19th-century census taker counting "octoroons" for his county.

Racism has been the natural enemy of a multiracial reality. It insisted that one drop of "African blood" made a white man black, although a drop of "white blood" didn't make a black one white. It accused a light-skinned woman if she tried to "pass" as white, though no one accused her of trying to pass as black.

To this day, there are blacks as well as whites as well as Asians as well as Hispanics who uphold this code, insisting that college freshmen "choose" which lunch table they will sit at, which sorority they will join. Children of diverse backgrounds are asked to choose sides as if race were a team.

Multiracial children can be caught in a kind of cultural cross fire. But increasingly, they are also the ones helping to create a demilitarized zone, trying to forge a bridge out of their own life experiences.

Finally, we've begun to hear the stories. In "Life on the Color Line," Gregory Williams has written a memoir of his childhood, "the true story of a white boy who discovered he was black." In "The Sweeter the Juice," Shirlee Haizlip has written about her search for and discovery of kin who "passed" into the white world, disappearing, leaving her own mother bewildered and abandoned.

Such stories reflect the pain created in American lives by color lines. But they also call into question the meaning and meaninglessness of race as a concept.

As Ms. Haizlip writes after her own search, "Genes and chromosomes from Africa, Europe and a pristine America commingled and created me. . . . I am an American anomaly. I am an American ideal. I am the American nightmare. I am the Martin Luther King dream. I am the new America."

The voices of these new Americans include many the age of Ms. Haizlip's children who have increasingly turned from pain to pride, less torn by racial heritages and more comfortable in two or three or four worlds. It's the Irish-Italian-Russian-American. It's the African-Asian-European-American.

These are the people who check "other" among the rigid categories offered by the census. They are the people who lobby for a "multiracial" slot, or no racial slot at all, on all the questionnaires that demand identity checks.

For their own sake, they struggle against the pressure to pick one of the mothers, fathers, grandparents on their family trees. And in that struggle they become a natural force against the divisions of race.

One of these new Americans is 19-year-old Tiger Woods who says matter-of-factly, "All I can do is be myself." One-quarter black, one-quarter Thai, one-quarter Chinese, one-eighth American Indian and one-eighth white, his greatest natural asset is the astounding ability to hit a golf ball 340 yards.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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