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The Modern Black Athlete Archetype Has Changed, But Tiger Woods Has Not

Black women used to receive second tier status on the pro athlete dating hierarchy. Not anymore.

By Khalid Salaam April 12, 2013, 01:16 PM EST

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Tiger Woods’ return to the congratulatory glare of a halogen-powered spotlight isn’t surprising. Despite how dire things may have looked a few years ago, his comeback was easily predicted. You get more than one shot in America. Look at people like Mike Tyson and Pat Buchanan, who, were able to push forward without the burden of past transgressions cock-blocking their futures.

The only thing that’s a little interesting, at least in the context of considering everything Woods went through the last time his personal went viral is the current public display of his dating life.

The dissolution of his marriage and the surrounding scandal set off an unfortunate chain of events. Front-page photos, tasteless headlines and breaking news updates became commonplace. Tiger, his family, his extracurricular women, and all the dudes who transformed themselves into teenage girls – in order to stay abreast to the latest developments – shared in this moment.

The popular consensus was that he’d lay low with his next relationship and attempt to dampen the excitement. Instead, he dove right in – Ryan Lochte-style. Posing for last month’s cover of People Magazine – with his new lady, Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn – is about as anti-nondescript as he could get. You could even say that it’s a power move by Woods to get in front of the story and not let the tabloids get their “feeding on a dead carcass” on.

Either way, it worked: a positive story as a lead-in for The Masters, to give his supporters something to focus on while he focused on his game. He also recaptured golf’s No. 1 ranking last month, taking the shine away from upstart s like Roy McIlroy, and defending Master’s champ Bubba Watson. Tiger Woods is having a damn-good start to his spring.

Except that it was hard to ignore the rhinoceros in the room. You know, the one standing in the corner, breathing heavy, with his eyes looking dead at you.

Tiger is still down with “the swirl.”

Personally speaking, I think Tiger, and everyone else, should have the right to rock with whoever floats their boat, without hateful disparagement. But that is an opinion not shared by everyone.

The tongue-in-cheek cynicism trickled out; that Tiger’s recaptured No. 1 ranking is directly tied to his choice of woman. A white woman, to be specific. It’s social media fodder and the kind of stuff you hear at bars and restaurants. Doesn’t matter if it’s ridiculous; people believe it.

What’s hard to ignore is how out-dated this all looks. Quiet as it’s kept, the era of the black pro athletes sporting white women on their arms – and the notion that they are status symbols – ended years ago. Woods is on some Last of the Mohicans ish, right now.

* * * *

The movement was subtle. In fact, even calling it a movement may be overstating it. The change wasn’t the result of some kind of cultural admonishment. Black women groups weren’t standing outside of pro athlete locker rooms holding picket signs that said, “Black Is Beautiful,” and  “Stop Being A B*tch, And Marry Us!”

But something changed.

In decades past –– even as recently as the ’90s –– high-profile black athletes were wifing up non-black women by the truckload. Guys like Tiki Barber, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and Frank Thomas were giving black women heavy-duty shoulder shrugs.

Twenty years ago, LeBron James would have been with a white woman. Dwyane Wade, too. Likely, the same for CC Sabathia, Mike Vick, Jimmy Rollins, Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, Ray Lewis, Charles Woodson and any other high-profile black athlete. It was modus operandi. It came with the public relations package. Big house, fancy car, trophy wife. And that wife looked like Christie Brinkley, not Regina King. 

But in 2013, it’s less visible. Black women have quietly staged a comeback. For all of the discussion regarding the lack of love in black communities, this is actually something positive to acknowledge. When you see the video after a game when the player is looking for his family to embrace, these days everyone in that family has the same relative skin color. This is the “Modern Family” that we see now. Look at a team like the NY Knicks, where having a woman of color as the choice seems like a requisite of joining the team.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t still some players out there with white women – guys like Robert Griffin III and Prince Fielder. And again, more power to them, since interracial marriage, on its own, is progressive. As has been discussed mightily, this generation of athletes isn’t burdened by subscribing to the old ways of doing things. Whether that’s conducting business off the court or how they play on it. Not feeling obligated to buckle under the peer pressure or societal norm is an extension of this undertaking.

As we’ve previously discussed on this site, statistics for marriage in black communities is discouraging. According to the latest findings from the US Census Bureau, the reality is this:

 

* Forty-two percent of black adults have never been married, compared with just 26 percent of all American adults.

*  Black women ages 35 to 44 are the only group of American women of child-bearing age with lower rates of marriage than men of the same race or ethnicity.  

* By their early 40s, 31 percent of black women have never been married, compared to 9 percent of white women, 11 percent of Asian women and 12 percent of Hispanic women.

 

To be clear, the majority of black men date and marry black women. The notion that there was some sort of exodus of men into the arms of white women has always been an urban legend. But it’s easy to understand how that idea gained traction once you look back a few years.

Miscegenation, whether forced or mutually approved, has existed for as long as America has been around. All races and ethnicities engage in this, but it’s the electric combination of black males and white females that is most often cited. White men used it as an excuse to beat and kill black men for generations. People like Ida B. Wells wrote about the fabricated reasons for lynchings, while people like Jack Johnson had harems of white chicks under his thumb during the early years of the 20th Century.

In the proceeding post-war decades, it became more commonplace. When dudes like Chamberlain talked about bedding women by the thousands, you best believe he had some “Beckys” on his list. For a lot of people, it meant you had truly made it. It seemingly became a rite of passage for black celebrity men – emboldened by the openness of the “get in where you fit in” free sex ’60s and ’70s – to date and marry non-black women. Businessman and actors joined in, but athletes mastered it. Dudes were completing dissertations, coming home with Ph.Ds on the subject.

From Chamberlain to OJ Simpson to Barry Bonds, it’s become one of those “assumed” things. It’s a stereotype. White people can’t dance; Asian-Americans are good at math; and black men, when they have the chance, choose white women.

The reason Kanye’s “Golddigger” joint was so popular was due to the fact that people knew immediately what he meant when, at the end of his final verse, he spit, “when he get on, he leave your ass for a white girl.” Black women are good enough during the Ramen-noodle-with-hot-dog days, but once a dude starts eating sea bass with risotto and fennel, all of a sudden, they start looking second rate.

Few things will piss a black woman off quicker than that notion. Being pushed aside for a Barbie doll with blond highlights is taken as an insult to the fullest degree. A couple of years ago, Jill Scott commented that seeing a black man with a white woman “bites,” and mainstream media responded with the typical backlash. But in black circles, this is a well-known sentiment.

There are many women who don’t care, and adopt a colorblind love stance. But there are still many – perpetually hurt by their last-place status on the desirability totem pole – bothered by this whole idea.

Interracial marriages are up 28% percent from 2000; meaning as the years go by, this will be less and less of a news driver. But it will never totally go away. For Woods, who has never totally been adopted by Black America, this latest situation is but another minus point for his detractors. For those who struggle to connect with him, this will be brought up as a reason why. Even though he has a mixed-race background, we haven’t matured enough as a nation to consider that as an option. It’s not “one-drop rule” territory, but most people consider a person with one black parent to be black. Had President Obama not embraced this idea, he would have never won. Because Tiger Woods has not, in the eyes of many, he will always remain on the margins, never fully enveloped.

It’s probable that he doesn’t care about that. Which, undoubtedly, is his right. People can choose to date and marry whomever they please, and doing so doesn’t automatically denote a mark a self-hatred or conditioning.

But for the athletes who have made black women their partners, they seem to have, purposely or not, enacted a new social evolutionary paradigm. What for years has been a conversation piece hidden away in the bowels of intra-racial disclosure, is becoming something mentioned less and less. At minimum, that’s a win for self-esteem of black women. We can start there and flesh the rest out later.

 

 

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Khalid Salaam was formerly deputy editor of The Shadow League. 

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TheShadowLeague.com, a site dedicated to presenting journalistically sound sports coverage with a cultural perspective that insightfully informs sports fans worldwide. Founded and developed by media entrepreneur Keith Clinkscales, TSL is owned by Shadow League Digital a multi-platform content creation company.