Why black athletes run from black identity

New book looks at how stars who take public, antiracist political positions become ‘problems’

“I’m not black. I’m Cablinasian.” — Tiger Woods, 2000


iger Woods did not invent erasure, but he would become one of its most prominent, important, and tragic practitioners. O.J. Simpson may have felt no social responsibility to the economic and political status of black people, but he nevertheless understood the currency that came with being black. Being black made him an American success story, the self-made black superstar in the white world. It made him unique. It made him an aspiration. It made him money, increased his commercial and sex appeal.

O.J. erased blackness as a political anchor. Woods went beyond, taking the extraordinary step of erasing the idea of being black altogether. Tiger did both, first adopting an apolitical posture then reducing his black heritage altogether by referring to himself as “Cablinasian,” a composite created during his adolescence to describe what he referred to as his Caucasian, black, and Asian heritage. In sports, the one industry where black people dominated the nationwide imagination, the culture and the talent, its superstars actively practiced erasure, avoiding comment on even the most pedestrian of current events, often growing annoyed at even the remotest suggestions of advocating for a black concern.

Many resisted but every black professional in America understood the impulse. Abandoning black people politically meant an easier life. It meant more money, a vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard or maybe Nantucket or in the Hamptons. It meant a greater possibility of job security. And it created its own language. (“I don’t want to be a black doctor. I just want to be a doctor who happens to be black.”)

It also meant being left alone, free of the news cycle whenever something occurred to black people, because now they were not you. Dwayne Johnson and Maya Rudolph, black people who have earned millions in part by profiting off of their racial ambiguity, know this. Besides, separating from the black world was what you were supposed to do. Black people know this well, and if whites chose to reflect, they would hear it in their own speech, the number of instances when famous black people aren’t really “black” anymore or their white admirers no longer see them as “black.” The American narrative demands that black people of any promise separate themselves from the lot of the despised, leave them behind. The black athlete is urged to leave his surroundings and never return. He found his “way out.” They will hear they are no longer “black” but have transcended race.

There was a day, probably one of those moments staring out of an airplane window heading to this World Series, that Wimbledon, or countless games in between, when I had a thought: success in America routinely correlated to the distance from black people. The farther away, the brighter the prospects. The schools were better. The food was healthier. The streets were safer. The services were more plentiful, the real estate more desirable. Even the greatest black commodity — its athletes — eventually rejected black colleges for the established white universities that for decades never wanted them.

The same was true when the topic was black advocacy: the greater the political commitment to the black community, the greater the professional jeopardy. It explained why even discussing current events seemed such a wrenching struggle for so many prominent black professionals, particularly the visible players who seemed to have so much control. They composed large majorities in basketball and football, both at the big-time college and professional levels, yet knew that being identified with African Americans — unless there were millions to be made off of the cool factor of black culture — was a liability.

What does one do when the ballast cannot be tossed over, when the money and the material do not provide the promised protection? What does one do with the realization that, even with money, one cannot ever be completely unstuck, as Tiger discovered when his 2017 DUI arrest sheet classified his race as “black”? What often follows is a suffocating self-hatred, a wrestle with which came first: despising oneself or being despised so deeply by one’s country that inevitably one starts to believe it.

The message to every black child who wants to become them is that they are wrong to aspire to proudly claim the black voice, to take the people with them. Tiger was willing to amputate, saying in effect: I have a Stanford education. I have nearly a billion dollars in wealth. I’m the greatest in the world at what I do. I can be anything I want . . . but I’m not that.

“I’m just me. I’m Madison.” — Madison Keys, 2015

In what other way was any of this to end? Professional athletes are only the most visible examples, but what is being asked of them — demanded, really — is the same demand for erasure being made of black people in virtually all corners of America. What they are being told is not that America isn’t racist but that the players must be comfortable accepting it. Otherwise, challenging police or gerrymandering or the obvious hiring imbalances or other important issues from a position of black advocacy would not be accompanied by such dire consequences.

But black athletes who do take public, antiracist political positions can expect the full weight of their industry — owners, coaches, media, fans, and most teammates — to punish them. They would become outcasts, active enemies within their industries, weakening their job prospects and endorsement opportunities, increasing the daily stress in jobs that are competitive and difficult enough as it is. They become problems. Or they will be ignored by the industry friends and teammates they thought they had. All of this is the human cost of supporting blackness even in the heavily integrated industry of professional sports, the industry that was supposed to prove the existence of the American meritocracy. These outcomes are not theoretical but make up a 50-year roll call of casualties.

The punishment is severe and even the president was not spared. Barack Obama specifically supported black people and felt the wrath of whiteness: first, after admonishing a Cambridge, Massachusetts, police officer for arresting the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for breaking into his own home after locking himself out; and second, after expressing support for the family of Trayvon Martin.

After the Gates incident, Obama even sat down for a “beer summit” with the arresting officer, a rank-and-file cop who should have been disciplined for not using basic common sense. But the black president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, felt compelled to answer to an average local cop from an average local police department. On another occasion, Obama fired former Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod when the right-wing Breitbart News edited a speech she gave in a way that distorted her meaning and portrayed her as a racist. Obama and his administration caved in to it out of fear of right-wing criticism. Sherrod settled her defamation suit against Breitbart after an embarrassed Obama administration offered her another job, which she refused, but the highest office in the land was checked when occupied by a black person.

Retreat from black identity is the by-product of many forces, and when it comes to muting the black voice, there are so many forces at work, writes Howard Bryant.

Kyle Djavan Johnson

Sports will pay its field hands handsomely — just ask the black members of the Dallas Cowboys — in exchange for amputation, but it will not tolerate black advocacy. Whether adopting an O.J.-birthed rejection of blackness or the Tiger Woods sleight-of-hand identity game, a template followed by Yankees stars Aaron Judge and Derek Jeter, it is understood that amputation is the cost of those millions.

The through line continued to Madison Keys in tennis, who responded to being America’s African American heir to Venus and Serena Williams in a July 4, 2016, profile on the ESPN website The Undefeated with the headline “The next great black tennis star isn’t black or white – she’s Madison Keys.” The piece, written by ESPN’s LZ Granderson, begins:

Madison Keys’ favorite movie is Pretty Woman. Her favorite actress is Julia Roberts. If a movie is ever made about her life, she wants Roberts to play her. … Madison Keys is black — at least according to us. … In a 2015 New York Times profile, Keys said, “I don’t really identify myself as white or African-American. I’m just me. I’m Madison.”

The year following Granderson’s profile, at the US Open, where Arthur Ashe had won the tournament’s first men’s title in 1968, where in 1957 Althea Gibson had won the US National Championships, the forerunner to the US Open, where Venus Williams and Serena Williams had spawned a generation of African American tennis-playing girls, Madison Keys and black tennis player Sloane Stephens met in the women’s final. They are the only pair of black women to meet in a grand slam final other than Venus and Serena, the greatest siblings professional sports has ever produced.

Leading up to the final weekend, which in the country club sport of tennis featured three African Americans — Keys, Stephens, and Venus — in the four semifinal slots, the excitement of the moment engulfed the grounds. American women’s tennis, long lagging outside the enormous shadow of Venus and Serena, was back. Black American tennis, played in the largest tennis stadium in the world, named after Ashe, the sport’s most inspirational player, was featured. The lineage dating back to Gibson — who became the first African American, male or female, to win a major championship in 1956 when she won the French Championships — was obvious to the multitude of fans, especially the young black girls who were now inspired to play tennis by them, just as a young Madison Keys had been inspired to play tennis from watching Venus Williams. Everyone, from black United States Tennis Association president and CEO Katrina Adams to black USTA director of player development Martin Blackman, was inspired by the continuation of the black heritage in tennis.

Athletes’ careers depend on a certain conformity. The strategic choice of not speaking about civil rights is often a tactical exercise in survival, but it is also yet another example of surrendering to overwhelming odds, odds that have deep roots.

Everyone, that is, except Madison Keys, who during a national moment of black pride — she of the African American father, inspired to play the game by the legendary Venus Williams and herself inspiring young black girls — reiterated that weekend that she was essentially neutral. She did not identify as black or white and saw herself being played in a biopic by Julia Roberts.

No past. No heirs. No benefactors and — no debt.

There is, however, nothing neutral about Madison Keys. This is true because there is nothing neutral about the American racial order. None of this, it should be noted, is to suggest Madison Keys is obligated to embrace her blackness, be political, or live any life that is inauthentic for Madison Keys. However she carries herself is a choice that is personal to her, and regardless of her status as a public figure, a private one.

What it does demand, however, is an acknowledgment that a choice is being made, and that choice is a conscious one. By saying she chooses neither racial identification, Keys is choosing the default, which is the majority, and that is whiteness. It can be seen through the obviousness of her choices, the porous racial libertarianism that accompanies them. Blackness is the one racial identity that comes with both responsibility and cost, and whether as a defense mechanism, fear of controversy, or authentic disconnection to black America, the choice for someone with a black parent to publicly and repeatedly proclaim no identification as African American is a deliberate one. The reflex to communicate to black people, “Do not count on me. Do not count on me at all. Do not ask me for anything,” is not one that comes by happenstance but is a surrender to all the forces imploring one to avoid the devastating consequences that will follow. If the beach is covered with signs, each more perilous than the last — “Rip Tide,” “Shark Warning,” “Toxic Waste” — who would leap in and take a swim?

Retreat from black identity is the by-product of many forces, and when it comes to muting the black voice, there are so many forces at work. Athletes’ careers depend on a certain conformity. The strategic choice of not speaking about civil rights is often a tactical exercise in survival, but it is also yet another example of surrendering to overwhelming odds, odds that have deep roots. There are few spaces where challenging racial norms is encouraged, never mind accepted, and given the template for class elevation for black families over the past half century — which has generally required leaving the resource-poor black communities for the resource-plentiful white ones — the black child who grows into the black professional has been discouraged for virtually all of their life from identifying with being unconditionally black.

Madison Keys hits a return to Australia’s Samantha Stosur during the women’s singles match on Day Three of the Brisbane International tennis tournament in Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 8.

Photo by Patrick HAMILTON / AFP via Getty Images

I have always been confounded by the black parents who placed their children in overwhelmingly white settings, only to grow frustrated when their kids grew more comfortable around whites, dated or married interracially, and identified more (or completely) with an integrated community rather than a traditional black experience. Even the term “an integrated community” is generous, and wholly inaccurate. As studies show that white families will invariably leave if too many black families move in, what black families are entering is not “an integrated community” but a white one.

Black people are no different from anyone else; they adapt to their environment, and whether or not it is embraced personally, whiteness becomes the habitat of people who live within it, no different from urbanicity or rurality. In any other setting, one becomes what one lives and doing so is uncontroversial. Yet only by the sheer fact of their blackness are African Americans expected to live in predominantly white environments and still identify with the experiences, surroundings, and people of a black community they very well may not know. They are expected to do this also while absorbing the attitudinal (and sometimes physical) hostility toward blackness commonplace in the white world. There is a certain inevitability to the situation and that inevitability is the eventual erasure of a black sensibility. It is by design. It is the consequence of assimilation without actual integration and there is nothing neutral about it.

Fighting and overcoming these forces is so daunting that identifying as black becomes a political choice.

For the 2019-20 television season, ABC greenlit mixed-ish, a spin-off of its popular comedy black-ish. The premise is an origin story set in 1985, centering on Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, a main character on black-ish, and her childhood family as they transitioned from living on a multiracial commune to mainstream suburbia. The trailer for the show is full of tropes that appear harmless. Bow and her siblings are biracialized outcasts trying to fit in but not quite belonging in any traditional racial group. They are depicted as starry-eyed former commune kids with exotic features, so sheltered by compound living that they don’t even recognize an ice maker or a water gun.

Then there’s the gun-loving, white conservative grandfather who hangs a picture of Ronald Reagan on the wall and reminds the family he’s in charge; the hippie parents who avoid the imperatives of color in favor of love; and the forebodingly mean black kids at school (some of whom, we are to assume, will eventually come around). Everyone gets lampooned and the sharp, defining borders have their trauma-inducing points smoothed down, leaving room for all. (The trailer even shows the squeezably cute youngest running with her newfound water gun, yelling, “I love the Second Amendment!”) “It’s hard to be Rainbow,” the trailer cleverly teases, “in a black-and-white world.”

For a country desperate to delude itself into believing its fractures come from mere differences in philosophy and not white racial aggression, the inclusion of these stereotypes as quirky and benign is a sly ruse designed to assuage fears of white audiences through comic relief. For mixed-race children, even in the dark ages of 1985, there was no such thing as a black-and-white world. If you had a black parent, there was only one world, and it was the black world. You may have been mixed, but culturally and in the eyes of the dominant white society — and more importantly, the law — you were black. Even more importantly, whether you lived in a white community or a predominantly black one or some rare place in between, you weren’t white. You may have alternately suffered and benefited from the colorism that corrodes the black community, but you were still black. And if you ever thought otherwise, someone, somewhere reminded you of this fact of history, and probably harshly.

The show’s trailer lists a montage of biracial celebrities and world figures that today’s mixed-race kids can emulate — Colin Kaepernick, Halle Berry, Barack Obama, and Meghan Markle — while failing to mention that each and every one not only personally identifies as black but is seen as such by the white world.

Where is the utility in 2020 for this redefinition? It is rooted in antiblackness, using biracialism and class as an ally of whiteness when historically children of mixed-race couples may not have seen themselves as completely black, though they were never allowed to be white. There is today a value to white society in isolating blackness, whether geographically by community or culturally by class, if one is fortunate enough financially to have the choice to be isolated, and especially politically. The whiteness of a mixed-race child was never claimed by white people, but redefining the terms of race is the pinnacle of racism or its foundation, or both. The redefining is not an act of tolerance. It’s an act of power. And after centuries when one drop of black blood disqualified an entire people from equality in America, now America is offering the chance to opt out.

What, then, do so many of these black people — the leaders, the role models, the superstars of the celebrity class, the supposed proof that racial barriers in America are really just self-imposed — have to show for their success? They certainly do not have real power, for they know that the mere public support of a black political position threatens their employment. Nor have they received a more benign America for their acquiescence, for it responded to their success of what is possible in America by electing Donald Trump.

What the successful black person has received in this exchange, often in wild abundance, is money. Tiger Woods wasn’t attempting to be accurate when he called himself Cablinasian, because no one was calling him white. He wasn’t reasserting his mother’s Thai or his father’s Native American heritage because no one ever devalued it. He called himself Cablinasian only because the world was calling him black, just as the world called Madison Keys black, and she rejected that. The cultural pressure to agree to this bargain is so enormous that it resembles a rite of passage, a privilege. Or perhaps the bargain is even more sinister — not to transform the black into white but to ensure the black becomes antiblack. Black people can be claimed as success stories as long as they are willing to abandon the black people who need them politically and socially. They are well compensated and the white mainstream order remains unthreatened. Everybody wins, except those black people who look in the mirror and actually like what they see.

Liner Notes

Excerpted from Full Dissidence: Notes From an Uneven Playing Field by Howard Bryant. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" and “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.” His book, “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field,” was released Jan. 21.