Tiger Woods & America's 'Racial Treadmill'

A new book by a Duke anthropologist examines the public's reaction to the downfall of golf star Tiger Woods

Starn1.jpg
Duke Anthropologist Orin Starn

A society that celebrated Tiger Woods as "postracial" during his reign as the most powerful man in sports quickly discarded that characterization -- often in ugly, vulgar terms -- in the aftermath of his tawdry 2010 sex scandal, claims a new book by a Duke University professor.In doing so, an America obsessed with scandal and fueled by anonymity demonstrated the power of predictable and divisive stereotypes about race, fame and celebrity, says Orin Starn, author of "The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race and Celebrity Scandal" (2012, Duke University Press.)"When it was convenient, America embraced Tiger Woods as a postracial ideal of the society we'd like to be," says Starn, chair of Duke cultural anthropology department. "But when the scandal hit, Tiger was quickly demoted to 'just another black guy' status."This abrupt shift was expressed most vividly on Internet websites and message boards, illustrating how far America still has to go before it gets beyond race, Starn says."Race has become a lose-lose game. There's a fixed set of views, positions and roles around race that get articulated over and over again. We're on this racial treadmill that doesn't get us anywhere new."Starn's book is the result of two years of research on Woods, a mixed-race athlete widely considered among the top golfers in history. But its themes stretch more broadly, delving into golf's historical reluctance to embrace diversity and America's current anxiety and obsession with sex, race and celebrity.Through interviews, observation and a thorough mining of Internet commentary, Starn illustrates that many opinions of Woods and the sexual dalliances that led to his divorce and temporary career implosion fall along predictable racial lines.Some blacks were outraged that all of Woods' alleged mistresses were white, Starn notes. Meanwhile, racists on the Internet quickly and gleefully mocked Woods' fall from grace, deriding him in vulgar terms. For more than 20 years, Starn has focused his research on social movements and indigenous politics, particularly in Latin America and native North America. In tackling the Woods scandal, Starn immersed himself in the seedy side of the World Wide Web -- the message boards, chat rooms and news comment sections where people say what they really think.The results were eye-opening, says Starn, who maintains a blog about golf, sports and society at http://golfpolitics.blogspot.com/"There's a whole set of things you can't say without losing your job, being put on administrative leave or having to make an apology," he says. "So you might think racism and racial stereotyping doesn't exist in America. But Internet chat rooms are where you can find it, the underbelly of American race relations."