Tiger Woods was right. It is our culture that was wrong

I was on the treadmill this morning listening to the new podcast episode of “All-American: Tiger Woods” – America’s Son. Here I was, in my building’s gym, by myself (very few visit the gym nowadays), shouting several “YES” to what Tiger was saying then followed by equally loud “NO” when ESPN correspondent Howard Bryant was talking. I never really followed Tiger’s career, other than knowing he was an incredible athlete and lived under the public scrutiny. But I was struck to see how much I could relate to a part of his story. 

The episode focused on the pressure Tiger had, to officially claim his identity to being an African-American. Something he had always refused to say (and still does). Here is Tiger on Oprah in 1997 when he was 21 years old:

Oprah: “What do you call yourself, do you call yourself African—American? I know your father’s half black, quarter Chinese, quarter American Indian, your mother has ties to Chinese and quarter white. So you are…”

Tiger: “… the funny thing is, growing up, I came up with this name. I’m a “Cablinasian” — CA for Caucasian, BL for black, IN for Indian and Asian.”

Oprah: ”That’s what you call yourself?”

Tiger: “Yeah”

On Larry King in 1998, talking about mentorship:

Larry: “… you think you owe the public more than just playing good golf. You know, the most stable life you owe them what you owe them” 

Tiger Woods: “I want to give back to them. There’s a big difference owing somebody…”

King: “Do you feel that you’re an influence on young blacks?”

Woods: “Young children”

King: “You think you’ve attracted a lot of more blacks to the game?” 

Woods: “I think I’ve attracted minorities to the game, but I think, you know what? Why limit it to just that?” 

Throughout the entire episode, it is clear that Tiger doesn’t want to be reduced to the color of a skin or the suffering of one specific race. In that same interview with Oprah, his father Earl answers the following:

Oprah: “… Although he calls himself “Cablasian”, when people see him, they see a black face, they see a black man. How did you raise him to believe he belongs to what race?”

Earl: “The human race…”

The most irritating comment from Bryant was the following: “Tiger Woods is in this massive search for identity. Where do I fit? And it’s a very hard place to be. I think that really is the central question for me. You know, I’ve never met Tiger Woods.” Bryant absolutely misses the point and shows that what he is looking for is an answer from Tiger that would satisfy him. Howard’s statement is more about his frustration than Tiger’s identity. I would even say that Tiger’s strong self-esteem is a threat to Howard’s identity. Tiger doesn’t have a crisis of identity, totally the opposite. He knows exactly who he is. That is the power that he has, being able to stand in front of the world, of Oprah and Larry King, and declare that he is just not that, he is something bigger. He is a human that doesn’t want to be boxed in. 

Unfortunately, we live in a culture of group identity, reinforced by a religious framework that divides life and the world into two camps and reverence for technology that has reduced everything to zeros and ones. It is a culture where the attention and value are put on either extreme and the balanced and common sense has been deemed a threat and sentenced to censorship. If someone is not 100% like me then he or she must be against me.

The part of Tiger’s story that I relate to is the struggle I have had my entire life (and still do to this day) with the world trying to box me into something I feel is limited and simplistic. Even my book FEEL THE WILD fell victim – is it a photography book? A travel book? Or perhaps a book of philosophy? It is all three! In it, I wrote the page “About the Author” in a particular way:

As an intellectual species, we love to define and categorize what surrounds us. It is one of the reasons why we have job titles. They define our responsibilities and where we stand in society. It helps by giving us a framework on how we can interact with each other. Personally, I have always felt that people would figure me out simply by meeting me and talking to me; that my work and actions would speak for themselves. But the reality isn’t that simple. I am a complex person who can’t be defined by a single word. I have always walked the unbeaten path, unafraid of stepping outside the box and questioning the preconceived. 

One day, while driving back from Napa, California, my wife said something and the light went on. The clarity that came about presented me with a solution, something that would explain so much with only three letters and a small number. I am an A.P.E.2, literally and figuratively. Genetically, I belong to the Hominidae taxonomic family, the great apes. And beyond that I am an artist/author (A), photographer/philosopher (P), explorer/entrepreneur (E). It is an acronym that connects me to my past while elevating my future.

Here is what I wrote last year about masculinity:

From a really early age and all the way to my late thirties, my masculinity was put in question by society and the people around me. While I personally never felt conflicted about my identity, I also never felt there was a place in our culture for me to exist as a man. Our concept of masculinity is a simple one based around sport, fashion (or lack of) and some bizarre rituals that never made sense to me. Because I didn’t fit the mold, I grew up bullied and called a fag. I didn’t belong to the “Boy’s Club” but I also wasn’t part of the “Gay Club”. People didn’t know where to put me. Every day, this is what I dealt with: “I thought you were gay” Me: No I am not. “Are you sure?” Yes I am. “Really, are you sure you are not in the closet?” Yes I am sure, I would have made my move a long time ago. “Well I still have my doubts.” I have lost many friendships with men from both sides – gay men wanted more than being a friend and straight men felt threatened in their own masculinity because I didn’t pee standing up. To this day, I unfortunately still don’t see many empowering narratives about being a man. Much of what we hear about masculinity is what not to be. Gays are better today than yesterday and women are stronger, but straight men have become something no ones knows what it is. There is a place and a necessity for the masculine energy, a place that empowers men, not to dominate, but to be and express themselves without feeling limited and repressed. For that to happen, we (men and women) need to expand our horizons and beliefs. We need to embrace our differences and the things that unite us.

To Bryant’s comment, I have never felt confused about my identity, even if I didn’t claim a group to belong to. I have never felt less of a person because of the lack of money in my bank account, or because of the lack of diploma on my wall, or simply because I didn’t agree with someone. I have never felt less of man because of the complexities of my character. In fact I always believed that complexity was an asset, not a weakness. I have always been strong and secured in who I am. The issue has always been the world around me and people like Bryant. The issue has always been this constant pressure of being labelled something that didn’t capture who I was, or who I am.

I am a complex human being who wants to do good. I have had good luck and bad luck. I have suffered and still do. Some of the pain was because of me, others were because of life. I come from a broken family where I was the black sheep. I haven’t spoken to my father in 25 years and my brother in 15 years. I have a niece and a nephew who don’t really know they have an uncle. And over the course of my 46 years of existence, I got fired many many times, didn’t get the job many many times, and wasn’t liked by many because they didn’t know what to do with me. But since I am straight, white, a man, and healthy, I have no right to complain. There is nothing for me to blame for any of my short-comings. 

It is probably one of the reasons why I find solace in the wilderness and in nature. Because these labels and divisions don’t exist. By listening to nature and learning from it, I have come to realize that life is complicated and filled with different perspectives, as many as there are creatures on this planet. Simplifying the intricacies of nature would only prevent us from experiencing the richness and depth of life. Back in 2012, I wrote a piece called the “Wrong Idea of Nature”. It is a text about how this binary way of looking at the world transformed our interpretation of nature. In the story, I start with the character of Theodore Roosevelt, the one who created of the National Parks in the USA:

“I often wonder how Roosevelt would be perceived today. A Republican, a liberal, a politician, a cowboy, a rebel, a naturalist, an explorer, a scientist, an avid reader, a soldier, and a lover of nature. He was also a great hunter who went hunting in Africa but in the process helped the Smithsonian museum creating an exhibit that would fascinate and continues to do so to millions of children and adults alike… “

Tiger Woods was always right resisting the pressure and refusing to take one side over the other. He believed that the sport could transcend the divisions and not doing so would be an insult not only to the sport but also to his talent and impact. And for that, I thank him.

PS. This is how “middle” and complicated I am:

  • I have many “liberal” views but also many “conservative” views
  • I love the wilderness and the big cities
  • I love technology and the rudimentary
  • I have a strong feminine energy, but I am not gay
  • I am a real man but never felt connected to the culture of men
  • I am straight but have no issue saying a man is attractive
  • I believe in having certain freedom but also that people need to be told what to do
  • I am ok with guns, just no guns make for the army or made for the purpose of killing humans
  • I love meat and have no issue eating beyond meat
  • I love animals and have no issue with hunting, just not trophy hunting
  • I love nature but often don’t agree with conservationists
  • I photograph and write about nature but don’t consider myself a conservationist
  • I want our world to have a better relationship with the planet but I don’t agree with the Climate Change narrative
  • I respect anyone’s religion or culture, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my peace
  • I respect people’s decision to smoke, I just don’t want to smell it.
  • I believe everyone is equal in the sense we are all humans, but not every human is equal

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