Serena Williams, Tiger Woods and racial identity in sports

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You can't miss the term "black excellence" pulsating through Claudia Rankine's provocative story on Serena Williams in last week's New York Times magazine. Though Serena never goes there herself, the acclaimed poet and professor takes the journey for her, living vicariously through Serena's sass and brass. "Serena's grace comes because she won't be forced into stillness; she won't accept those racist projections onto her body without speaking back."

Her affection for Serena's defiance is so deeply personal Rankine almost channels John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raising their black-gloved fists into a Mexico City summer night some five decades ago.

Step off, backward white folk.

Between black excellence and her picture next to the Twitter hashtag #BlackGirlMagic, Serena is clearly playing for more than herself and history at the U.S. Open this week and next.

Meanwhile, a term not found with a Google search: "Cablanasian excellence."

This is possibly because Tiger Woods has not won a major since the Bush administration and he has been careful not to singularly co-opt any one part of his multiracial identity (African-American, Thai, Caucasian, American Indian, Chinese and beyond).

But now that we're routinely taking stock of two seminal athletes of color, both of whom dominated their almost-Downton Abbey-white sports at different times in their careers, it's fair to delve into how they both handled race, and ask a simple question:

Is the importance of a strong racial identity -- especially being viewed as authentically black -- something to fall back on during career and life struggles?

"Tiger and Serena, their upbringing, where they grew up, the influences on their lives, all of it, certainly played a role in who they ultimately became," says Grant Hill, the former player, analyst, part owner of the Atlanta Hawks and one of the most thoughtful people I interviewed on the subject. "I'm not here to judge or take sides. I just know, for me, it was comforting to remember where I came from when things weren't going well."

Serena and Tiger are both native Southern Californians, but currently make their home in gated Florida estates. Of course, that's like conflating Watts with West Covina.

She is literally straight outta Compton. He is ... straight outta Orange County.

Serena sashayed into Flushing, New York, at her peak this week, 33 years young going after a Grand Slam; after Wednesday's second-round victory she is just five wins away from becoming the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four major tournaments in the same calendar year.

Tiger, meanwhile, depressingly trudges toward his 40th year, his descent into dufferdom deepening with each missed cut, his dominance forever gone. Nostalgically pulling for Tiger now feels like pulling for Mike Tyson after his fall or Michael Jordan as a creaky-kneed, woebegone Wizard -- the relationship still pathetically pined for after it ended years ago.

Their competitive lives aside, Serena's utter beatdown of the thin-mint stereotype of her Sharapova-cloned sport created transcendent ripples; if not in, naturally buxom and athletic now at least peacefully coexist alongside the waifish baseliner crowd. Despite the misogyny and racism that conspired to change her, she embraced her body image. Despite the crusty, often white criticism of her non-All England etiquette and just plain 'tude, she embraced her swag -- and more.

"Serena has embraced her blackness," says Dr. Imani Perry, a professor at the Princeton Center for African American Studies and a scholar on law, culture and race. "It's fundamentally who she is. Between the hostility surrounding her body image and hair, there is something about her incredible resilience, a kind of fortitude."

Eldrick? "Cablanasian," he told Oprah 18 years ago, coming up with a term for his mixed-race heritage. When asked if it bothered him when people referred to him as African-American, he added, "It does."

Some of this can be attributed to his strong bond with his mother, whose Thai heritage Tiger never wanted to put behind his father's African-American heritage. He's proud of both, he has said, while not considering himself either.

Still, Perry says, "It sounded at the time like Tiger was trying to make up anything not to be black. When he chose multi-ethnic, there was almost a perception of running away from being black."

Dr. Harry Edwards, the renowned sociologist who once coached Smith and Carlos, has a hard time with Tiger needing to declare.

"Tiger's major problem is his self-identity doesn't comport with this funhouse system of racial mirrors," Edwards says. "But it's also a two-way sword. On one hand, he gets out of the lie. But on the other hand, where does he go? To what does he retreat? On what does he stand in difficult times?"

In his hilarious 2004 bit about a racial draft, the comedian Dave Chappelle has the "Blacks" claiming Tiger with the first pick -- a selection that leaves the "Asians" crestfallen and Tiger (Chappelle) overjoyed that some ethnicity finally claimed him.

Scott Brooks, the Missouri associate sociology professor who authored the book, "Black Men Can't Shoot," goes even further. Instead of allowing himself to be hoisted up on at least one racial pedestal (black, Asian or other), "What Tiger has done has really denied himself any fit. "

"While he's sort of embracing this sort of melting-pot existence and universalism, he's made himself more of an individual," Brooks adds. "He's isolated himself. He's allowing no one to claim him. He took that Michael Jordan being apolitical blueprint to the farthest degree. Therefore, he has no home. The only home he has, maybe the only place that will ever build him a monument, is Nike."

Let's be clear: Serena is also of Nike stock and the multimillion-dollar endorsement world, even if no one can artfully explain how Maria Sharapova and Japanese male player Kei Nishikori will earn a combined $12 million more this year. And if she were multiracial like Tiger, who's to say she wouldn't make the same choices about her own identity? In some ways, Edwards says, she was lucky she didn't have to choose.

"Serena beautifully exemplifies what it is not to run away from who you are," Edwards says. "One of the benefits of being an African-American is that you have a history of struggle, of exemplary modeling, to fall back on -- especially in difficult times," he says. "And seeing, 'You know what, I can make it through this. I can get this done.'

"I know how many African-Americans came to Ali's defense. I don't know how many Cablanasians came to Tiger's support. Or Lilliputians, for that matter, when he hit his rough spots. Unless you have a historical connectedness to a people and their struggle, you're kind of out there on your own."

Grant Hill has always had empathy for both sides.

Born to African-American parents -- son of Yale-educated former NFL running back Calvin and Wellesley-educated, prominent attorney Janet -- he grew up in an affluent Washington suburb but was never allowed to forget his parents' roots; his mother took him to a Broadway play as an adolescent, he remembers, and followed up with a Go-Go Live show the next week at the old Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, featuring Chuck Brown.

He feels for Tiger, especially when the "not black enough" label is recklessly thrown around.

"What irks me is the thought that you have to come out of [the projects] to be hungry, to really want it," Hill says, recalling the less-fortunate kid from New York who came up to him at a five-star basketball camp in high school they both attended en route to the NBA.

"He asked me, 'Why do you play ball?' I don't know what his perception was, but it's like, 'Man, you live in a mansion. Your dad played in the league. I need this to eat.' So every time I played him I tried to kill him, because I was offended. I don't think he meant it to be offensive. I think he was just curious.

"But I think this idea that you can't have fire, you can't be hungry, you can't be a dog if you come from a middle-class background, like, you gotta be straight outta Compton. ... Naw."

Like Serena, he also understands the finite life of an elite athlete. She underwent treatment for a pulmonary embolism four years ago; Hill was rushed to the hospital in 2003 for a near-fatal staph infection, caused by a complicated surgery to re-break his ankle and align it with his left leg.

He knows part of Serena's inspiration -- her innate desire to win, to rehab from career- and life-threatening injury, to essentially perform a career makeover and morph into the greatest female athlete of her generation -- may come from somewhere deeper inside.

"It's subconscious," Hill says. "For me, when I was going through my injury ordeal --comedy of errors, mismanaged, this great uncertainty about my future -- you look for things to inspire you to push on.

"Understanding and being aware of my race -- the history, what we've endured as a people, knowing I come from that -- was extremely helpful. Knowing that my people have endured far worse than what I was going through was comforting.

"I identify with that. Not saying I was personally wronged or discriminated against, but just knowing that I have something within me and that I belong to a people who have something within them, who have had to fight, defy odds and overcome, that was important."

Look, I don't believe Tiger Woods' inability to catch Jack Nicklaus for career majors or joining a sexual-addiction recovery program after his personal life detonated in 2009 have anything to do with whether or not he embraced any part of his racial identity thoroughly enough.

Frankly, I don't think clinging tightly to his own brand and the insulated, corporate world of the modern, iconic athlete -- more than, say, his own blackness -- ever influenced whether fans of any ethnicity rooted deeply for him to return to being that fist-pumping, I-got-this-and-you-don't money golfer on major Sundays.

Because I'm white, I don't know what it's like to conjure up images of my ancestors struggling for human dignity and equality for career and life inspiration.

I believe Serena Williams genuinely connects with her African-American audience more than almost any otherworldly athlete I've seen -- more than Tiger, Michael, Carl Lewis, more than anyone, really, since Ali. And I believe she pulls this off subconsciously so well by showing vulnerability when she's down and not denying her, OK, #BlackGirlMagic when life and her game is grand.

As Chasity Cooper recently explained online in Slant, "#BlackGirlMagic is our special sauce. It's our confidence, intelligence, spunk and sass. It's the way we walk into a room and own it without having to say a word. It's our trials, triumphs, and everything in between. It is ultimately what makes us unique, beautiful and powerful."

It's pure ... Serena.