The Case for Cablinasian: Multiracial Naming From Plessy to Tiger Woods

The Case for Cablinasian: Multiracial Naming From Plessy to Tiger Woods

Communication Theory
Volume 22, Issue 1 (February 2012)
pages 92–111
DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2011.01399.x

LeiLani Nishime, Assistant Professor of Communication
University of Washington, Seattle

This article advocates for the interdisciplinary use of critical race theory and critical rhetorical theory in communication to analyze racialized language and to evaluate the cultural and political significance of new racial discourses in the United States. The article examines the dissenting opinion in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) and the congressional hearings on the Tiger Woods Bill (1997), two key instances of public debate over multiracial categories. The article then turns to Tiger Woods’ term “Cablinasian” and the possibilities of an alternative and contestory multiracial nomenclature, shifting the critique away from Woods’ celebrity or politics and toward the legal history and rhetorical potential of the word itself.

In 1996, Oprah Winfrey, on her U.S. television show, asked Tiger Woods how he racially identified. He famously responded by saying he made up his own word, “Cablinasian,” combining the words Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian. His comments stirred so much passionate response Winfrey scheduled another show dedicated to the issue. At the center of the debate was the perception that Woods was advocating for his own racial exceptionalism, an exceptionalism that endeared him to many in the multiracial movement and alienated him from many African American activists (DaCosta, 2007; Spencer, 2003; Squires, 2007; Weisman, 2001; Williams, 2006; Wu, 2002). He was roundly criticized in the popular press for buying into the historical social elevation of multiracial African Americans and rejecting a communal African American identity (Black America and Tiger’s Dilemma, 1997; Nordlinger, 2002).

His supporters, such as conservative republican Thomas Petri, sponsor of the so-called Tiger Woods Bill (1997), did not help Woods’ reputation with civil rights groups. The bill called for the inclusion of a “multiracial” category on the census and was opposed by organizations such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. They argued that the new category would undercount legally recognized racial groups resulting in less political power and fewer resources for those groups. The debate, now aligned along a left-right axis, deepened the divide between a conservative, colorblind, embrace of the term Cablinasian and a race-conscious, civil rights-based, rejection of Woods.

Academic treatments of Woods have also been highly critical of his use of the term Cablinasian. Whether primarily grounding their arguments in the public policy implication of the term (Hernandez, 2003; Spencer, 2003; Wu, 2002) or in media representations of both Woods and the controversy (Billings, 2003; Cashmore, 2008; Dagbovie, 2007; Houck, 2006; Palumbo-Liu, 1999; Yu, 2003), they argue that the term ultimately concedes to a colorblind worldview. The media critics point out Woods’ own apolitical indifference to social issues and document the ways in which his celebrity persona affirms the liberal individualist ideology of a U.S. society “beyond race.”

Rather than reiterate arguments about the way Woods represents and reflects prevailing views of race, a topic that has been covered so convincingly and so well by the scholars cited above, I propose an alternative framing of the issue. Conceived as a complement to rather than a replacement of more traditional communication approaches to the Tiger Woods phenomenon, this analysis will center on the term Cablinasian. It argues for the possibilities of an alternative and contestatory language of multiracial nomenclature, shifting the critique away from Woods’ celebrity or politics and toward the legal history and rhetorical potential of the word itself.

Contextualizing the term within a longer history and broader social context makes clear the relationship between colorblind rhetoric, multiracial naming, and the race-based inequalities often hidden by both. Through a comparative reading of two attempts to legally define racial categories, the dissenting opinion of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and the congressional hearings on the failed Tiger Woods Bill (1997), I trace the rarely acknowledged exploitation of Asians in constructions of both multiraciality and colorblindness in the United States. The deliberate choice of two unsuccessful bids to alter racial language highlights challenges the bills posed to prevailing racial norms. Neither became law, but in their moment of rupture with a “common sense” racial order, they enable us to perceive race as an order.

This article, therefore, is a case study of the term Cablinasian linking together early and more current narratives of multiraciality and makes a case for Cablinasian as a method of critique. For the purpose of this article, the term functions as an exemplary approach to multiracial naming rather than an idiosyncratic solution. Its significance is not as a singular and specific word but in the possibilities it presents for reconceiving the way we name racial allegiances and understand racial identities. When used as a critical tool, Cablinasian presents a challenge to racial categories by making visible multiple racial allegiances rather than reverting to a celebration of colorblindness…

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