As Vanity Fair Cashes In, Tiger’s Image Gets Tossed Into the Gutter

Now there is yet another woman with whom Tiger Woods is linked who is not his wife. Her name is Susie Phipps.

Phipps was born in Louisiana and married to a rich crawfish merchant. When she applied for her first passport in 1977, she was informed that she incorrectly designated her race as white. The state informed her that it changed her race to black because her ancestors included an 18th century white planter who impregnated a black slave.

Phipps protested that she’d grown up as if she was white all her life. She even sued the state.

Tough luck, everyone told her. She was remanded to black status forevermore, no matter how she lived her life or with whom she slept.

Tiger learned Monday that he is a male Mrs. Phipps. Vanity Fair, a pillar in the virtually all-white magazine industry, refused his desire to be thought of even as Calabanasian, as he coined his mixed-race (Caucasian, black, Native American and Asian) heritage. It invalidated his white bona fides of being raised in the suburbs, mastering golf — the whitest sport of them all — and even marrying a quintessential Swedish woman, blond and blue eyed.

Instead, Vanity Fair returned Tiger to his late father’s dominant race: black.

How else can one explain the cover photo Vanity Fair unveiled Monday of a half-naked Tiger lifting iron with a skull cap topping his sullen mug? Tiger got O.J.-ized.

As Time magazine infamously darkened the skin of America’s once favorite (i.e. unthreatening) black athlete, O.J. Simpson, on its cover after he was arrested on a charge of murdering his ex-wife, Vanity Fair muddied the image of the Tiger we’ve had in mind until recently: the wholesome, clean-cut everyman; the original post-racial (whatever that is) American; Obama before Obama.

How does prison-yard thug grab you? It looks enough to have made Tupac pour out a little liquor.

The half-nude Tiger also harkened to the generations’ old image of the black man as something less than human, not unlike the Vogue cover shot two years ago of a raging LeBron James gripping the whisp-of-a-blond Gisele Bundchen, now Tom Brady’s wife and mother of one of Brady’s children.

The Vanity Fair cover isn’t so premeditated, though. It’s emotional reaction. The photo is four years old, as were six more tucked inside. Famed pop photographer Annie Leibovitz pulled them out of her vault and sold them to the magazine, which blew up whatever cover it was scheduled to print — feature magazine covers are planned months in advance – to hop on the Tiger bandwagon, which doesn’t so much as transport Tiger as run over him. (I admit to riding in it somewhere.)

That is one of the great ironies to this seemingly never-ending story about the first billionaire athlete. Ever since his fateful car wreck in the wee hours after Thanksgiving, Tiger is the only person not making money off of Tiger. Yahoo! Inc. CEO Carol Bartz crudely admitted last month what a boon Tiger’s tales are to Internet traffic. Now Vanity Fair, feeling the trembles in the wracked magazine business, is cashing in with a quick mock-up of heretofore unpublished partially nude photos of Tiger. Leibovitz can use a little extra loot, too. Late last year, she was reported to be near bankruptcy.

Tiger is now cash in comeuppance. All of a sudden, “the blacks” using their top pick to select Tiger in The Racial Draft on Chappelle’s Show, Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central show, is as prescient as it is hilarious.

Ever since Tiger embraced Nike’s idea to introduce him to the public as some sort of racial pioneer — “There are still courses in the United States that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin. Hello world. I’ve heard that I’m not ready for you. Are you ready for me?” Tiger said in that 1996 commercial — I’ve waited for him to live up to it. Instead, he’s wiggled out of questions about racial identity and opportunities to stand up against the good ol’ boys (see Augusta National) as deftly as he has the rough or a sand trap.

When I first broached the unraveling of Tiger’s stripes on Nov. 30, I wrote that “the commercial prophylactic that is sheathing his oh-so perfect image” will have failed when “one of the national magazines that puts him on the cover … darkens his tone.” My prediction came up short only because I expected it would have happened in the first week after his golf-club wielding wife Elin opened a Pandora’s Box of her husband’s life rather than just the back windows of the Escalade he wrecked outside their Florida home.

Still, at the rate Tiger is falling, he’ll need Ken Burns to sympathetically document his life in hope of creating groundswell support for a presidential pardon. Unforgivable Blackness, Burns’ film about the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson — who was imprisoned almost a century ago because of his romance with a white woman — generated a congressional request late last year to the Justice Department for Johnson’s pardon. Sadly, it was refused.

The Vanity Fair cover, however, was an easy prediction. This is what happens in America. Tiger isn’t the first person of color to eventually fail at redefining his identity. Neither was celebrated Harvard professor Skip Gates, who championed his Irish heritage in the PBS documentary African American Lives 2 before some Cambridge cops last summer threw him in the hoosegow for acting uppity. (He came to epitomize what Malcolm X famously said most of America calls a black man with a PhD.) Neither O.J. nor Mrs. Phipps were the first either.

This is something that’s been going on in this country for as long as most black folks can remember. Now everyone else can see the truth.

“I’ve always defended Woods’ freedom to call himself Calabanasian,” editor-in-chief Joan Walsh blogged Monday. “But Vanity Fair just proved the arguments of black people who dislike what they see as Woods’ racial dodge. He’ll always be black, but especially after he gets in trouble.”

Welcome home, Tiger. You long ago earned your PGA card. Now you can get the NAACP’s.


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