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Hello World: How Nike Sold Tiger Woods

How did a multinational corporation like Nike appeal to diverse markets without violating the principle of colorblindness that became increasingly and insidiously sacrosanct in the U.S. in the 1990s? A deconstruction of two infamous Tiger Woods ads sheds some light.

By Hiram Perez

If “Hello World” underscored the continued sanctions of Jim Crow on black success, the subsequent “I am Tiger Woods” campaign enacted a curious amnesia. Nike’s encore campaign situates Woods as the spectacular guarantor of racial democracy. The emphasis on Woods’s blackness is abandoned in favor of a focus on his multiracial heritage (presumably isolated from African American history?) that is then rendered universalizable; in other words, the fractional specificities that constitute the neologism “Cablinasian” (never mind its own performative singularity) are asked to authorize their dissipation into political anonymity. Woods’ racial particularity (never mind his racial ambiguity and the threat of contamination it embodies) becomes a racial everyman.

The logic of the “I am Tiger Woods” campaign, especially when read as a remedy for the originally offending “Hello World” ad, constructs Woods’ very existence (as the offspring of a black father and an Asian mother) as confirmation of racial progress. Earl Woods’ union to Kutilda, a Southeast Asian woman (a woman who is not black) symbolizes the full actualization of African American (male) formal and cultural citizenship. The conditions that allow for the union of Earl and Kutilda Woods are secured by US military occupation and neocolonialism in Southeast Asia. It is Earl Woods’ position as a Green Beret that allows him to meet his wife in the first place. I remain somewhat circumspect about abstracting Kutilda Woods into a representative role as a Southeast Asian woman’s body, especially as Nike’s campaign and Tiger Woods’ publicity machine so emphatically disappeared her in favor of publicizing a romanticized father-son bond. It is necessary, however, to consider how the Asian woman’s body functions within a US-dominant imagination in order to appreciate the peculiar role Kutilda Woods plays in the construction of Tiger Woods’ racial celebrity. While his mother’s identity was critical to fueling fantasies about Woods’ multiracial identity, fantasies that make “I am Tiger Woods” possible in the first place, her Asian body remains unassimilable, disruptive of Woods’ capacity to represent the nation even while mediating his embodiment of American racial democracy. I insist on foregrounding the history that brings Earl Woods to Southeast Asia in order also to acknowledge the disappearance of the Southeast Asian woman’s body writ large, both as an object of militarized imperial, racial and sexual violence and as the invisible labor producing the Nike merchandise that Woods promotes on and as his body. “Woods is a walking swoosh from the top of his hat to the heel of his shoe,” proclaims the European online magazine, Golf Today.5 But that material and iconic swoosh both have been mediated by the invisible labor of Asian women’s bodies.

Woods’s racial iconography, established during the 1990s, relies on eugenicist and euthanicist fantasies that together envisage the physical athleticism of the black male body disciplined by his mother Kutilda through her contribution of Asian blood and an imagined Confucian upbringing. The fulfillment of American democracy that Tiger Woods represents requires Kutilda Woods’ simultaneous presence and absence.

Nike’s backtracking following “Hello World” would be comical if not for the violence of the forgetting performed by “I am Tiger Woods.” The slogan of course recalls the conclusion of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, which shows black schoolchildren rising from their desks, each asserting, “I am Malcolm X.” However, the original and spontaneous moment of communal identification, expropriated by both Nike and Spike Lee, occurred as a response to the state-sanctioned murder of Fred Hampton, the twenty-one-year-old head of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, assassinated during a December 4, 1969 police raid. During a mass for the slain leader, a church-full of black schoolchildren rose one after another to declare, “I am Fred Hampton.” In order to set straight the political blunder of “Hello World” (assuming it was a gaffe and not part of an elaborate calculation in the creation and commercializing of Tiger Woods’ iconography), Nike transforms the communal reaction to the assassination of Fred Hampton into color-blind sloganeering.

While the first ad speaks to the continued reality of racial injustice in the United States, its sequel, quite remarkably, renders Tiger Woods into the proud realization of American racial democracy, which can then be exported to the rest of the globe. The various mise-en-scènes suggest both urban and rural poverty and implicitly link that poverty to racial difference. Yet each articulation of “I am Tiger Woods” simultaneously performs the evacuation of that reality. All of the children in the commercial presumably have the ability, with enough grit, to earn more than a billion dollars in their lifetimes. Nike positions Woods in this ad to represent the United States, to represent the world, and to represent the United States in the world.

From its onset, Woods’ racial celebrity was imagined as both important to the United States and a matter of universal consequence, sentiments best expressed by Oprah Winfrey during Woods’ first appearance on her show, in 1997, when she described him as “America’s son” but also pronounced, “He’s just what our world needs right now.”6 The ambiguity of “our world” in Winfrey’s proclamation, however, is evocative: “our world” here could mean the African American community, it could mean the United States, or the globe, or the very collapsing of all those worlds as a result of international communication and what Saskia Sassen describes as “the hypermobility of capital.”7 It is this latter possibility that Woods seems most willingly to represent, a kind of trademarked potentiality that is at once particular to US racial logics but also universalizable.

Woods actively resists the kind of politicized representation we encounter in the first advertisement, protesting for example, “I don’t consider myself a Great Black Hope. I’m just a golfer who happens to be black and Asian.”8 It is his identity as golfer and sports hero that translates internationally, but in that process of translation, his identity, of course, traverses numerous racial constellations. C.L. Cole also points out that Woods’ seeming de-politicization of his identity as “just a golfer” can function to screen the violence of US imperialism. “Woods is imagined to belong to no race and, therefore, no place in particular. Likewise, because he is imagined to represent America, from America’s point of view, he is imagined to represent the world.”9 After being named to the US Ryder Cup team, “Woods declared he was playing for the United Nations, not the United States.”10

While such a declaration may seem to represent nothing more than Woods’ claim to a multiracial heritage, it also speaks to the hypermobility of capital and the commodification of Woods’ identity for global merchandising. For instance, Cole points out that Woods’ name and persona are used to develop natural resources throughout the world into golf and tourist resorts that economically benefit only international investors and a local elite. Human rights lawyer Romy Capulong, protesting resort development promoted by Tiger Woods in the Philippines, argues, “Tiger Woods should be barred from entering the country … and from propagating golf. We have globalization, we have privatization, we have land conversion, all of these are just complete manifestations of US-dictated policies, mainly through the IMF and the World Bank, and now through the World Trade Organization. Land conversion, which the government and the capitalists call development, quote unquote, destroys cultures, destroys homes, communities, the environment, and doesn’t really bring benefits to our people.”11

1 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), xxvii.
2 Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson, Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh (London: Sage, 1998), 113.
3 Hiram Perez, “How to Rehabilitate a Mulatto: The Iconography of Tiger Woods,” in East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture, eds. Shilpa Dave, Leilani Nishime, and Tasha G. Oren (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 229.
4 For the first instance of Woods’ use of the term “Cablinasian,” see “Tiger Woods,” Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Productions, April 24, 1997.
5 “Tiger Woods signs huge Nike deal,” Golf Today, accessed May 4, 2012.
6 “Tiger Wood,” Oprah.
7 Saskia Sassen, “Whose City Is It? Globalization and the Formation of New Claims,” accessed May 4, 2012.…/Sassen–Whose%20city%20is%20it%3F.pdf
8 “Earning His Stripes,” AsianWeek, October 11-17, 1996, accessed May 4, 2012.
9 C.L. Cole, “The Place of Golf in U.S. Imperialism,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 26:4, (November 2002): 331. DOI:10.1177/0193732502238252
10 Ibid., 332.
11 Ibid., 334-335.