Sergio Garcia's Accidental Racism

The PGA player says he didn't mean to be racist in his "fried chicken" comment about Tiger Woods—and that's why it will probably follow him for the rest of his career.

One cool thing about saying something bigoted is you can always deny it was your intention, and thus perserve some amount of face—at least in your own mind. Fuzzy Zoeller said of Tiger Woods:

"The little boy is driving it well, he's putting well," Zoeller told reporters, adding, "You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year." He then walked away, but turned back and said, "Got it? Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve."

When confronted, Zoeller—despite the "Whatever the hell they serve" tell—was shocked to find people suspecting that he might have said something racist, lamenting that "something I said in jest was turned into something it's not."

Some years later we find Sergio Garcia making another fried-chicken joke about Woods and surprised to find himself accused of racism:

I answered a question that was clearly made towards me as a joke with a silly remark, but in no way was the comment meant in a racist manner.

Garcia has since gone on an apology tour, all the while declining to say that he made a racist joke. Ian Crouch has a good piece up on how bigoted remarks follow people and why:

On Wednesday, Garcia held a news conference, during which he offered another apology, and attempted to explain himself: "As soon as I left the dinner, I started getting a sick feeling in my body. I didn't really sleep at all. I felt like my heart was going to come out of my body. I've had this sick feeling all day."

Part of Garcia's "sick feeling" must surely, if we are to take him at his word, stem from his regret at offending people—though his claim that he felt swiftly guilty does undercut the argument that he was unaware of the racial connotations of the reference.

That visceral, sudden sinking feeling also suggests something else: that Garcia, a veteran global sports celebrity, knew almost instantly that his offensive words were something that would very likely remain with him for the rest of his career and beyond, regardless of the passing of time and the force or number of subsequent apologies.

One reason the comment will dog Garcia is because he will never cop to what he actually did. In certain eyes (mine) Ron Paul will always be the dude who would countenance white supremacy as long as it advanced him politically, and (much worse) lacked the courage to confront this fact.

Crouch contrasts Garcia with Tim Hardaway, who did exactly that:

Many of the stories (mine included) that noted Collins's bravery pointed to the negative things that former player Tim Hardaway had said in 2007 about the prospect of gay players in professional basketball. Hardaway later apologized. But unlike some athletes who do only what they have to in order to save what they can of their careers, his was not just the compulsory apology. He went on to work with gay-rights groups, to learn why what he said was wrong and to make a real effort to atone for it.

He had undergone, as he said in 2011, a true "change of heart." Recently, he told the Palm Beach Post, "What I did say was terrible, and it was bad and I live with it every day. It was like a bully going to beat up people every day." And in April, he reached out to Collins and offered him his support. Now, when gay athletes come out of the closet, there will be a sentence about Hardaway and what he said—but below that, there will be another, about what he has done, and said, since. His cruel statements cannot, and should not, be erased, but they mean something different today than they did then.

One reason people do not want to cop to bigotry is simply because of the shame. We consider bigotry through the lens of morality. I think this approach is unhelpful as it declines to confront that fact that bigotry exists for actual reasons beyond being "you are a meanie." But be that as it may, no one wants to be shamed. And worse, they don't want to have to do, as Tim Hardaway did, any actual work. Admission is actually only the first step. Its the having to actually do something about it that hurts.