Sergio García blunders around linguistic minefield of race in the US

Golf is a sport full of landscapes deliberately designed to catch its top players unawares. Sneaky sand traps, water hazards and stands of trees are all put in place with the aim of forcing an error.

But Sergio García has blundered into far more hazardous terrain: the cultural landscape of race and language in modern America. Asked last week by the Golf Channel's Steve Sands if he would have Tiger Woods over for a meal during the US Open, Garcia said: "We'll have him round every night. We will serve fried chicken."

America's diverse ethnic and racial makeup has many different cultural expressions, one of which is cuisine. For many Americans, fried chicken is part of the "soul food" diet of the Deep South and black America. García's reference that Woods might be served that – rather than, say, filet mignon or pizza – was seen as a blunt racial reference akin to asking him if he wanted water melon or putting on a fake black accent.

Certainly, Woods took it that way. "It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate," Woods said. García rapidly backtracked too, ringing Woods's agent and publicly apologising. "I feel sick about it and I feel truly, truly sorry," he said at a press conference.

But that was just the beginning. In trying to defend García, the head of the European Tour, George O'Grady, said: "Most of Sergio's friends are coloured athletes in the United States." In America – where the media and politicians alike are acutely sensitive to the use of language around race – that remark was explosive. The word "coloured" in America has a difficult history. Though once common parlance, it is now seen as acceptable only for older black Americans to use. Suffice to say, O'Grady is not an elderly black American.

Jen Slothower, a writer for the sports website NESN, put it succinctly: "Little could be done to make the situation worse after Sergio García went way over the line in his feud with Tiger Woods, but [O'Grady] has found that little and done it," she wrote.

Yet on some level it is no wonder that mistakes are made, especially by non-Americans seeking to navigate the extraordinary divisions of race and ethnicity that still define much of American society. After all, one of the most esteemed civil rights groups in America is called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The phrase is also used elsewhere, such as for a lawyers' meeting held last month called The Midwest People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference.

But, experts say, that simply shows one of the key rules of discussing race in America: who is saying something matters just as much as what is being said. Thus, black Americans and their community organisations can call themselves coloured, but O'Grady cannot. An even more stark example is the common use of the "N-word" by black rappers, but when non-black celebrities use it – such as the famous case of Seinfeld actor Michael Richards – their careers are destroyed.

"When a white person uses a word like 'coloured', it has associations with the Jim Crow era of segregation in the South when signs on bathrooms and water fountains would say 'colored only'," Professor Carl Nightingale, an expert on race in America at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says.

Indeed, it seems that there are often entirely different words and phrases, and indeed accents, that can be deployed by some Americans as they seek to navigate this cultural, social and linguistic minefield. Many observers of Barack Obama have noticed that the president can sometimes speak in different ways to different audiences. In 2008, while running for president, he created a stir by visiting a restaurant in Washington DC and telling a black cashier to keep the change by saying: "Nah, we straight." It was a formulation of black slang and accent that Obama would never use with a white audience. "He has a whole style of words, accents and gestures that he uses when he talks to black audiences," Nightingale says.

Of course, white people cannot do that. If they make race-specific comments or mistakes – such as references to fried chicken or coloured people – they will generate offence. García explained that he was just joking. But the rules of racial language in the US do not make exceptions for humour.

Powered by article was written by Paul Harris in New York, for The Observer on Saturday 25th May 2013 22.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Alan Bruce