Words like “nigger” and “slave” have specific connotations in the English language. Both are laced with historical context and should not be used casually.
A good example of the word “slave” being used in a questionable context, can be seen in the sport of golf between Tiger Woods and his former caddie, Steve Williams.
Bob Hariq, Senior Golf Writer for ESPN, ran a story about Steve Williams new autobiography called: “Out of the Rough”, which chronicles his life as a caddie in the game of golf. It’s important to note that a big part of a professional caddie’s responsibility is to carry golf clubs and provide yardage estimates to the golfer in helping him/her determine how far to hit the next shot. Caddies are often hired as independent contractors and being able to partner with a professional golfer is a great opportunity to travel the world and if they’re lucky, work for an elite player — and make a lot of money.
In this regard, Steve Williams struck gold. As Bob Hariq notes in his column, Mr. Williams was Tiger Woods caddie during one of the most dominant stretches of golf excellence ever witnessed. Mr. Williams was on the bag for 13 out of 14 majors won by Tiger Woods and conservatively estimated to have earned over 6 million dollars during that timespan. But as the saying goes, all things must come to an end. Their 12-year partnership ended with Mr. Williams being fired by Tiger Woods, the reason given that: “it was time for a change.”
Although Mr. Williams reported to be initially “shocked” by the news, he also acknowledged that changes in caddy is not uncommon: “A player has the right to fire a caddie at any given time,” Williams told The Associated Press from his summer home in Oregon. “And for a player when he’s not playing at his best for extended period of time, it’s not uncommon to change caddies, coaches, psychologists or bring on a psychologist. We all know the business. I have no problem being fired. But I’m disappointed in the timing of it.” However, Mr. Williams disappointment was later expounded on in follow up statements and interviews that suggest his ego was bruised and felt disrespected. Mr. Williams also suggested that his loyalty was underappreciated as Tiger Woods was battling through injuries and personal struggles related to reported marital problems and adultery.
Which brings us back to the book. Mr. Williams not only discusses his opinions on Tiger Woods transgressions off the golf course, he expressed discontent with some of Woods behavior on the golf course. Here’s an excerpt: “One thing that really pissed me off was how he would flippantly toss a club in the general direction of the bag, expecting me to go over and pick it up,” Williams wrote. “I felt uneasy about bending down to pick up his discarded club, it was like I was his slave. The other thing that disgusted me was his habit of spitting at the hole if he missed a putt.”
Firstly, anyone who has watched Tiger Woods play golf over the years, have seen these actions occur with regularity. However, anyone who has watched golf on TV or experienced it in person, can also tell you about golfers breaking golf clubs in anger, tossing balls and clubs into the water surrounding the golf course, using profanities, slamming hats and golf clubs on the ground in disgust and so on. These visceral expressions of disappointment in this highly stressful and solitary sport are widespread, and how they reflect on the sport and the athlete is open for debate.
Often times, it is the caddie who picks up the pieces or plays a role in trying to get the golfer refocused on the task at hand. This is why Steve Williams comments — seen in isolation — could be misleading in trying to help a reader understand Tiger Woods idiosyncrasies in relation to other golfers who play recreationally or at the highest level.
Secondly, and most reprehensibly – was Steve Williams analogy of discomfort with certain caddying responsibilities to slavery. His statement suggests there were times Mr. Williams felt a degree of unnerving subservience in responding to the peculiarities of his boss. But the utterance of these words reflect a man of profound historical ignorance, insensitivity and understanding of the horrors of enslavement and the depths of human suffering that embodied that experience.
One would hope if Mr. Williams knew the Middle Passage had millions of African people shackled in chains, packed like sardines, living in their own feces and urine for an unwanted journey across the Atlantic Ocean for weeks at a time, he would have used a different choice of words. One would hope if Mr. Williams knew the African Holocaust came with the selling of millions of men, women and children into a lifetime of work without pay, horrific working conditions, daily experiences of flogging, rape, murder and familial separation, he would have expressed himself differently.
When events result in mass carnage, death and suffering, those affected by it are often hypersensitive to the language used surrounding the subject, and rightly so. My awareness of the horrific experience of the Jewish Holocaust informs me to not make jokes or insensitive references to it. My awareness of seeing men and women choosing to jump out of the World Trade Center at 1000 feet to their immediate death instead of dying through the inferno of fire, calls for empathy in its rawest form, not casual analogy. The enslavement and holocaust of African people should be given the same courtesy and sensitivity.
Steve Williams was an independent contractor who made millions working with Tiger Woods and could have walked away at any time. But he didn’t. In the end, he was fired. Upset about it? Okay. Irritated? Fine.
Tiger Woods represented many things for Mr. Williams, but a slave owner is not one of them.
Writer, trained Social Worker and Mental Health Therapist. Husband, father and anti-racist at my core.