Race and the World Chess Champion

We have a new World Chess Champion. Magnus Carlsen, who I’ve mentioned before on the blog, is a young Norwegian grandmaster with a fascinating playing style. He beat the Indian world champion Viswanathan Anand in Chennai this week. I read the following warmup for a game in the series:

Carlsen is white and Anand black, and Carlsen will be looking to turn the white … advantage into a victory.

(I’ve clipped a key word out to make it more relevant to discussing…)


I noticed something else this week. After a computer game review that savaged the game for its racist content, the comments filled with white folks complaining that the game couldn’t be racist, because it a) wasn’t actually hurting anyone, and b) the creators didn’t intend to insult anyone. I wondered why the sudden battle over the definition of the word, why the comments had nothing to say about the actual ‘racism’ and everything about whether it was intentional.

Intent seems to matter mostly to people who benefit from privilege. Because the most important thing to them is to feel like they are not racist. They are reasonable people, who don’t hate anyone, so how can anything they do or say be racist? They want to make absolutely clear that they. are. not. racist.

Whatever racism means, it isn’t them. Whatever problems racism is supposed to indicate, they are are not part of.

So the myth of the white-hooded, cross-burning racist continues. To be racist you have to deny the promotion of the asian employee, out of conscious racial malice. You have to punch the hispanic student, specifically for hatred of that culture. You have to lynch the nigger.

As long as privilege gets to define what is problematic behavior, what deserves to be labelled and challenged, it remains in control. It can reserve its labels for the extremes, and avoid being challenged as it ensures its privilege continues. By and large, white guys write the dictionaries.

The “thing-that-white-folks-are-sure-isn’t-racism” is made of inertia, the toleration of inequity, the excusal of injustice and the perpetuation of privilege. A toxic mess that no individual causes or holds the blame for.

Thinking these things reminded me of that racially-ambiguous quote from the chess world championship. I asked an old school friend, and keen chess player, whether he could quantify the ‘white advantage’. About a fifth of a pawn, was his guess.

I don’t think of myself as racist. Does anyone? I don’t think of myself as part of the problem. But I have to concede I go into every match with, at minimum, a fifth of a pawn advantage. If that’s not racism, then I’m not sure the word is very useful.

How about you? Are you willing to admit you’re racist, and to try to identify how? Or is racism someone else’s problem, as perpetrator or victim?


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5 responses to “Race and the World Chess Champion

  1. While driving my kids to school this week my daughter said, “All the girls think Soren (my son’s fictitious name) is cute … well, except the ones that think he is a racist.”
    “What!??” I said.
    My son quickly explained: “I told an Indian girl that she had a big nose and she called me a racist.”
    To which i replied, “But if you told a white girl that, you’d have just been an asshole. Right?”
    To which my kids started laughing and my son said, “Exactly!”

    As for me, I am a bit of a bigot — I actually prefer large noses — I love those on Arabs and Turks.

    So am I a racist — well, I am certainly a person of privilege in a some senses and not in others.

    Today I took took my buddy’s daughter (from Chennai, actually) to a movie with my daughter and watch people stare at me with my pasty white and dark brown girl and try to figure it out. Then, after the movie I joined my buddy and his wife at their house over Chai and talked about cultural issues. ‘Tis a pain in the ass to be both small and dark brown in our part of America — but their salary is four times my families so they don’t really care.

    But I do think “Small people, got no reason to live!” (Randy Neuman)

    So you tell me, am I a racist — if you think I am, you can kiss my pretty white and hairy ass. 😉

  2. I’m sorry; but that person who said that about chess was an arsehole, and you can quote me on it. Any two colours can be used to indicate the sides in a game: green/blue, red/yellow, etc. He was an idiot, pure and simple, creating an argument out of nothing. The players I am sure did not have any “hidden agenda” in their tournament. BAH HUMBUG! I am not sure if this is a problem that has been aided and abetted by Deconstructionism or Socrateanism Run Wild; but, it definitely does more harm than good when good people always have to be looking over their shoulders for these mosquitos.

  3. Ian

    Julia – that’s probably my fault. The quote had nothing whatsoever to do with race. I thought it amusing because, except for one word (which I removed above), it would have been ambiguous, given that Carlsen is white and Anand black. Of course, in a chess championship, both players play both sides, so the quote was a pure fluke.

    What it did serve is as a metaphor for privilege though. How two parties can be playing by the same rules, but one can have a systemic advantage. Carlsen won with black: playing black, even though disadvantageous, is not absolute. Just like Sabio’s Indian friends with their wealth and success.

    So I fear I gave you the wrong impression about what I was saying! Sorry.

  4. juliaergane

    I realize that “white” has the advantage, though it really does not matter much in a Masters level game. I play chess (very badly). I have just experienced so much Political Correctness run wild in the misapprehension that Nihilism is our new philosophy that I can get a trifle like Grumpy Cat and not take in my claws. And, by the way, I do not believe in the concept of race at all on the biological level. Residents of the Indian sub-continent are ethnically Indo-European for the most part.

  5. Ian

    I agree, race has almost nothing to do with biology. It is a cultural construct. There was, when I was little, a good degree of racism in the UK against the Irish. Its difficult to imagine a group of people more similar.

    Just being really pernickety, the color advantage in chess tends to be more important in top level games. Because in a high level game participants are less likely to throw away a fifth-of-a-pawn advantage. But that’s being pedantic.

    Thanks for your comment, and thanks for following up.

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