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?