From a very early age we’re taught, however subtly, that white is good and black is bad. It’s good versus evil. Day versus night. Chocolate versus vanilla. Elvis versus all the guys Elvis got famous covering.
In the game of chess, one color is black and the other white. By definition, the other color, be it white or black, is “bad” since the object of the game is to win. (Forgive me if you’re one of those people who plays chess for its social aspects).
That’s all well and good. It’s just subtle socialization that we as adults can see through except, perhaps, in the case of the game of Othello.
If we know anything about the Shakespearean tragedy Othello — and let’s be honest, most of us don’t know much — we know that the titular character was black.
For years, I knew nothing about the play. And about the game, I knew only that it involved black and white pieces. In my family’s quite extensive board game closet, we filed Othello somewhere between Stratego and Life. There may have been something there, but no one was ever going to take the time to actually play it.
Then sometime in some high school English class, it hit me. “Oohhhh, that’s why it’s called ‘Othello.’” It made sense. It just didn’t make sense.
You could say, oh well, maybe some
bigoted normal-for-the-time friend of Shakespeare’s came up with it long ago and it’s just too hard to change it. Nope. It was a conscious decision to call it “Othello.”
For our purposes, all you have to know is that it is a strategy game that has elements similar to chess and checkers. The point is to corner and capture the opponent’s pieces, which results in the piece being flipped over — from black to white or white to black. The player who ends up with the most pieces at the end wins.
Okay, fine. Black wants to “kill” white, and white wants to “kill” black. What does that have to do with Othello?
As it turns out, there’s debate over whether Othello was “black” at all. Debate among academics, that is. Most of us, however, are not Shakespeare scholars and, I would imagine, have long internalized Othello as a “black man.” Seeing as how the play is subtitled the “Moor of Venice,” he calls himself “black,” and the definition of a Moor is someone of at least dark-skinned ethnicity, this isn’t the craziest idea in the world.
Also for our purposes, all you need to know about the play Othello is, as Britannica put it, “that, as an older black man, he [Othello] is no longer attractive to his young white Venetian wife [Desdemona]. Overcome with jealousy, Othello kills Desdemona.” That’s some serious drama.
So it seems that our perceptions of the character are what are incorrect. “Moor” does not necessarily mean “black” as we modern-day Americans see it. He could have been what we, for lack of a more precise term, might call an “Arab.” Needless to say, he’d probably have been stopped at airport security.
The problem is that we still harbor those incorrect perceptions. At best, the name of the game is too “on the nose.” At worst, it’s perpetuating racial stereotypes.
In these terms, the only thing better (read: worse) than the game Othello was the now-defunct “Shoot the Freak” attraction at Coney Island. Though there may have been others, the few times I saw it, the “freak” was a black man, which is just sublimely absurd.
Is there any real damage done by this game being named “Othello”? Probably not. Doing a little stereotyping of my own, I’d bet that anyone who made the connection between the play and the obscure game is also keen enough to take it with a grain of salt. It just boils down to the fact that they didn’t have to call this game “Othello,” yet they still did, racial baggage be damned. Now for some “Lone Ranger” reruns.