Thursday, June 20, 2024

Whoopi Goldberg at a dress rehearsal for a Comic Relief event in 2006. (Photo: Archman8 via Flickr)

Conversations about race in America are our third rail. It trips us all up. Whoopi Goldberg proved it when she empathically stated the Holocaust was not about race on the television talk show “The View.” Goldberg viewed the Holocaust as a form of sectarian violence when she said, “This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves.”

In what was supposed to be Goldberg’s public mea culpa moment that evening on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” she further tripped herself up in the controversy by doubling down on her premise.

“I think of race as being something that I can see,” Goldberg said. “So, I see you, and I know what race you are.”

Goldberg’s misinformed notions about race were revealed in a conversation rebuking a Tennessee school district banning Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” – about the horrors of the Holocaust – from their curriculum. Her faux pas should have evolved into a teaching moment for America to have a robust conversation about the relationships between antisemitism, racism and whiteness.

It is understood that race is a social construct and not a biological fact. But the deleterious effects of America’s dominant black/white racial paradigm exclude other racial groups whose skin color and phenotype complicate the racist model. On “The Late Show,” Goldberg further expounded that Jews are white in a hypothetical situation, illustrating that the Nazis and Ku Klux Klan would be able to spot her and not them visibly.

“If the Klan is coming down the street … I’m gonna run. But if my friend decides not to run, they’ll get passed by most times, because you can’t tell who’s Jewish,” Goldberg said. “It’s not something that people say, ‘Oh that person is Jewish.’”

While it is true that most Jews in America are Ashkenazic and predominately white-skinned, how we view race today in America is very different than how it was viewed in Europe during the Holocaust. As a matter of fact, America’s racial caste system informed Nazi Germany. Both white America and Nazi Germany wanted to maintain racial purity. America’s system of Jim Crow laws on anti-miscegenation criminalizing sex and marriage between blacks and whites laid the legal groundwork for banning Jewish and Aryan marriages, which the Nazis called “race defilement” (“Rassenschande”). The Nuremberg Laws – the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor – were racist, antisemitic and separated Jews from society.

Many European Jews share the white skin of their oppressors, and 92 percent of American Jews describe themselves as white, according to a Pew Research Center poll in May. From an American perspective on race, white as a category erases racial differences and the struggles of European immigrants such as Hungarians, Italians, Irish and Greeks. Noel Ignatiev’s book “How the Irish Became White” illustrates how an oppressed group became part of a white racial class.

The privilege that America confers to white-skinned people obscures and complicates how some whites are harmed by an economic system that disempowers them and their support of public policies against the best interests of most people, including most whites.

The topic of race continues to be a messy one in this country. If Americans didn’t know the Holocaust was about race, they do now. I believe Goldberg’s heartfelt apology. Her confusion is ours, too. But sometimes, an apology is not enough. We must inform our thinking and change our actions.

For example, Goldberg lauds herself as a friend to the Jewish community because of her friendships, associations and stage name. One’s allyship to a marginalized community doesn’t mean it should go unchecked, though. Since this controversy, many are now querying Whoopi’s appropriating of a Jewish-sounding name – Goldberg is an African American woman named Caryn Elaine Johnson, and with no Jewish ancestry. Johnson adopted the name “Whoopi Goldberg” as her stage name because she identifies with Judaism. “I just know I am Jewish. I practice nothing. I don’t go to temple, but I do remember the holidays.” In reverse, many African Americans would want Whoopi to explain further.

Goldberg, until now, thought of Jews as white, not a race. I agree that Goldberg should be suspended from the show to reflect.

The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.