Whoopi Goldberg’s Holocaust comments warrant greater discussion

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United Nations Photo | Flickr

Mia Gindis

Comedian and co-host of ABC’s “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg, was suspended for two weeks for saying the Holocaust “isn’t about race.”

Goldberg became the center of controversy after making troublesome comments during a roundtable discussion about a Tennessee school district’s decision to ban “Maus,” a graphic-style novel depicting the Nazi death camps during World War II.

“The View” co-host Judy Behar said that schools shouldn’t shy away from having uncomfortable conversations surrounding the Holocaust, and by extension, surrounding race.

“If you’re going to do this, then let’s be truthful about it because the Holocaust isn’t about race,” Goldberg responded. She then added that the Holocaust, a term which refers to the genocide of approximately six million European Jews and five million others, involved “two White groups of people” and was about “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Though none of the co-hosts were visibly fazed by her statements, a dialogue was immediately sparked off-screen, with many prominent Jewish leaders condemning Goldberg for her inflammatory comments.

“In her error, she was reflecting a misunderstanding of Jewish identity that is both widespread and dangerous that is sometimes described as erasive antisemitism,” Kenneth L. Marcus, chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, said. “It denies Jewish identity and involves a whitewashing of Jewish history.”

Later that evening, Goldberg defended herself during a guest appearance on the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” explaining that her perception of race is based on skin color or something that can be visually evaluated.

“This wasn’t based on the skin,” Goldberg said. “You couldn’t tell who was Jewish. They had to delve deeply to figure it out… My point is, they had to do the work.”

There is currently no standing, coherent definition of race. Our conception of what constitutes “white” or “Black” is largely the outcome of social context. The delineations of race, and even its function and significance, can vary greatly from society to society.

So, Goldberg is not entirely wrong in alleging that skin color is one of the biological metrics used to establish someone’s race; she does, however, miss the mark by claiming it’s the only metric by which to do so.

Language, geography, and culture are all no less important in placing someone’s racial identity. But again, these qualities only function as markers of race because we have assigned them as such.

Take Judaism, for instance. There have been long-standing debates about whether the monotheistic religion can also be simultaneously thought of as a race, nationality or culture.

Some describe Judaism as an ethnic religion, meaning that all Jews share their ethnic identity as a result of both shared religion and shared Jewish ancestry. Though a Polish Jew might not possess many physical similarities to an Ethiopian Jew, the two will still have a substantial overlap in their cultural traditions and history.

According to Nazi ideology, however, a Jewish individual was of an entirely different race than an Aryan. And no, Goldberg, they didn’t have to delve too deeply to distinguish one from the other.

The Nazis could tell by their accents, by the pesky Yiddish words that were like cracks in otherwise smooth, German prose. They could tell by the kink of their hair, the bridge of their nose. They could tell by where they lived and where they studied; they could tell by who they knew, who they loved.

“Racism was central to Nazi ideology. Jews were not defined by religion, but by race. Nazi racist beliefs fueled genocide and mass murder,” the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington tweeted in response to Goldberg.

The tweet also contained a link to the museum’s online encyclopedia, which states that the Nazis affixed negative, racial stereotypes unto Jews that were allegedly rooted in biological inheritance.

Does this prove that Judaism is a race? No. It simply showcases just how the boundaries surrounding race can fluctuate. This volatility necessitates a great deal of nuance from any discourse surrounding the matter.

Such nuance, unfortunately, is precisely what Goldberg lacked. Her on-air blunder immediately incited a media frenzy, eliciting strong responses from Jewish people and non-Jewish people alike.

One such reaction was that of TikTok user @fierymasala, who posted a video in which she spoke over a side-by-side comparison of a dozen German and Jewish individuals.

The woman claimed she could not spot a “racial difference,” a phrase she likely intended to be interchangeable with “difference in skin color.” The video has since been deleted.

The controversy also rocked the Twitter-verse. “Whoopi was right it wasn’t about race when both cultures are from European decent,” user @wadejr_20 tweeted.

These comments, fueled by Goldberg’s ignorance, are indicative of a larger issue. In recent years, “The View” has garnered a reputation as one of America’s political TV shows, drawing an audience of about three million per episode.

Thus, the comedian’s comments don’t just hurt — they matter.

A platform as big as Goldberg’s means that her words carry a lasting influence. The spreading of misinformation about a community that already accounts for nearly 50% of all reported hate crimes is shameful, to say the least.

But just as importantly, Goldberg has further muddled the already complex, loaded discourse surrounding race that we have yet to have as a nation.

The good news, however, is that she’s certainly got the ball rolling. This controversy has pointed a spotlight on a race that has been waning since the riots in 2020, and many are jumping to correct Goldberg’s mistake.

“We’re going to keep having tough conversations,” Goldberg said upon her return to the show.

Hopefully, next time, she won’t forego the nuance.