As a Black Jewish woman, Whoopi Goldberg’s suspension from The View saddened me

It wasn’t smart and it wasn’t right, but it’s painfully clear how easy it was for Goldberg to misspeak like that. I’m glad she’s taken the time to apologize and learn

Victoria Gagliardo-Silver
New York
Wednesday 02 February 2022 18:40
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<p>Whoopi Goldberg</p>

Whoopi Goldberg

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Whoopi Goldberg has been suspended from The View, a talk show she hosts in which she and a panel of other women debate current events and interview celebrities. Goldberg’s suspension will last for two weeks, and was handed down due to recent comments she made about the Holocaust while on air.

During a round-table discussion on the banning of the book Maus — a graphic novel that is set during the Second World War — by a Tennessee school board, Goldberg stated the Holocaust wasn’t rooted in race, but rather “man’s inhumanity to man”. She defined European Jewish people as white, while her co-hosts protested that the Holocaust was indeed about race as the Nazis defined Jewish people as an inferior race to non-Jewish people. Disbelief and outrage followed. But, while many are up in arms about both Goldberg’s comments and her subsequent suspension, as a Black Jew with a background in sociology, I can say that the topics of race, Blackness, and Jewishness in America require a certain level of nuance and historical understanding.

As a Black Jewish woman, I understand Black people face more discrimination based on the color of our skin, something white Jews don’t. That is not to say that Black people necessarily face more discrimination overall, but that we are more immediately obvious to racist people when we walk around on the street. Whoopi Goldberg identifies as Jewish as well, which is why her comments left a particular sting for some. Personally, I have experienced more anti-Black racism than antisemitism during my day-to-day life in the US. All of us come to this conversation with some level of personal experience that informs how we react to discussions about history and race, and I can imagine that’s the same for Goldberg.

The academic and social commentator Cornel West has spoken in the past about a concept called “racial reasoning”, the idea that individuals tend to agree with and support other members of the same race based on their assumption of their shared lived experience. To a Black woman, what looks like white violence against white people for their religion may not immediately seem like racism when their lived experience of racism is based on Blackness in America, as Goldberg explained during her recent interview with Stephen Colbert. “I think of race as being something that I can see,” she said. “So, I see you and I know what race you are.” On a later statement released on social media, she wrote: “As Jonathan Greenblatt from the Anti-Defamation League shared, ‘The Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people - who they deemed to be an inferior race.’ I stand corrected.”

Is Goldberg’s lived experience wrong? Absolutely not, but it does lack the historical context that shapes why she sees European Jews as white and the Holocaust as “not about race”. And it’s encouraging that she was, and remains, willing to be educated.

Race is a social construct shaped through politics, economic, and social influences. It’s understandable to see most Jews as white in a modern context. But what Goldberg was missing was the historical context that the whiteness of Jews is a modern perception. The Holocaust wiped out a third of the world’s Jewish population through vicious, violent, and inhumane means solely because their goal was to eliminate what they called “the Jewish race”. To trivialize such horror while saying, “This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves” is clearly harmful, but it also clearly came from a place of ignorance, not malice. What Goldberg, and much of America — as 63 percent of people under 40 in a survey didn’t know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust — needs is a comprehensive education on antisemitism, the Holocaust, and the Jewish struggle.

What Goldberg failed to understand was not only that is Judaism an ethno-religion, but the notion of Jews of European descent as white in America was only accepted approximately 80 years ago. American whiteness, as a concept, is relatively new to Jews. Jews were often targeted as scapegoats and publicly seen as the root of America’s problems prior to the Second World War. Conspiracies that Jews drank the blood of Christian children and that they have control of the country’s money and the media can be traced back to the Middle Ages. These weren’t isolated beliefs, but publicly accepted notions, and still are in some circles today. Who could forget the Republican obsession with George Soros during Trump’s presidency, and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s bizarre Jewish space laser? Neo-Nazis are an ongoing problem in the US, and they certainly don’t see Jewish people as white, even if the mainstream population now ordinarily does.

As a result of the antisemitism they faced, Jews were forced to assimilate and integrate themselves in American culture or be at risk. Jews took English classes where they learned “to be Americans”: how to dress, what customs to follow, what languages to speak, all while their European families in their home nations were being slaughtered for their religion and race. Young Jewish women still often opt to permanently straighten their hair and are often gifted nose jobs as graduation gifts to make them look more Eurocentric — not just because of Hollywood aesthetics that prize non-Jewish white beauty to the exclusion of other races, but because looking “too Jewish” poses danger. After all, 57 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes are against Jewish people despite Jews making up just 2 percent of America’s population. Holocaust denial rates increase every year.

Much like the true brutality of slavery and the violence perpetrated against civil rights activists, the reality of antisemistim in America is rarely mentioned in schools. Like anti-Blackness, it has rarely been discussed in the mainstream media, either.

I don’t blame Goldberg for her misinformed thoughts on the Holocaust, especially as she issued a genuine apology and is willing to do the work to learn, and I don’t think you should either. “It [the Holocaust] is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race,” she said in her updated statements. “Now, words matter, and mine are no exception. I regret my comments, as I said, and I stand corrected. I also stand with the Jewish people.”

In a world with rampant white supremacy, I believe that disenfranchised people we need to band together, rather than push for further divides. And if Whoopi wants to learn more, I’m always free for a coffee chat.

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