What We Can Learn From Whoopi Goldberg About Race

I keep a photo of my grandfather’s elementary school class – taken 100 years ago in El Paso, Texas – in my office. It reminds me of elements of where I come from and who I am. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week, as the controversy over Whoopi Goldberg’s remarks on The View about the Holocaust and race unfolded.

That photo means so very much to me because when we talk about race in the United States, I never forget that in the racial categorization of Texas in the mid 1920s, my grandfather – born in Mexico and mostly of Iberian ancestry – was neither White nor Black. He identified, and was seen by others, as Mexican-American. Under the rules of segregation in Texas, he was assigned to a third school system, neither White nor “Colored” but Chicano.

Much has been said this week about what Whoopi got wrong, about the timeline of her apologies, and about her suspension from The View. I’m of the mind that the suspension was a mistake, coming as it did after she expressed her regret on air and brought the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt on the show, where he provided the most succinct two minutes of Holocaust education that I’ve seen on national television in a long time, and demonstrated that the Holocaust was, in fact, about race.

What intrigues me here is not the specific need for more Holocaust education that has been underscored this week. Clearly it should not be up for debate that the Holocaust was about race. The very topic that Whoopi was addressing when she made her problematic remarks – the removal of Maus from a school curriculum in Tennessee- could have illuminated this. As others have pointed out, this now classic volume opens, on its very first page, with a quote from Hitler:

“The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”

Case closed.

But what interests me is the reason why many Americans make the mistake of thinking that the Holocaust wasn’t about race; that it was a “white on white” genocide (it wasn’t). My sense is that the reason is not that most Americans need more Holocaust education, including reading Maus, though they do.

The reason Americans bungle this conversation is that when we talk about ‘race’ we talk about the American construct of race.

The American conversation about race starts with the hierarchy established in this land over 400 years ago to separate Europeans from enslaved Africans. People were, and in many ways still are, categorized along a spectrum of White and Black rooted in that historical construct. You are Black if you present Black, no matter how much European ancestry you have. And you are categorized as White when you present White.

But in the European construct of ‘race’, where it is assigned to the “other” outside a particular collection of ethno-national, and, yes, Christian, tribes, Jews are in fact perceived as a race unto our own. And even as a common European identity is being formed in recent centuries, when the topic of racism is discussed in places like Britain or France, as in Germany before, we Jews are placed on the side of the other. Its why a brilliant British, Jewish, atheist writer like David Baddiel can go on national TV and talk about anti-Jewish racism (read his book – Jews Don’t Count, and check out this interview he gave on Good Morning Britain about Whoopi).

“White” in America isn’t just about where we come from. It’s also about how we are categorized and allowed to present. For my grandfather, it didn’t matter what his largely European ancestry would have said, it mattered how he was categorized, and he was categorized as belonging to a group that, in the Southwest, was then segregated into a third system. My mother –mostly Iberian, partially Basque, ¼ Native American, and 100% Mexican-American, – is “White presenting”, to use her own words (I use the term “presenting” as distinct from “passing” which is a whole essay unto itself). And the same DNA tests that show half of my ancestry to be her mix of origins, also shows me to be of my father; 50% “Ashkenazi Jew”. Because Ashkenazi is a distinct genetic marker, different from the Poles, Germans, Hungarians and others around them.

But when they got to this country, those Ashkenazi Jews, a racial “other” in Europe, were largely allowed to present as White in the way America categorizes people. So sure, most of the Jews who Whoopi knows present, in the United States, in the lens of White, as Americans are taught to understand it. And yet, those same Jews – most of us – come from a deeply embedded experience as the targets of racism in Europe that goes back for centuries. So I can appreciate why education was needed to understand that yes, most Jews in this country “are” White (though hardly all of us) and yet, also, persecution of Jews – historically as we’ve experienced it, and currently – is still racist.

As I’ve written before in other context, when we try to understand the world beyond America’s shores through the American construct of race, we fail to understand the rest of the world accurately.

That’s not to say that there aren’t things to learn about each from the other. As Isabel Wilkerson thoughtfully lays out in her book Caste, both Nazism and Segregation had a legal and systemic structure of racial categorization. In fact, the Nazis observed and learned from American race laws, in their design of the Nuremberg laws to categorize and oppress Jews.

But understanding the racism of the Holocaust through an American lens of racism means you will get both of those wrong. And understanding other parts of the world through the lens of America’s racial categorization means that we don’t understand them either.

There are enduring evils in this world. I’m reminded on this first day of the Beijing Olympics that the regime hosting these games is concurrently committing a genocide against the Uyghur Muslim people. It’s horrific. It should be condemned. And there are comparisons to be drawn between the complicity of participants in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and this week’s gathering. But we as Americans won’t understand what’s happening in China, or the history of genocide – by Ottoman Turks against Armenians, by Rwandan Hutu against the Tutsi minority – or other forms of ethno-national conflict in the world, if we only view them and discuss them through an American prism of racism. We must at least acknowledge that the American construct is for an American context.

I say all this to encourage us to elevate this conversation, to illuminate the complexity of how we get into public debates like the one we saw this week, and to argue that we can do better at honoring both the Black American experience of racism, and the Jewish experience of racism, without diminishing either.

About the Author
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. He has been published widely, including in the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Forward, Zeek, Sh’ma, and the Washington Post: On Faith. The JTA included him in their 2010 “Twitter 100” list of the most influential Jewish voices on Twitter.
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