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The lessons we can learn from Whoopi Goldberg's Holocaust comments

Whoopi Goldberg caused a storm this week with some rather ill-thought-out comments. Appearing on the January 31st episode of The View, ABC’s daily talk show, which Goldberg has featured on since 2007, the actor was drawn into a discussion on the Holocaust, if only initially by proxy.

The panel were discussing a recent story that had made headlines in America. As the show is called The View, its unique selling point is digging into the news lines that are doing the rounds each day, much like the Jeremy Vine or Loose Women here in the UK. The panel’s story on this specific day regarded a decision made by a school board in Tennessee to ban the lauded Art Spiegelman graphic novel, Maus

A postmodernist work, Maus was conceived by Spiegelman as a means to interview his father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, about his horrific experiences in the Second World War. Given that the themes of Maus aren’t for the lighthearted, the Tennessee school board claimed their decision was made because they felt that its depictions of profanity, nudity and suicide is inappropriate for 13-year-old children.

Introducing the segment on Maus, Goldberg was right in her assertions. She explained that she was shocked that the profanity and nudity is the main factor that made people uncomfortable and not the horrific story. She said: “It’s about the Holocaust, the killing of six million people, but that didn’t bother you?”.

The panel then rightly questioned if this was actually a question of people trying to cover up history that makes white people look bad. Afterwards, the discussion turned to a trend in American schools, one which seems to point towards censorship. Co-host Ana Navarro spoke of a bill moving through the Florida legislature about banning any conversation in schools that makes people feel uncomfortable because of their race or gender. On the other hand, she noted the draconian ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill that is also in motion in Florida banning LGBTQ conversations in schools. 

Although the implications of the aforementioned points are multi-faceted, personally, I think it alludes to the fact that people are shirking their responsibility or their children’s responsibility to be made uncomfortable.  It’s a point that co-host Sunny Hostin made eloquently: if you start banning discussions, people will never learn empathy and understanding. These are all hard lessons, but they’re more than necessary. 

Then we got to Goldberg’s comments. The panel had made some very pertinent points before Goldberg said, “Let’s be truthful about it, because, the Holocaust isn’t about race.” Holding her ground against the protest of her co-stars, Goldberg maintained that she believed the Holocaust is actually “about man’s inhumanity to man”. 

Navarro argued the contrary, saying it’s about “white supremacy”. Despite this, Goldberg replied by stating that “these are two white groups of people”. Elsewhere, the actor said: “This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves”. 

Even if Goldberg’s comments were enough to make your skin crawl, she didn’t stop there. The day after, on February 1st while appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the Sister Act star drew further criticism by maintaining that the Nazi’s issue was with ethnicity and not race. 

Let’s be clear, Goldberg never denied the scale or the outright horror of the Holocaust. However, her reading of the worst case of mass murder in history was more than skewed. Possessing a very naive modern understanding of racism, and this is not her fault, whereby race is mainly about the colour of your skin, she forgot the main underlying factor of the Holocaust: it was all to do with race. It was the systemic destruction of one race by another race that saw itself as superior. 

This is what Goldberg overlooked, and in doing so, she understandably enraged many people as her comments diminished what happened in The Holocaust. If you were to ask Art Spiegelman or his father about the reasons why the Nazi’s committed such heinous crimes against humanity, they’d tell you that race was the underlying factor. The Nazi’s were the mouse despicable racists in all of history. Shockingly, this is a point that many people seem to be forgetting in the modern era. Remember Charlottesville?

David Baddiel, a comedian and one of the UK’s most prominent Jewish voices on why anti-Semitism is racism, made some pertinent points when appearing on Good Morning Britain. Picking apart Goldberg’s account of The Holocaust, he said: “One of the principal things going on here is the resistance to the idea that anti-Semitism is racism”.

Baddiel dispelled the widespread myth that Anti-Semitism is a religious topic, adding: “The Nazi’s were not interested in faith. They were interested in racial purity, that’s what The Nuremberg Laws were for, they were racial purity laws.”

He then rubbished Goldberg’s claims about the Holocaust being about to subsects of white, stating: “The whiteness of Jews is a very complex thing. I used this phrase in the book called ‘Schrödinger’s White’, Jews are seen as white or non-white depending on the politics of the observer.” Detailing further, Badiel explained: “So far-right groups, for years and years, centuries, have seen Jews as not part of the white races, it was absolutely part of Hitler’s project to say Jews are not part of the Aryan white races.”

David Baddiel has responded to the Whoopi Goldberg comments. (Credit: Alamy)

He didn’t end there. “But meanwhile, on the other side, on the far-left, the association of Jews, which is a racist thing, with power and privilege, makes them kind of ‘Super White’… it’s similar to be honest, in the Black Lives Matter thing with saying ‘All Lives Matter’, because it takes away from the specifics of the racism to something very bland and general”. 

Baddiel concluded: “What’s going on here is actually a very particular type of genocide. She talked on Stephen Colbert’s show about ‘two sides fighting’, this was not two sides fighting. This was an ethnic group being marked out to be destroyed by a military-industrial machine.”

During another interview with ITV news, Baddiel summed up his earlier points, adding: “I think that Whoopi Goldberg’s sense of it is deeply ahistorical and based on a thing that happens in America, I think, where racism is very ring-fenced, just for people of colour”.

In a follow-up statement, the day after, Goldberg admitted: “I feel being black, when we talk about race, is a very different thing to me.” Confirming Baddiel’s point, Goldberg also said that she’s always thought of race as “something that I can see”. Goldberg has since apologised for her comments and corrected herself, adding: “I said the Holocaust wasn’t about race and was instead about man’s inhumanity to man,” Goldberg said on The View on February 1st. “But it is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race”.

Continuing, she said: “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 as they know and y’all know, because I’ve always done that”.

As part of the show, Goldberg interviewed the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. “There’s no question that the Holocaust was about race. That’s how the Nazis saw it as they perpetrated the systematic annihilation of the Jewish people across continents, across countries, with deliberate and ruthless cruelty,” he said in no uncertain terms. 

Significantly, Greenblatt then illustrated how Jewish people don’t fit into the binary, black and white view of race that is the hegemon in the US. The anti-Semitism that Jews face is just another form of racism, he explained. 

“Hitler’s ideology, the Third Reich, was predicated on the idea that the Aryans, the Germans, were a master race and the Jews were a subhuman race. It was a racialised anti-Semitism,” he expressed. “Now that might not fit exactly or feel different than the way we think about race in 21st century America, where primarily it’s about people of colour, but throughout the Jewish people’s history, they have been marginalised, they have been persecuted, they have been slaughtered, in large part because many people felt they were not just a different religion, but indeed a different race.”

When taken together, Greenblatt and Baddiel’s comments tell us a lot about Whoopi Goldberg’s misfire. America has a binary view of race, unlike in Europe, where there are many different racial groups that would all be classed as ‘white’ if using America’s racial perspective. In this sense, does this mean that America needs to educate itself on race and the Holocaust? It would seem so. However, if we take this point one step further, you’ll see that Goldberg’s comments indicate a much broader issue. Her comments suggest that American schooling might need a shift in perspective or risk losing a grip on the truth. 

On Monday’s episode of The View, the discussions of censorship in schools was rather worrying. We haven’t shied away from these challenging topics in the past, so why should we now? In some ways, you could relate this to the toppling of statues of slave traders in the UK. 

The establishment and elements of society can’t cover these things up, as we need to learn about them. Children need to know about the Holocaust, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them, as it is essential to make sure that it never happens again. On the other hand, the UK authorities can’t arrest everyone who wants a statue of a slave trader pulled down, or who pulls it down, as to do so basically sides with the slave traders. 

Goldberg’s comments tell us a lot about the state of contemporary society. We need education, and we need it with warts and all. As Greenblatt said in another interview, it’s not about cancelling, it’s about counselling. 

Watch Goldberg’s original comments below.