I “see” Whoopi Goldberg’s point, but while I can’t say she’s right, I also can’t say she’s wrong:
I feel, being Black, when we talk about race, it’s a very different thing to me. As a Black person I think of something that I can see.
There are a couple of issues with Goldberg’s claim. The first and most obvious is that race has not always been reducible to skin color. Irish migrants were regarded as an “inferior” race, subject to relentless stereotyping and disdain, when they arrived in the U.S. in the early 19th century.
I was astonished when I learned that in an undergraduate class with my then-favorite professor. Like Goldberg, like probably most people, I thought of race as something I can “see.”
Of course, that probably has something to do with why my then-favorite professor, a Black man, made a point of raising this in class. And despite the simplistic response of a television network to the controversy, it would seem that even Jews are not of a single mind on whether they are a race. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report:
Adolf Hitler repeatedly referred to Jews as a race rather than a religious group in his writings leading up to and during the Holocaust, and the debate over whether Jews are a non-white race has raged for centuries before that.
The problem is that race is a social construction. It has no biological basis. As I recall from another undergraduate class, biology informs us that the differences among a race exceed those between races, which is to say that the boundaries between races are far from sharply defined.
And this ultimately is the problem: There is no objective definition of any race that clearly distinguishes it from any other race. So I don’t get to say Goldberg is wrong. Nor can I say she’s right.
The nature of a social construction is that it defines a term by common consent within a group. It is entirely conceivable that Black people might define race in a different way than Jews do and even if their definitions completely contradict each other, I cannot say that either or both are wrong.
Which means that the opprobrium that Goldberg is enduring—she has been suspended from her role on a television program—strikes me as arbitrary and capricious. This is not a simple binary with an absolute objective truth.
And people should stop treating it that way.
- Whoopi Goldberg, quoted in Shira Hanau, “Whoopi Goldberg apologizes for Holocaust race comment — but doubles down in saying Jews are not a race,&rdquo Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 1, 2022, https://www.jta.org/2022/02/01/culture/whoopi-goldberg-apologizes-for-holocaust-race-comment-but-doubles-down-in-saying-jews-are-not-a-race↩
- Gabe Friedman, “Are Jews white? Is Whoopi Goldberg Jewish? ‘The View’ Holocaust controversy, explained,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 2, 2022, https://www.jta.org/2022/02/02/culture/are-jews-white-is-whoopi-goldberg-jewish-the-view-holocaust-controversy-explained↩
- Shira Hanau, “Whoopi Goldberg apologizes for Holocaust race comment — but doubles down in saying Jews are not a race,&rdquo Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 1, 2022, https://www.jta.org/2022/02/01/culture/whoopi-goldberg-apologizes-for-holocaust-race-comment-but-doubles-down-in-saying-jews-are-not-a-race↩
- Philissa Cramer, “ABC suspends ‘The View’ co-host Whoopi Goldberg over Holocaust comments that ignited a firestorm,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 2, 2022, https://www.jta.org/2022/02/02/united-states/abc-suspends-the-view-co-host-whoopi-goldberg-over-holocaust-comments-that-ignited-a-firestorm↩