Whoopi Goldberg has had to apologise after saying that the Holocaust “isn’t about race”, and has been suspended from the US talk show The View for two weeks.
She is half right: the Holocaust was not “about race” – rather about racism: millions of people, many of whom thought of themselves as solely German, Austrian, Dutch, Polish, Hungarian, Czech or Greek and not Jewish at all, were ruthlessly hunted down using census records, birth certificates and whatever documentation the Nazis could lay their hands on to kill Jews as Jews. Some of the dead were even committed adherents of other religions!
To see the murder of six million Jews as not about racism, and the murder of Gypsies and Roma by the Nazis as not about racism, is a category error. So why has Goldberg made it?
The underlying problem is that some people want to see racism as a simple matter of black and white. In Goldberg’s view, race is something “you can see”. When Adolf Hitler described Jews as a race, he was, according to Goldberg, simply lying: spreading a falsehood in order to justify man’s inhumanity to man. Race is about skin colour.
One problem, of course, is that “what you can see” depends on the context. Put me next to my biological mother and we are very different colours, but we look very alike. My aunt doesn’t look much like me but she does look like my mother. My mother doesn’t look like my grandfather but my aunt does. Add my great-grandparents to the picture and suddenly we look like a family with a shared genealogy. It’s wholly arbitrary whether or not you regard me, a person of mixed-ethnic heritage, as a “white” person like say, Jeff Goldblum, or a “black” person like Whoopi Goldberg: I don’t look like either of them, and I am a different colour to both.
The other problem is that this view of the world can’t adequately explain either racism in the past or in the present. Here in the United Kingdom, the ethnic group that experiences the most prejudice are people from a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller (GRT) background, although in terms of skin colour alone, many from this group look effectively white. A recent study by the University of Birmingham found that 44.6 per cent of British people felt either “negative” or “very negative” towards people from a GRT background, while the British government’s own ethnic disparity audit consistently found that people from a GRT background were the most likely to face racial prejudice and experience.
But the third is this: “what you can see” is not a useful yardstick when you are assessing the opinions and actions of a racist. A racist is, ultimately, someone who “sees” something that isn’t there.
If your starting point in explaining racism is that it is only about what you can see, then your explanation will ultimately fail, either to describe historic events or to tackle racism in the present.