Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
2 February 2022

Stephen Bush

What Whoopi Goldberg got wrong about race and the Holocaust

Race is not just about skin colour. And it’s not a black-and-white issue.

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. 

Content from our partners
Why competition is the key to customer satisfaction
High streets remain vitally important to local communities
The future of gas

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.

[See also: Attacks on George Soros show the right is out of ideas]

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

Topics in this article: , ,