Racial Whoopi

Just a few quick thoughts about the whole Whoopi Goldberg & race thing. Not about how or whether she should be punished – I don’t really have an opinion about that, and am happy to not have an opinion about that. But Whoopi’s comments are not unusual, and similar thoughts have emerged, publicly or privately, ever since we started questioning the idea of race, many decades ago. I come at this from a position of some self-education and a lot of historical gaps and ignorance, so please feel free to reach out with suggestions or corrections.

If race isn’t real, how can racism be?

Seems like a reasonable question, but it’s like saying, if money isn’t real, how can we prosecute bank robbers? My mantra: Context is Everything. Money has no value on its own, but since it represents real things, or can be traded for real things, it represents “value” to us. Science has proven that race cannot be delineated, and is therefore objectively nonexistent. Race is socially constructed, and the classifications change over time and over geography, but because we recognize it as a real thing, we identify ourselves as members of a “race” for purposes of forming community and preserving tradition, and we can identify others as a “race” for purposes of exclusion, violence, etc. We can prosecute racial hate crimes upon people who are identified as a certain race if the intent was to attack a certain marginalized group, even if that group is wrongly identified and even if race is a false construct. The federal definition of hate crime includes crimes committed on the basis of the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin (the latter three are all characteristics that have been conflated with race).

And when Hitler killed 6 million Jews in pursuit of a dominant Master Race, that was racism, even though Jews are not a race. (The “master race” part should have been a clear signal to Whoopi Goldberg. If you’re going to choose the name “Goldberg” maybe learn a little more… about…?) The religion was almost irrelevant, since non-religious Jews were murdered, as well as Christians with one or two Jewish grandparents. Would I have been killed in the Holocaust based on my “race”? I have two Jewish grandparents who were culturally Jewish until they moved to a place with no Jewish culture. My mother had no connection with Jewish culture or religion from childhood to late adulthood, but is currently engaged with a Temple. I am a Buddhish atheist who has never even attended a Shabbat. Still, I am considered Jewish by a lot of people, including Jews. I can’t speak to Whoopi’s experience and processing mechanisms, but I can speak, a bit, to the historical scrutiny of Race as a concept in books like Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and Nell Irvin Painter’s A History of White People. Whoopi’s assertion that white people can’t commit racist acts against white people makes sense if you remove the complexity of the word “racist” and if you ignore the historically malleable definition of White. “White” has at times excluded not only Jews (“Semitic”), but Irish (“Celtic“) and darker-skinned Italians.

Humans can decide to hate whatever they want, and justify it however they want, so consistency shouldn’t be expected. Racism against people of African origin is based largely on color, though the one drop rule, which would include many people unidentifiable as African through either skin color or “African” features, was an economic and therefore political decision. (It could be argued that most racism is economic in nature.) Asian racism in the United States is centered on both physical features and any sign of an accent. It’s not entirely xenophobia, because it extends to citizens who have been in this country for generations, have no accent, and practice Western religion. Anti-semitism is founded more in cultural prejudice[i], though, as with the Irish and other “races,” defenders of the exclusion have attempted to identify physical characteristics or “deficiencies” identifiable in the Jewish Race. We currently have a rather unique racism tool in use, in which criticism of Israel, a country, is decried as antisemitic, predominantly, though not exclusively, from the political right.  

The Tutsi and Hutu races in Rwanda have no real basis in science – originally lighter skinned, taller Rwandans may have descended from a different group than darker-skinned, shorter ones, but the centuries of living together completely blurred that distinction), but centuries of prejudicial treatment and shifts in power led to a racial genocide, even though those races were entirely constructed out of nothing. As all racism is. The Rwandan genocide has been largely recognized as such, even though there is no real “national, ethnic, racial, or religious” difference between the killed and the killers. As defined by the UN, “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

I don’t doubt that the Genocide of Native Americans jumps to mind when reading this. It has not officially been identified as such, because to do so would require legal action be taken in punishment &/or reparation.

And I can’t close this post without mentioning the horrific killing of Amir Locke at the hands of Minneapolis PD, which most of us identify as racism, whether structural, personal, or most likely a combination of both.

I won’t insist that it isn’t confusing to classify these countless prejudices and crimes as racism but I don’t think that confusion is a bad thing. Sometimes racism is actually religious bigotry, sometimes colorism, sometimes cultural supremacy, sometimes nationalism. The further we dig into racism, the more arbitrary is reveals itself to be and the less sense it makes. If we actually examine and openly discuss how racism is formed and how it manifests, I think we can slowly work ourselves away from it. Unfortunately, the trend in this country has been towards more opacity, less discussion, and shutting down education that addresses race, gender, and anything else that might make people uncomfortable. Which was why Maus was banned, and what broached the topic that led to Whoopi’s statement. So perhaps I should thank her for that.


[i] In my opinion. Obviously there’s the whole Jews killed Jesus thing (notably absent: Jew is Jesus), but when Christians started borrowing money from Jews (because their religion did not allow them to loan money themselves) Jews became an easy enemy, and the intellectual elements of Jewish study perhaps made it easier for them to excel in profitable careers that Christians found culturally threatening. Feel free to argue that it’s more a religious bigotry, but it’s hard to understand the vast hatred of a religion that doesn’t evangelize, doesn’t go after people of other religions, and pretty much keeps to itself.  

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