Whoopi Goldberg awkwardly demonstrates how the idea of race varies by place and changes over time

Whoopi Goldberg awkwardly demonstrates how the idea of race varies by place and changes over time

On “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Whoopi Goldberg said, “I don’t want to make a fake apology.” Youtube
Robyn Autry, Wesleyan University

Whoopi Goldberg, co-host of ABC’s “The View,” set off a firestorm when she insisted on Jan. 31, 2022 that the Holocaust was “not about race.” Hands outstretched, she went on to describe the genocide as a conflict between “two white groups of people.”

As someone who writes and teaches about racial identity, I was struck by the firmness of Goldberg’s initial claim, her clumsy retraction and apologies, and the heated public reactions.

Her apology tour on her own show the next day, on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and on Twitter raised more questions about her views on race, antisemitism and the Holocaust. Goldberg also seemed unaware of the non-Jewish victims of the Nazis. By the end of the week, the president of ABC News described Goldberg’s remarks as “wrong and hurtful” and announced that she was suspended from the show for two weeks.

How did a conversation about the controversial banning of the Holocaust graphic book “Maus” by the Tennessee Board of Education, which Goldberg opposed, turn into such a media spectacle? And what does it tell us about the social norms guiding how we talk about race and violence?

Filling the void

Sociologist and American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jonathan Markovitz defines “racial spectacles” as mass media events surrounding some racial incident that is passionately debated before dying down.

Think of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s apology to the Cherokee Nation after taking a DNA test. Markovitz argues that the lack of ongoing public conversation about racism fuels these events, leaving Americans to react intermittently to shocking violence and salacious confessions. While it’s not bad that these events get people talking about race and racism, Markovitz worries that what is learned is limited because emotions tend to run high and these moments quickly fade from the news cycle.

In the absence of sustained national dialogue, shows like “The View” and comedians like Goldberg can easily become lightning rods. The American public often overestimates their ability to unpack complicated social issues. Are they public intellectuals or entertainers? Critics might also ask why someone like Goldberg, who has already demonstrated odd thinking about racial identity and a willingness to defend racist acts, would have such a huge platform in the first place. But this isn’t just about Whoopi Goldberg.

Let’s clear up a few points: Race is an elastic social category, not a fixed biological one; Jewish identity and experience are not synonymous with whiteness; and Jewish people have historically been treated as a distinct racial group. The Holocaust was the systematic genocide of some 6 million Jews from 1941 to 1945, fueled by the Nazis’ belief that they were an inferior race. Other victims included Poles, Roma, gay men, lesbians and others.

The Holocaust is one of the most extreme and tragic examples of what sociologists Michel Omi and Howard Winant referred to as “racial projects.” In their work on racial formation, they used that term to describe how racial categories are formed, transformed and destroyed over time. In other words, the fact the Jewish people themselves may disagree over whether they are a racial or ethnic group does not undo their long history of being categorized and marginalized as such.

Still, it is unsurprising that an American, perhaps especially a Black one like Goldberg or myself, would think that race is about skin color given how it plays out in our lives. As a graduate student studying racial violence and collective memory, I was stunned to learn how ideas about racial difference varied wildly across societies and how those ideas could morph within the same society over time.

I learned that race is a social idea that is propped up by observable traits, only one of which is skin color. The racialization of Jewish people may not be about complexion, but physical markers are still often used to differentiate and stereotype the Jewish body.

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It is also important to understand ongoing antisemitism in the U.S. and efforts to deny that the Holocaust even happened. Goldberg’s remarks were clearly the sort of “excitable speech” that gender theorist Judith Butler writes about, disorienting us by bringing violent histories to bear on us today. The way we talk about the past matters – as does the way people are held accountable for misrepresenting it – because so much of it helps to explain the contours of existing conflict.

Another lesson

At the same time, dismissing Goldberg’s comments and the backlash would mean missing an opportunity to appreciate what can result. For example, in light of the recent controversy, the Anti-Defamation League announced it will revise its definition of racism to include both race and ethnicity.

In this moment, people are talking about Jewish identity, racism and a violent history we’re meant to “never forget.” But they’re also talking about Blackness.

What can we make of the frenzied rush to chastise and publicly ridicule a Black woman for talking about race in the wrong way? On the one hand, this is similar to other celebrities condemned for racist speech whose apologies get scrutinized.

Yet, the Goldberg affair feels different to me. It reignites a recurring suspicion that Black people, while oppressed, suffer from twisted bigoted racial thinking – that Black people are not innocent victims after all. When a Black celebrity makes racist remarks, suspicions reawaken that perhaps it is a collective failing. This sort of projection of individual acts onto an entire group as if it were a shared trait is anti-Black.

Yes, many of us think Goldberg got it horribly wrong. And yes, her apologies made matters worse. There are better ways to think and talk about race and racism.

But observers shouldn’t be surprised when these conversations go awry, considering how little time is spent openly having them in the first place.The Conversation

Robyn Autry, Associate Professor of Sociology, Wesleyan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

Video Courtesy of CBS News


The investigative news agency ProPublica released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.

White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the civil rights movement.

Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”

To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.

The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.

One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”

Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.

Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.

Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?


Video Courtesy of NBC News


The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.

It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogenous white congregations ever bring it up.

In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.

They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.

Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.

Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among black women, or the racial wealth gap.

No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.

White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race— at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.

What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?

No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.

If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)