It’s so convenient being White: the conversation we should be having about Whoopi Goldberg + the holocaust.

Recently Whooopi Goldberg got herself into some hot water when she claimed that the holocaust “wasn’t about race,” but rather “man’s inhumanity to man” and an issue between two groups of White people.

She apologized profusely, then made everything pretty much worse on a late night talk show and is, as of this writing, more than one week into a two-week suspension from The View to think about what she said. (This is a great breakdown of the story, if you’re unfamiliar.)

Like most honest and real discussions about race, this is messy, and here’s why: race is a potent tool of the powerful and the oppressive, and Whiteness is a fluid identity of convenience.

In other words, groups of people are assigned Whiteness — or denied Whiteness — depending on who wants to control them, and who’s in the room at any given time.

Whoopi’s comments are pointing to a larger truth that is paradoxical, complex, and nuanced. Since we as a public seem unable to have these conversations — we get mired down in binary and extreme positions — we told Whoopi to sit down and shut up, rather than dive deep into a conversation that could help all of us heal.

That’s not to say Whoopi’s comments weren’t problematic — of course they were.

But we had a very typical White response as a nation: shut up, Whoopi. Stick out your hand to be slapped, go be quiet, and don’t force us to have a conversation about something as slippery and uncomfortable as Whiteness in America.

Because ultimately that’s what Whoopi was pointing to: Whiteness — which really hates to be seen.

So let’s break down some of the complex issues that Whoopi’s poorly delivered comments pointed to and try to find the nuance underneath.

Of COURSE the holocaust was about race…

This is undeniable and unequivocal.

It was a systematic and systemic attempt to eliminate particular groups of people (primarily Jews) based on an arbitrary set of conditions that someone decided would be called their “racial identity.” (People were also murdered for their faith, ethnicity, and sexuality, among other things).

Then, as a super fun group project, the Nazi’s systematically went about working hard to dehumanize Jews and other groups with propaganda and lies in order to get the average German to go along with their horrific plan.

If I really need to explain this to you, we’ve got a whole other problem.

Hitler and his minions often talked about race and racial purity, and were obsessed with creating an “ideal” race of people. He assigned the Jewish people a different race and then called it inferior.

Which is a very typical White thing to do.

The point, though, is this: ultimately this was about power.

Many things went into Hitler’s rise to the head of the Nazi party, including economics, disenfranchisement, and a boatload of psychopathology.

Cruelty may have been Hitler’s gig, but what he really wanted was ultimate power. That’s what made race — and Whiteness — a convenient tool to be assigned or denied a group of people regardless of their skin color.

…and race is a made up idea and is completely contextual…

What makes it so difficult to talk about race — and why Whoopi so thoroughly stepped in it — is that for most people, race is contextual, and has been since its inception.

In other words, a person can be assigned Whiteness in one room, but not in another.

For example, my Irish ancestors, when they first came over from across the pond, were not considered White.

This is a favorite card to play among those White people who love to exclaim how they are Totally Not Racist™

…but what they forget is that even as those ancestors may not have been allowed in one restaurant, they could very easily go down the block to the local Irish pub…

…and refuse an Italian (never mind a Black person) entry because they weren’t White enough.

Culturally, this is convenient, because colorism allowed the Irish to lose their accents and assimilate into Whiteness very easily.

Within one generation, they could benefit from all the privileges and power Whiteness had to offer. They could now be assigned Whiteness by the society around them, opening doors of opportunity that will never be offered to people with darker skin.

Many Jewish people — though obviously, not all — are also able to assimilate into Whiteness, even as they experience blatant antisemitism, racial oppression and violence from people who don’t consider them “White enough.”

There is a particularity to the type of colorism and racism that people with dark skin experience.

And there is a particularity to the paradoxical embodiment of those Jewish people who are assigned White by the culture around them, and yet can still be deemed not White at a moment’s notice — and be in very real danger because of it.

Each of these experiences are valid, real, and different.

…but race is also embodied and visual…

While I don’t speak for Whoopi, part of what I think she was trying to point to is that racial identity, even though it is a construct, is one that is often (but not always) based on embodiment and visuals.

Within marginalized communities, there are identity markers that can remain invisible unless we choose to reveal them. For example, many (but not all) members of the LGBTQ+ community can, if they opt to, never publicly reveal their sexuality.

Other identity markers — often those that have to do with expressions of culture (think hijabs or yarmulkes, for example) can be removed or expressed selectively.

But others are visibly embodied — they are visible aspects of our physicality and can’t be changed.

Skin color is primary among these attributes, and it’s impossible to hide. This type of embodiment goes before us, carries a ton of baggage, and creates dynamics before we even say a word.

My dear friend Jeff once told me, “Look, I know I have tall, thin, White male privilege and that’s the first thing anyone sees when I walk into a room long before they ever know I’m gay.”

For members of marginalized communities who are assigned Whiteness, it’s so important to understand the power of our embodiment and how it plays out in relational and sociological dynamics.

…so Whoopi was right about some stuff…

When Whoopi made the point that if she and a Jewish person were being chased by a member of the KKK, they’d target her first, I can’t say she’s wrong.

She’s pointing to colorism — a quick and easy tool for a White supremacist to identify a target. It’s a valid truth, and one that we all need to acknowledge:

The darker a person’s skin is, the more likely they are to be targeted, marginalized, and oppressed with a particular and unrelenting vengeance.

This is why when White people try to claim proximity to oppression by claiming how their ancestors were also not considered White, it gets wearisome…

…because it takes such mental machinations to miss the point so intentionally.

But what’s also true is that the Jewish people — including those who are assigned Whiteness — are still being persecuted, still in danger, still being oppressed because of their identity.

There is no comparison between the immediacy of danger that Black and Brown bodies face every day in this world, and frankly I’m out of patience with White people who try to ignore this.

This is a key tenet of White pseudo-supremacy and I believe White people — including those of us from marginalized communities — have a deep responsibility to care for our BIPOC siblings by addressing colorism at every opportunity and in multiple ways, with unrelenting dedication…

…and it is also the responsibility of all of us to fight anti-semitism with every ounce of our breath and being.

Because none of us is free until we are all free.

As long as swastikas are being drawn on the sidewalk in front of the local synagogue, we can rest assured that Black and Brown bodies are also in danger.

As long as Black and Brown bodies suffer police brutality and other systemic violence, I can promise you that no Jewish person will be free.

Whoopi is also correct in saying that the holocaust is about humans treating each other inhumanely.

That is the crux of White pseudo-supremacy, in all its forms.

Look at any colonizing entity or oppressive force, and you will see in its propaganda the dehumanization of the marginalized, the animalistic attributes that Whiteness will give to those it wants to dominate.

The Nazi’s did it to the Jews and the Romas; the British did it to the Irish; White Americans still do it to Black people. (Warning: Links will disturb you if you have a soul.)

…and she also got a whole lot wrong…

When Whoopi said the holocaust was about two groups of White people, she got a whole lot wrong.

Not only were there many people of all different races murdered in the holocaust, but the Jewish diaspora is wide and varied and — shocker — not all White-bodied.

This is important to note, not just because Whoopi’s comments were factually incorrect, but also because they point to a bigger problem:

this binary idea that there’s an Us, and a Them.

An I, and an Other.

And that when we speak of Them, they are monolithic and fit neatly into categories.

This is exactly the stuff that holocausts and genocides are made of. This is the foundational ethos that undergirded slavery, Jim Crow, and the systemic brutality to which Black and Brown bodies are subject.

…which is important, because it distracts us from the point and we don’t #NoticeTheSystem

The bigger issue at play here is the fact that Power is in operation and it’s keeping us distracted.

Hitler knew he could rise to ridiculous heights of power if he got the average Joe and Jane scared of each other. What Power wants us to do is stay busy arguing over who suffers the worst oppression.

While it is absolutely important to recognize and acknowledge the particularities of our suffering under the oppressive structure of the White heteronormative Christian patriarchy, if we get stuck there, we run the risk of missing out on our collective power.

But in order to do this, we need to let Whoopi speak — even if she does so poorly — and listen deeply to her and others who may — even inadvertently — point us to the system of Power that is oppressing all of us.

We need to pay attention to the rising rates of anti-semitic violence, and take heed.

We need to notice the ways in which Black and Brown bodies are unsafe in our communities and do something about it.

Most of all, we need to learn how to hold what seems to be paradoxical: that depending on what Power wants to accomplish, you can be White-bodied and the victim of White supremacist racial violence.

That you can be told all your life that you are not White, and still be Whiter than Black and Brown folks (and therefore embody power and privilege).

And that if we all just stop for a hot second and look up, maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of the White wizard behind the scenes pulling all our strings for profit, and begin to save our vitriol for him.

If your organization needs help discussing the complexity of Whiteness and racial dynamics, I can help! Schedule a free call to talk about my workshops and consulting, or check out my website here.

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Kerry Connelly

Kerry Connelly

63 Followers

Trained professional coach working at the intersection of spirituality + justice (with a whole lot of Woo thrown in there, too.)