Whoopi Goldberg’s Holocaust Remarks: What America Still Doesn’t Understand

Actor and comedian Whoopi Goldberg recently spoke about the Holocaust, proving how difficult it is to talk about racism in societies that have distinct experiences. Indeed, the perspectives of the U.S. and Europe are entirely different.

Just a few days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the issue of understanding the Holocaust, what it looked like, and what the premise of it was, is again making headlines. This is all thanks to actor and comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who, speaking on “The View,” a popular American television program, said that the Holocaust had nothing to do with race.

These remarks are not unique and should not come as a surprise, because although the debate over race is still heated in the U.S., it doesn’t mean that understanding the issue has improved. Listening to the discussion, one can observe that people assert there is no racism when it involves white people acting against other white people. As Goldberg said, “It’s not about race … These are two white groups of people.” Indeed, many Americans view racism solely through the lens of white supremacy and violence against people of a different color.

What Racism Means in the US and Europe

From a European point of view — and especially for countries that vividly remember World War II — statements like these are often surprising and even outrageous. After all, it cannot be denied that racism was an element of Nazi ideology, and the white color of one’s skin in no way protected European Jews or Slavs from persecution. One can even find extreme examples of that argument online, where there are those who claim that despite being a victim of the Nazis, Anne Frank still enjoyed “white privilege.” This focus on skin color means that many Americans do not view antisemitism as racist.

This enormous difference of perspective, which is revealed by Whoopi Goldberg’s remarks, shows how difficult it is to talk about race in societies with different experiences. American and European perceptions of race are diametrically opposed. For example, people of Hispanic origin, who are considered a racial minority in the U.S., would be mostly viewed as white in Europe. Racism as an ideological attitude only appears to be based on science and fact but is actually founded on irrational premises and self-contradiction.

How To Teach about the Holocaust

The differences in perspective will only get worse. Goldberg made her remarks in a discussion about the withdrawal of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” from a school reading list by a Tennessee county school board. The board voted to ban the book over concerns about language and nudity, but most commentators have no doubt this is part of a broader trend toward removing books and debate from American curriculums that conservatives find too polarizing.

The media have recently reported that schools and teachers in a Texas school district have been instructed to add content to libraries and reading lists that allows people to teach the Holocaust by “presenting arguments of both sides,” something that Texas law allows. But while this particular school district came under fire, similar incidents, especially incidents involving history instruction, are not isolated. In 2021, many states restricted school curriculums, focusing primarily on themes of systemic racism and racial privilege. The dispute over how to teach the subject is today the basis of an ideological clash between Democrats and Republicans.

Whoopi Goldberg Apologizes

Meanwhile, antisemitism continues to be a problem in the United States. The American Jewish Committee released a report last October showing that 1 out of 4 American Jews had experienced some form of antisemitism the previous year. In addition, about 40% of respondents altered their behavior so it would be more difficult to identify them as Jews. At least one attack on a synagogue occurs every year. The last one took place on Jan. 25 when several people were held hostage. In the context of these events and this data, it’s not difficult to see that antisemitism and the problems associated with it are not merely a historical matter. The issue is further complicated by the fact that contemporary antisemitism is finding an ally in the criticism of Israeli policy, drawing on old anti-Zionist tropes.

Goldberg immediately apologized for her remarks, but the TV network suspended her shortly afterward so that she could further reflect on the Holocaust. This is probably not the best solution because it reduces ignorance or inappropriate perspective to a matter that deserves to be punished. Meanwhile, it’s evident that the most important thing here is education. Both viewers and Goldberg would have been better off if the station had produced a special episode of the show explaining how the concept of race varies at different times in history and among different societies.

When American media report on “Polish concentration camps,” the reaction of Polish authorities and institutions is incredibly quick and efficient. It is a pity that in situations where no one calls on Poland by name but refers to events that are so close to our history and so meticulously analyzed by our researchers, the reaction is not as quick or as loud. You can’t deny that if there are any scholars who can talk about how the Holocaust was related to race, they are in Poland.

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