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Whoopi's Uncomfortable History Lesson

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

Tom Hanks hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in October 1988, starring in a game show sketch called “Jew, Not a Jew,” in which contestants had to guess whether a famous celebrity was Jewish or not. It is, as the announcer declared, “the game that all Americans love to play!” As Hanks’ character reminded the audience, “According to Jewish law, anyone whose mother is a Jew is a Jew…but for the purposes of our game, anyone with any Jewish lineage at all will be considered a Jew. Okay…hands on the buzzers!”

It’s a blunt bit of satire because yes, how North America treats Jewishness often feels like a game, with Jewish law clear but the majority rules changing all the time. When Jewish people serve whiteness (like if engaging in anti-Blackness), their religion becomes part of the “Judeo-Christian majority” but the moment Jewish people should advocate for themselves, they are suddenly regarded as a different, even ominous race. While white supremacy has relied upon assimilating groups like the Irish, Polish or Italians (to varying degrees of success) these past decades, the Jewish people have had a more dangerous relationship with the majority.

Whoopi Goldberg may not have recognized all that when she spoke about the Holocaust last week and subsequently got suspended temporarily from her daytime talk show THE VIEW. She disagreed with another panelist’s comments about the Holocaust and said it was “not about race…it’s about man’s inhumanity to man.” In 1930s Germany, the Jewish people and the Nazis, she said, “are two white groups of people."

Whoopi was wrong because Hitler and the Nazis were frighteningly clear about seeing the Jewish people as a distinct race in their eugenics program but amid this week’s uproar, one could see what she was trying to say. What Whoopi was resisting was the tendency of the public to ignore the millions of homosexuals and disabled people and others murdered by the Nazis for reasons other than race. She was trying to be more inclusive but also looking at the situation through her distinct lens. As she told Stephen Colbert in an appearance on his show later that same day, “I feel, being Black, when we talk about race, it’s a very different thing to me.” To her, racism is about skin colour and the persecution of the Jewish people was different because “you couldn’t tell who was Jewish.” That’s right, Whoopi is playing America’s favourite game! But, she continued, “I understand that not everybody sees it that way, and that I did a lot of harm…I will work hard not to think that way again.”

This is a good example of why understanding intersectionality is so important. As a Black woman in America, Whoopi has experienced discrimination in a way that lighter-skinned Jewish people or, say, white gay people have not. But to say that those others have not experienced prejudice because they can “pass” or hide is ignoring the very real pain that hiding causes. Some Christians have seen the Jewish faith as some obstacle to convert, like the way we in Canada believed we could simply “educate” indigenous children into becoming white. It’s all a game but a deadly one, as Jewish people know all too well.

The push now to stop “critical race theory” and teaching Black history in schools, to ban books like MAUS, an acclaimed graphic work about the Holocaust, and to not discuss the horror of Canada’s residential schools is all part of the same ongoing campaign: to suppress all of this real and painful history and to prevent us from having difficult conversations that will help us all heal and recognize our lack of education around anti-semitism and its roots. This week off, Whoopi will read and grow and come to understand some of her blind spots but will the rest of us?

Towards this goal, we designed our Power and Privilege course to help everyone — regardless of their identities, backgrounds or work functions — realize the privileges we all have in a relevant, engaging and approachable fashion. We use popular culture to discuss representation, we share our own stories and we engage in these difficult conversations to create a broader understanding.

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