by Roxanne Tellier
When I was a kid, growing up in Alberta, I encountered precisely two black families. One family, that ran a boarding house near my school, had a little girl about my age. When I went to L’Academie Assomption, which was a private girl’s school, the daughters of football player Rollie Miles were the only students of colour.
When we moved to Montreal, I became friends with a girl whose family was from Grenada; her mother played the organ at church every Sunday, and I loved to sing the grandiose high mass in Latin, so the relationship was mutually beneficial.
While there was a dearth of people of colour in my youthly travels, I can assure you that there were a lot of other groups of people that were abused and/or ridiculed in Edmonton and Montreal in the 60s and 70s. Whether you called it ‘prejudice’ or ‘racism,’ I never thought that the people other people bullied and censured had to be of a certain colour; it just always seemed to me to be about ‘us vs them,’ with the ‘us’ being the people in the majority.
There were lots and lots of immigrants, at that time, many of whom had come to Canada after WWII and the Korean conflict. There were people that ate food that smelled strange to my white nose, and there were people that practiced religions that were very different to the Catholic religion that was the norm in Edmonton and Montreal. And, in Edmonton, which back then, was still the land of ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ there were many indigenous people, whose mere presence would often inflame an old settler.
In Montreal, as I later discovered was also true of Toronto, many of the immigrants were Jewish. It has often seemed to me that both cities had a love/hate relationship with these new Canadians. On the one hand, many Canadians had fought to bring freedom to these survivors, many of whom still bore the tattoos of their imprisonment. On the other hand, there was a tendency, then as now, for many to shun people that held different beliefs.
And ALL of the racist tropes would come into play, if a Canadian born, non-Jewish, person felt that their own rights were being overridden by these newcomers.
My experiences were not unusual for a white Catholic in those days.
Whoopi Goldberg, on the other hand, is a 66-year-old Black, American woman, born in Manhattan, who was raised Catholic. She was born Caryn Elaine Johnson, but took on the stage names of Whoopi and Goldberg when she got into comedy as a young woman.
It is safe to say that her upbringing was very much unlike my own, if only by dint of her being born a Black American. That alone would have guaranteed that her experiences with prejudice and racism would be nothing like what I encountered as a White Canadian.
Whoopi’s been a host and a driving force on the television show “The View” since 2007. While it’s not a ‘hard news’ program, over the years it’s become an influential political talk show, according to a New York Times featured article in 2019.
Whoopi’s take on issues have often been controversial. She defended Michael Vick’s participation in dogfighting as part of his ‘cultural upbringing,’ famously championed Mel Gibson in 2006 after he was caught drunkenly spouting antisemitic rhetoric, saying “I don’t like what he did here, but I know Mel and I know he’s not a racist,” and initially was a defender of Bill Cosby in 2015, when he was accused of multiple rapes. (Later she changed her stance, stating that “all of the information that’s out there kinda points to ‘guilt’.
This week, however, Goldberg got into some seriously hot water when she stated her opinion that the Holocaust was not based on race, but on ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ She added, “This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves.”
Although she apologized on Twitter later that day, she then went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that night, and reiterated that the Nazi issue was with ethnicity, and not race.
“In the United States, physical distinctions between most Black and most white people have misled some into thinking that the American conception of race is somehow more “real” than the racial fictions on which the Nazis based their campaign of extermination. Applying the American color line to Europe, the Holocaust appears merely to be a form of sectarian violence, “white people” attacking “white people,” which seems nonsensical. But those persecuting Jews in Europe saw Jews as beastly subhumans, an “alien race” whom they were justified in destroying in order to defend German “racial purity.” The “racial” distinctions between master and slave may be more familiar to Americans, but they were and are no more real than those between Gentile and Jew.”Adam Serwer, The Atlantic, February, 2022.
On air the next day, Goldberg again apologized for the comment. But hours later, Kim Godwin, president of ABC News, suspended her from the show for two weeks, calling Whoopi’s remarks “wrong and hurtful. While Whoopi has apologized, I’ve asked her to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments.”
Forgive me if I found Godwin’s prissy little pearl-clutching pretty racist in itself. Toddlers in day care get time-outs. To hand a two-week, onerous, over-reaching time out to a 66-year-old Black woman DURING BLACK HISTORY MONTH…
I have no words. Or rather, I do. But few are printable.
But the whole episode, which nearly overshadowed the very real racism of pro American football teams who have been neatly avoiding culpability for their dearth of black pro coaches for decades, did indeed get me thinking about the concept of race.
The very idea of ‘race’ is a relatively modern concept, and it all had to do with the distinction of ‘otherness,’ an attempt to divide people into groups in which one group enjoyed more wealth and/or power than another. It’s believed that the first stirrings of this type of divisioning followed the Moorish conquest of Andalusia in the eighth century, when the Iberian Peninsula became the site of the greatest ever intermingling between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim believers. At that time, colour was not the main concern.
“The concept of race has historically signified the division of humanity into a small number of groups based upon five criteria: (1) Races reflect some type of biological foundation, be it Aristotelian essences or modern genes; (2) This biological foundation generates discrete racial groupings, such that all and only all members of one race share a set of biological characteristics that are not shared by members of other races; (3) This biological foundation is inherited from generation to generation, allowing observers to identify an individual’s race through her ancestry or genealogy; (4) Genealogical investigation should identify each race’s geographic origin, typically in Africa, Europe, Asia, or North and South America; and (5) This inherited racial biological foundation manifests itself primarily in physical phenotypes, such as skin color, eye shape, hair texture, and bone structure, and perhaps also behavioral phenotypes, such as intelligence or delinquency.”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Fast forward to last century, when Hitler and his followers believed that Aryans were a ‘master race.’ Hitler actually issued his first written comment on the “Jewish Question” in 1919, when he defined the Jews as a race, and not a religious community. He characterized the effect of a Jewish presence as a “race-tuberculosis of the peoples,” and identified the initial goal of a German government to be discriminatory legislation against Jews, saying that the “ultimate goal must definitely be the removal of the Jews altogether.” (From the files of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia)
The Nazis defined those of the Jewish faith, whether they were practicing their religion or not, as a race, which was inherited from generation to generation.
In Canada, a regional white racism became controversial after a front-page Globe and Mail article, written by Jan Wong, argued that the term “pure laine” revealed a uniquely Quebecois brand of racism. In her article entitled, “Get under the desk,” written just three days after a mass shooting at Montreal’s Dawson College, she drew a link between all three school shootings in Quebec history, and the nature of Quebec society under its protective language laws.
Wong suggested that the three perpetrators, who were not “old stock French Quebecers,” were alienated from a Quebec society concerned with “racial purity.”
“Québecois has conventionally been used to signify the descendants of Québec settlers from France, the majority habitants of the province, who are otherwise referred to as pure laine (pure wool) or Québecois de souche (of the base of the tree, or root). However, the changing face of Québec’s increasingly diverse population challenges the privileged place of those French descendants and calls for a more inclusive notion of what it means to be Québecois or a Quebecer.“Wikipedia
Wong was accused of “Quebec bashing, “with the column creating a public outcry in Quebec, and political condemnation from Quebec Premier Jean Charest, as well as from then PM Stephen Harper. The House of Commons of Canada unanimously passed a motion on September 5,2006 requesting an apology for the column.
“Pure laine.” “Old Stock French Québécois.” “Racial purity.” These terms, although decried, were still frequently used in both English and French media. In 2007, the Taylor-Bouchard Commission included the recommendation that the use of the expression “Québécois de souche” be ended and replaced with the term “Quebecers of French-Canadian origin.” (Wikipedia)
At this point in world history, as we struggle with real and increasing assaults against democracy, have a looming threat of war in some of the very areas once devastated during World War II’s Holocaust, and continue to try to end a global pandemic, while juggling the spectres of climate change and rising inequality, the very idea of suspending a grown woman for her personal opinion on race seems ridiculous.
As someone with a platform, ABC had an option beyond the humiliating of Whoopi Goldberg. They could have left her on the air, where she would have continued to apologize, and the show could have had some interesting guests and sane discussions about racism, antisemitism, and the homegrown, white nationalist, terror groups who are gleefully jumping on this moment in time to further separate us all, regardless of our colours or creeds.
Instead we watched a television network head fingerwag at a mature, famed, black woman whom she deemed needed two weeks in the 28 day period of Black History Month to reflect upon her words.
In the 1980’s, sociologist Neil Postman said that television would eventually and inevitably impose limitations on the sophistication and variety of ideas that could be expressed on the medium. It would appear that he was correct to be worried.
It’s ironic, and yet so timely, that the cohosts of The View’s attempt to discuss the implications of a Tennessean school board’s decision not to require 9th graders to read the graphic novel Maus began with the possibility of the development of a rational argument before devolving into the very kind of cultural provocation that exists solely to sell ad time.