Whoopi Goldberg, Race, and the Banning of Maus

Photograph Source: Mark Taylor – CC BY 2.0

On the January 31st edition of The View, during a discussion of the banning by a Tennessee school district of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus, Whoopi Goldberg, the show’s moderator, made the following comments:

“If you’re going to do this, then let’s be truthful about it, because the Holocaust isn’t about race,” she said…. “It’s not about race. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man. That’s what it’s about,” she said.  It was about “two white groups of people….”The minute you turn it into race, it goes down this alley. Let’s talk about it for what it is — it’s how people treat each other. It’s a problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white because Black, white, Jews — everybody.”

Goldberg’s statement set off a national controversy about race and the Jews and got Goldberg suspended from The View for two weeks. But what actually happened in Tennessee is not in sum how The View portrayed it nor was the history of race and the place of the Jews in that history aired in the aftermath of Goldberg’s comments. In this essay, I review both.

A report on the banning by Jenny Gross in the The New York Times of Jan, 27, 2022 notes:

According to minutes of its meeting, the 10-person board, in McMinn County, Tenn., voted on Jan. 10 to remove the book from the eighth-grade curriculum. Members of the board said the book, which portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats in recounting the author’s parents’ experience during the Holocaust, contained inappropriate curse words and a depiction of a naked character.

“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” said Lee Parkison, the director of schools for McMinn County, in eastern Tennessee, according to minutes of the meeting.

The View’s discussion began by rightly wondering if the reason of “objectionable language” and  “a depiction of a naked character” (the author’s mother in a bathtub after she committed suicide ) for banning the book were only an alibi for  banning the teaching of the Holocaust because of the violent history of racism in its form of antisemitism Mausrepresents so vividly: the murder of six million Jews. But a reading of the minutes of the school board, which are published online show that the Board did not want to ban teaching the Holocaust but, finally, were opposed to the teaching of Maus as a representation of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the conversation on The View drifted to the actual and potential banning of teaching “controversial” subjects, like the Holocaust, involving race and/or gender.

There was one board member, Tony Allman, early in the discussion, who did raise an objection to the depiction of “ people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy.” But there was immediate pushback from one of the three “instructional supervisors,” who, though not members of the Board, were present at the meeting to supply “detail.” The previous year’s supervisor, Melasawn Knight, responded to Allman:

I think any time you are teaching something from history, people did hang from trees, people did commit suicide and people were killed, over six million were murdered. I think the author is portraying that because it is a true story about his father that lived through that. He is trying to portray that the best he can with the language that he chooses that would relate to that time, maybe to help people who haven’t been in that aspect in time to actually relate to the horrors of it. Is the language objectionable? Sure. I think that is how he uses that language to portray that.

Julie Goodin, one of the two current supervisors, supported Knight’s viewpoint; and the remainder of the discussion focused on what to do with Maus.

Board member Jonathan Pierce stated the case:

“Our children need to know about the Holocaust, they need to understand that there are several pieces of history…  that shows depression or suppression of certain ethnicities. It’s not acceptable today. We’ve got to accept people for who and what they are….But…the wording in this book is in direct conflict of some of our policies…. I move that we remove this book from the reading series and challenge our instructional staff to come with an alternative method of teaching The Holocaust…. ”

The motion was temporarily tabled for more discussion, which focused the possibility to redact the offending portions of Maus without violating Fair Use policy, more comments on the text, and the curriculum selection process in general before there was a unanimous vote to ban Maus from the curriculum.

The state of Tennessee’s protocols for deciding curriculum are as follows:

“While academic standards establish desired learning outcomes, curriculum provides instructional programming designed to help students reach these outcomes. Districts should locally establish curricular programs that support student mastery of the Tennessee Academic Standards while reflecting unique community values. Instructional practices should provide each student with the best opportunity to meet these standards by supporting the learning needs of each student.”

The local school boards, which are mandated to choose curriculum, are elected.

In not focusing on the issue that generated the book banning—how to teach the Holocaust—and, importantly, how curricular decisions are made not only in Tennessee but in all the states, The View missed an opportunity to conduct an important, informative discussion about how the nation’s children should be taught. That is, on what level of the educational bureaucracy should curricular choices be made and by whom? This was an issue raised crudely in the recent hotly-contested Virginia gubernatorial election when the two candidates, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin disagreed over parental involvement in their children’s education in primary and secondary schools. Youngkin stated: “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” To which McAuliffe replied: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The Tennessee case clearly joins the issue of curriculum selection because the elected board represents or understands itself as representing in significant part the views of the parents. And this issue raised a necessary question that The View should have raised: In order to acknowledge expertise and maintain objectivity based on expertise, why weren’t the choices made by the educational supervisors final—Knight a former elementary school principal, Goodin an elementary school teacher, and Steven Brady also an educator in the district?  One assumes that before the supervisors made the curricular decision to place Maus in the curriculum that the eighth-grade teachers in the district along with the principals were consulted. But whatever the case the process of curriculum selection should have been aired on The View. Further, when at the beginning of the Board’s discussion, Allman asked Steven Brady, one, along with  Goodin, of the two current supervisors, “is there a substitute for this book that we have?”  Brady’s response demanded an explanation that was not forthcoming: “No, and that is a short answer to a longer discussion. If you would like, I have some stuff I can run through with you that explains what our curriculum is and how it works and walk you through how this book fits into the bigger picture of what our kids are studying.” But the Board’s discussion, unproductively and, finally, destructively, went elsewhere.

Instead of raising the issue and question of selection, and inviting one or all three of these professionals on the show along with a member or members of the McMinn Board, The View opted first for a banal conversation about educating children in the realities of life, agreeing, unsurprisingly, that’s what education should endeavor to do, when the question should have been how do we educate our children, given the resistance in the U.S to reality. Following the exchange between Brady and Allman , the conversation on the Board turned to the curricular matter at hand.

It is within this context that Whoopi Goldberg made her statement about the Nazi extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust not being a matter of race. The statement was clearly ignorant of both the history of race, the history of the Jews, and the history of the Holocaust. And there was immediate blowback from representatives of the Jewish community, forcing Goldberg to apologize immediately and compelling ABC to suspend her from The View for two weeks.

From my perspective as a teacher and a Jew, I don’t think an apology for ignorance or a suspension as a punishment is to the point. Indeed, I don’t think punishment is to the point. Education through dialogue with the subjects of one’s ignorance, and information is required. Goldberg was certainly immediately educated through social media. As for dialogue, while she was suspended, I hope Goldberg did a lot of reading on the subjects of race and the Holocaust as a way of entering into an implicit discussion with experts in these fields. But instead of suspending Goldberg,  The View should have kept her on air and invited to the show some of these experts and other members of the Jewish community to interact with her. The program should have applied restorative rather than retributive justice. Cancel culture in either a limited or absolute form solves nothing but only increases the alienation inherent in the offending act.

Because of her understanding of race as a visual phenomenon (a matter of melanin), Goldberg’s comments raised the question: what is race, a biological or a social construct? The term “biology” did not enter the English language until the early nineteenth century, at the same time that Western scientists in the emerging field of physical anthropology began to naturalize “race” as a way of standardizing racial hierarchies, with whites at the zenith and Africans at the nadir. This rationalized slavery, Native genocide, and Western imperialism in general. We know today, or at least it is a fact of scholarly research if not popular understanding (Goldberg’s understanding), that race is not a biological but a social category, that is, a fiction, which does not mean it is not real with real effects but that it is socially, politically, and economically, not biologically, real.

The Nazis naturalized race in the Nuremberg race laws, which placed themselves as “Aryans” at the top of a racial hierarchy in which Jews were at the bottom, the epitome of non-Aryans. Contradictorily enough in deciding who was a Jew the Nazis used religion as the determining factor. The Holocaust Encyclopedia notes:

“According to the Nuremberg Laws, a person with three or four Jewish grandparents was a Jew. A grandparent was considered Jewish if they belonged to the Jewish religious community. Thus, the Nazis defined Jews by their religion (Judaism), and not by the imagined racial traits that Nazism attributed to Jews.”

The definition notes the contradiction: the Nazis based what they claimed as a “blood” relation on a social relation. This contradiction is inherent in all theories of race that claim biology as a basis.

Before the bilogization of race reared its ugly head, the Jews were othered under the dichotomy of Christian-pagan along with Indigenous peoples, Muslims, and other non-Christians. In 1492, for example, at the same time that Columbus sailed to the Americas and committed along with his brothers the beginnings of a massive genocide that continues today, both Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain. From 1290 until 1655 the Jews were expelled from England, where legal and extra-legal persecution, including the wearing of identity badges (comparable to the yellow stars the Nazis made Jews wear) kept them segregated. The Jews, then, did not become officially white until after WWII; and as Art Spiegelman himself said on the Feb. 2, 2022 show of Democracy Now, which focused on the Goldberg controversy, Jews are today “honorary whites.” In this respect I think of myself as “temporarily white” and that depends on context. One’s honorary or temporary status ends, for example, in the mass shooting of Jews that took place on October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburg, PA or in the slogan “Jews will not replace us!” chanted by the white supremacists who converged on Charlottesville, VA in August 2017, representing in this microcosm the macrocosm of international white nationalism. White nationalism is grounded in Christian-based racism of which antisemitism is a particular historical form.

Eric Cheyfitz is a professor of American and Native American studies at Cornell University. His latest book is The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States.