The race taboo

This image released by ABC shows co-host Whoopi Goldberg on the set of the daytime talk series The View. The network placed Goldberg on a two-week suspension for her comments on Jews and the Holocaust.  -
This image released by ABC shows co-host Whoopi Goldberg on the set of the daytime talk series The View. The network placed Goldberg on a two-week suspension for her comments on Jews and the Holocaust. -

Actress Whoopi Goldberg got herself into very hot water last week for “misspeaking” on the thorny issue of race. No surprises there because it is almost impossible to talk sensibly about race. It comes down to who is speaking and who is listening or, more likely, not listening.

She said in a public forum that the Holocaust was not about race but about man’s inhumanity to man. The second part of her assertion cannot be disputed. It is hard to imagine what goes on in the twisted minds of individuals who dedicate themselves to the murder of millions of “undesirable” people living across Europe and to the willful extermination of six million Jewish people, rounding them up over the WWII years, like caged animals, and subjecting them to the worst kind of violence and degradation, torture and deprivation. It is unthinkable, yet, the Holocaust happened within living memory and in our lifetimes we have witnessed, most notably, genocide in Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in which, during a period of around 100 days, the UN estimates 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa, were slaughtered by armed militias in a state-led genocide, and another two million people fled into exile.

To the average unobservant non-African, Rwandan Hutus and Tutsi might be indistinguishable, lumped together as a single race of black people, but that civil war, like so many of the unending stream of civil wars on that continent, is about the differences between ethnic groups, and about power. The more numerous Hutus, essentially, were dominant in politics and economics and a power-sharing deal with the Tutsis in 1993 angered extremists Hutus, keen to maintain their supremacy. When their president’s plane was shot down by unknown parties, the slaughter began.

Maybe Whoopi Goldberg did not intend to deny the racist element in the Holocaust, which was undeniably the acknowledged reason for the mass extermination, although Hitler resented the formidable economic and cultural power of the Jews. However, she could have been more mindful of the impact of her words, since the Holocaust is itself a taboo subject, with unreconstructed Holocaust deniers everywhere and the present rise in violent attacks upon Jewish people in the US and Europe.


Furthermore, identifying themselves as a race is very important to Jewish people. I remember how naive I felt when my son’s Jewish godfather told me he identified as a Jew because his mother was Jewish, even though she and he were irreligious and his father was English and, moreover, that he was genetically Jewish. He claimed that Jews belonged to a singular race. That was long before the human genetic code had been sequenced. Jews have done, for a long time, and continue to see Judaism as a biological inheritance, not just a religious or cultural community. According to researchers at Clark and Brown universities, this is particularly true among those who have only one Jewish parent and those who do not belong to a synagogue. For them, Jewishness is inherent and immutable in their genes. This is only now being substantiated, contentiously by genetic analysis.

Read this fascinating article in the UK Guardian which I prefer not to synthesise.

It all gets messy when we start talking about genetics because any biologist would tell you that “race” does not exist except as a social and political construct. After all, race cannot be biologically defined, due to genetic variation among human individuals and populations. In fact, the African “race” is the most genetically diverse group on earth. Because that gene pool is so vast, a European might have more in common genetically with any African than a fellow European. We get confused, however, because classifications of race are based chiefly on skin colour, with other relevant features such as height, eyes, and hair. Though these physical differences are superficial and dramatic, Harvard magazine assures us that they are determined by only a minute portion of the genome: “we as a species have been estimated to share 99.9 per cent of our DNA with each other. The few differences that do exist reflect differences in environments and external factors, not core biology.”

This is where ethnicity comes in. Although ethnicity remains primarily a sociocultural category, it turns out to have biological precursors, parameters, and consequences for both individuals and groups. The genetic components of these biological dimensions are also in the process of being identified and quantified. In the meantime and despite the advance in human genetics and clear evidence of negligible difference between ethnic groups, racism and a desire for racial supremacy will continue to be a scourge on our societies – witness the antics of Trumpian white supremacists.

I did a DNA test and was fascinated to learn of my predominantly British, surprisingly pan-European and very diverse west African ancestries, but Central and South Asian genes were totally unexpected, and confirmation of indigenous American was welcome. This stellar DNA inheritance gives me no disease markers – the great gift of much-maligned racial impurity. We should all desire it.


"The race taboo"

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