I'm Somehow Less Concerned with Whether the Holocaust was "About Race" Than I Am with the Six Million Murders
Years and years ago I got into a Facebook argument with some academic. They were very passionate about the idea that only African slaves should ever be referred to as slaves - that is, that slaves in ancient Egypt or Rome etc. should not be called slaves, as that term should be reserved for the unique suffering of Black slaves in America. I found that… odd. Yes, certainly, the experience of African American slaves was unique and uniquely pernicious. But the word “slave” is not an honorific. It doesn’t award Black people any special status, nor does applying it to other types of slaves dilute the evil of the status. And anyway, it’s just a word. The history of African slavery in the Americas must tell its own tale; the vocabulary we use to describe it holds no power.
I sort of feel the same way about this Whoopi Goldberg controversy. Goldberg got herself into hot water, and has apologized, for arguing that the Holocaust isn’t about race. I find her territoriality about the distinction weird, but I also find people’s insistence that the Holocaust really is about race a little weird too. I think it’s important to fish out exactly what’s happening here. Goldberg got territorial about whether the Holocaust was about race because we see racial injustice as especially heinous. And honestly, I kind of understand the logic, under our current discursive conditions. But take a step back and it’s really bizarre! The Holocaust was an attempt at systematically exterminating an entire people. Do we need to know if it was about race to know that it was really, really bad, like as bad a thing as exists in human history? No. It doesn’t matter if the Holocaust is “about race.” The Holocaust is about six million bodies.
21st century racial politics always takes place in the shadow of our inability to do anything about our racial problems. We are forever creating weird rituals to center and honor and elevate Black people, in lieu of feeding poor Black children or freeing Black prisoners. The deal we’ve made, essentially, is to say “Sorry about all the oppression, Black people. Can’t do anything about it! But tell you what, white liberals will be very weird around you for the rest of your lives, out of a very sincere desire not to offend or oppress you. We can’t do anything about Black poverty or violence against Black people, but we’ll act like racial injustice is, like, double plus bad in polite society. Also Wells Fargo will send out a very respectful Kwanzaa email every holiday season. So that’s nice.”
Personally, I would like better options.