Will the real Whoopi Goldberg please stand up?

Is Caryn Johnson really Jewish? And would it make any difference if she was?


NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13: Whoopi Goldberg participates in book signing during the Grand Tasting presented by ShopRite featuring Culinary Demonstrations at The IKEA Kitchen presented by Capital One at Pier 94 on October 13, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for NYCWFF)

February 03, 2022 11:29

Long before Whoopi Goldberg subscribed to the Livingstone school of public Holocaust declarations, she was already offending Jews whilst also claiming to be one herself. But is she even Jewish? And would it make any difference if she is?

Cancel culture isn’t my thing; we can disagree with people without wanting to shut down their lives or livelihoods. But Whoopi (real name Caryn Johnson) saying on two different American television shows that the Holocaust had nothing to do with racism and was some sort of spat between groups of “white people” has angered me.

Like a hostage at gunpoint, she was subsequently forced to read out an apology during her regular television show The View, and has been given two weeks holiday - sorry I mean ‘suspension’. Case closed?

No. In my view what she said was itself racist. It’s a brand of racism Jews are all too used to: not only do we have to put up with abuse and attacks for being Jewish (oh, and genocide) but when we talk about it or call it out we get told it’s not actually racism in the first place. Sometimes they even tell us we’re using accusations of racism to smear people we don’t like for other reasons.

Like many in woke circles, she has redefined racism to exclusively describe prejudice based on skin colour. Couple that with the fashionable idea that only weak and oppressed peoples can be victims of racism, and so-called anti-racists can handily ignore the Nazi persecution of Jews during the Shoah: after all, many German Jews were fully integrated members of Germany’s middle-class, academic and professional milieux.

“Goldberg is my name—it’s part of my family, part of my heritage” she once explained, “just like being black… I just know I am Jewish.” In 1997 she explicitly told Barbara Walters she was part Jewish: “Jewish, Catholic, got Chinese people and white people in my family. I’m a mutt basically. I’m the best of all – of all the things that go into making humans.” Confusingly, she has also claimed to be “a quarter Mexican.” When Walters asked her where she’d be had she not changed her name to Whoopi Goldberg, she replied “I would have been a Tupperware lady.” It seems that Caryn Johnson saw value in appearing to be Jewish.

There are other versions of the story of Whoopi’s name: one tells of her “Catholic-Jewish” mother suggesting she adopt a stereotypically Jewish name to ensure her future success. Elsewhere she claims her family is “Jewish, Buddhist, Baptist and Catholic” and that she “took the last name for a Jewish ancestor.” 

But I’ve struggled to find any specific or direct reference to an actual person called Goldberg in her family in all the years she’s been explaining her choice of stage name.

Whatever the truth, one wonders if in reality the artist currently known as ‘Whoopi Goldberg’ is any more Jewish than Eddie Murphy is Irish.

So, is it racist to pretend to be Jewish if one isn’t? Is it ‘cultural appropriation’? When the American activist Rachel Dolezal presented herself as black despite having been born to white parents, it was seen as a peculiar form of reverse racism. Assuming the role of victim had afforded her certain advantages in her career. When her deception was revealed, she lost the presidency of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was also booted out of her African studies post at Eastern Washington University.

More recently, a British man going by the name of Oli London reinvented himself as ‘trans-Korean’ after undergoing cosmetic surgery to look like his favourite Korean pop singer. He was widely ridiculed by the normally accepting woke crowd, who may accept a man ‘identifying’ as a woman but clearly draw the line at racial self-identification and fluidity.

Has Whoopi been doing the same thing with Judaism for all these years? When Paul Kaye (in character as Dennis Pennis) asked her if she was a Jew “or just slightly Jewish”, she said: “That’s a very bizarre question, but I am a nice Jewish lady.” Perhaps Whoopi does have some distant shred of Jewish heritage buried far back in her family tree, though its vanishingly difficult to find any evidence to support that possibility. If she did, would that be enough?

In a comparable case, Senator Elizabeth Warren was mercilessly mocked by President Trump in 2012 for her claim of being Native American. A DNA test revealed that the “vast majority” of her ancestry was European, with a possible Native American ancestor only occurring as far back as six to ten generations before. During the 1980s and 1990s Warren has been listed as a Native American faculty member in a national law school directory, causing Trump to nickname her Pocahontas.

But what advantage could claiming to be Jewish afford a young comedian, especially at a time when many Jews were switching names to something more WASPish in order to get ahead? Perhaps if you’re a Jew, or even ‘Jew-ish’, you can make Jew jokes, right?

In the 1990s, Whoopi published her recipe for “Jewish American Princess Fried Chicken” in a charity recipe book. The recipe reads: “Send a chauffeur to your favourite butcher shop for the chicken,” then “watch your nails” and “have cook prepare rest of meal while you touch up your makeup.” Perhaps that joke had nothing to do with racism, either; certainly it had little to do with humour. Her publicist at the time, Brad Cafarelli, said her critics were perhaps “not aware that Whoopi is Jewish.” Perhaps.

Minorities are often granted licence to joke about their own because they know both where to draw the line and also what negative resonances specific references might have. If Whoopi had been better connected to her putative Judaism, she might have thought twice about her festive jumper design aimed at Jews, depicting a ‘Jewish’ octopus wearing a kippah. Most Goldbergs I’ve met know that Jewish Octopuses are usually associated with Nazi era antisemitism. Not Whoopi.

When it comes to racism, it’s not only Jews Whoopi has angered. When she was dating the comedian Ted Danson in 1993, he nearly ended his career by appearing in blackface in a sketch at the Friars Club comedy event, which was reported to have included jokes about how he got her to clean his parents’ house, contained numerous full occurrences of the “N word”  and ended with him eating from a tray of watermelon. The gags didn’t go down well with the 3,000 strong audience at the New York Hilton, which included Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, RuPaul, Mr. T and Montel Williams (who resigned from the club by telegram – the old fashioned communication method, not the app). 

Whoopi’s response? She’s said to have come out on stage to challenge the audience, saying: “N*****, n*****, n*****, whitey, whitey, whitey! It takes a lot of courage to come out in blackface in front of 3000 [people]. I don’t care if you don’t like it. I do!” In fact, she claimed to have written the racist material for Danson to deliver.

Comedians often test and play with boundaries that others won’t go near. But when it comes to the Holocaust, Whoopi wasn’t joking – this is deadly serious. It’s time she stopped hiding behind her Jewish stage name, using it to deflect criticism. Could the real Caryn Johnson please stand up?



February 03, 2022 11:29

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