Guest Op-Ed by: Jessica Honig, Ed.M., LCSW
Co-edited by: Steven London & Adam Eid Ramsey
Whoopi Goldberg returned to The View, yesterday, after a suggested pause from ABC. Pause sounds different than suspension, no? I suppose words do matter. And most of us could benefit from a pause every now and then. Upon returning, Goldberg stated, as I have always believed – she’s willing to host “tough conversations.”
Quiet, gentle academic voices like myself can encourage those tough conversations.
The day the news broke of Goldberg’s suspension, I surrendered to another morning of divisive news. Or did I? No, surrendering to the suffering many of us continue to inflict upon one another was not something I chose to stay complacent about. I began to write, instead.
Being raised as a grandchild of Holocaust refugees, you’d think I would align with the action to suspend her, for alleging that the Holocaust was not about race. Ah, the race word.
I am saddened that I must choose sides. I am tired of words that further divide us. Likely, most of us have said something that separates us into a bully or victim role. Like so many others, I’ve been labeled and cast into unproductive boxes.
However, we’re missing the bigger conversation. Race, itself, is a human invention. Language is a human invention. The use of language, by humans, is based on cultural values or norms. One group of humans, at whatever point in history, might have defined race one way, and at another point, might define it another way. It’s all fluid, my fellow humans. It’s all made up.
Whoopi Goldberg’s view of my relationship to race as a light-skinned Jewish person in 21st century America differs from Adolf Hitler’s view of my grandmother in 20th century Germany. A point of view regarding someone, including oneself, is based on the social flower bed from which we grow.
Everyone has a different angle, and we should honor that. We should talk more about differing points of view based on our experiences. We could bear witness rather than immediately judge or react. We could be curious rather than accusatory.
The contrasting difference between Goldberg and Hitler is that Goldberg used language and debate with intent for discussion. Hitler used language common in the soil of his place in history, his place in the world, to justify inhumane acts. Race is a four-letter word, but its meaning varies based on context and how humans (in that context) use the invented term.
The invention of race harkens back in the English language to the 17th century as a method of coding and differentiating people. Eventually, race’s use intends to reinforce power. Academic mentors of mine, 2020 Guggenheim Fellow and Architect, Dilip da Cunha and his partner – Professor in Landscape Architecture, Anuradha Mathur, suggest that language of division emerged from ancient misinterpretations of nature.
The way we code and separate the natural world (humans being one part of it) began with a language to grow order and power. Separating land from water, British colonizers in India created imaginary boundaries around gradients of wetness. Persons in power coined the word river, so commerce could best prevail.
Today, “river” translates into dividing lines on maps, a concept persisting throughout geography lessons. Some people teach their children similar concepts with language. Some people draw lines around skin color or other characteristics. As a result, a human-like Whoopi Goldberg is coded as an outcast by people who lack the commonplace tools to improve discussions on cross-cultural traumas and social issues.
I believe, then, our society enables ancient misinterpretations, all-or-nothing ways of seeing our world. All good, all bad, responsible, not responsible, white, not white, etc.
Question: What wins from all these lines and codes and hyper-political correctness wars?
Answer: Existential threats – climate ignorance, chronic anxiety, systemic ‘isms, isolation, addiction, and rage, to name a few.
While focusing on the dismantling of one another, like a discrete and vulnerable tree, too many of us miss the burning forest around us. The discrete tree is our fellow human. Each of us is rooted in a unique point of view, in a familiar language based on cultural norms and values.
Whoopi Goldberg’s punishment exemplified another individual being scolded for longstanding difficulties in how we talk to one another about traumas and fears and hurts. But the forest of suffering continues to burn. Will anyone survive, let alone thrive, if we continue to neglect the source of the flames?
The source of those flames is divisiveness.
Goldberg is equally responsible as others for participating in a conversation that intended to heal. She spoke of supposed historical facts, facts closer to a semblance of whisper-down-the-lane than peer-reviewed data. Yet, daily, most of us are guilty of such ignorance. Instead, we need a new conversation all together. And, I cannot think of a more articulate, braver person than someone like Whoopi Goldberg to host it. There’s a reason we listen to what she has to say.
Instead of punishing what gets said, let’s begin again. Let’s use a teachable moment in history and say enough is enough. Whatever we call one another (considering words as just a symbol set), reconsider we need not call or label anyone anything. We need to be present, with awareness and playfulness and compassion. We are collections of cells, our DNA more alike than unalike. In a series of critical moments, we should let go of petty arguments and categories that tear our already broken world further apart.
We could hold onto what has been considered as an artifact for trauma put upon humans…of certain “races” or “religions” or “ethnicities” … or…
Simultaneously, let’s come together, weaving a tapestry of textured stories. Author Dr. Beverly Tatum, in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? encourages readers to think of themselves as holding multiple identities, some parts of us privileged and some parts of us oppressed.
Let’s move forward inspired by one another, by humans like da Cunha and Mathur and Tatum. Instead of punishing supposed language mistakes, we could all use a little more space to learn. Instead of burning the forest of our reality to embers, let’s build a more peace-filled and compassionate way of being. Let’s begin again, with a different kind of conversation full of the wonder and fresh angles of a pre-verbal child. Let’s begin again, now.
Jessica Honig, a psychotherapist with a specialty in Complex Relational Trauma and Mindfulness, resides in the Philadelphia region. Honig facilitates workshops utilizing naturalism and art theory toward cross-cultural collaboration; is a member of the Boston Congress of Public Health, a collective on matters of public health and social justice; and serves as an Associate Editor of the HPHR Journal (formerly the Harvard Public Health Review), which promotes public health innovation, health equity, and health access.