Actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg has been a part of Hollywood for nearly four decades and has appeared everywhere from the small screen to the big screen and even on stage. However, her career hasn’t always been easy, and it’s perhaps for reasons most would least expect.
While talking with Essence, the 65-year-old reflected on her illustrious career and some of the obstacles she’s had to overcome, including not being well received by the Black community and even changing her name.
Comments she’s made, and the people she’s associated herself with may have seemingly been the cause of a lot of the backlash the actress has received throughout her career.
She once defended actor Mel Gibson, who she believed was not a racist despite his controversial audio in which he told a former partner, “If you get raped by a pack of N-ggers, it will be your fault.” She’s also been on record defending Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be Black, stating, “If she wants to be black, she can be black.”
“I caught a lot of s- -t from Black people [over the years],” Goldberg revealed. “Apparently, I wasn’t Black enough. but people forget if they saw me running down the street and it’s the Klan, they’re going to chase me. That’s how I measure it, is the Klan going to chase you if you run? Yes. They’re going to chase me. That means I’m Black enough.”
Born Caryn Elaine Johnson in 1955, she moved from New York to California in the mid-1970s with her young daughter to pursue a better life. She worked several odd jobs to help support her family. She’s claimed over the years that by the time she got into comedy a few years later she’d been given the nickname Whoopee Cushion because of her flatulence issues. It has also been reported that the actress’s mother, Emma Harris, later advised her that to be well received in Hollywood she should choose a Jewish surname. She then replaced the name “Cushion” with “Goldberg.”
At times over the years, Goldberg has suggested the name change had a deeper significance. In May 2011 the Jewish Chronicle reported:
Speaking this week at a charity event in London, the Oscar-winning actress said: “I just know I am Jewish. I practise nothing. I don’t go to temple, but I do remember the holidays. Religion is a lot of work, it’s exhausting. So I keep it simple, I have a pretty good relationship with God. We talk.” She added: “When people heard the name ‘Whoopi Goldberg’, and then I turned up, I was not what they were expecting.”
“People would ask me in a roundabout way, ‘So are you?’ And I would say ‘What?’ And they’d say ‘What does your name mean?’ And I would say ‘Do you mean Whoopi?’ And they’d say ‘No, the other name.’ And then they would say ‘Come on, are you Jewish?’ And I always say ‘Would you ask me that if I was white? I bet not.’ The name is wonderful for starting conversations.”
She refused to be drawn on the exact origins of the name, but added: “My mother did not name me Whoopi, but Goldberg is my name, it’s part of my family, part of my heritage. Just like being black.”
Some pointed to her changing her name to “get ahead.” In her interview the actress seemingly scoffed at the idea that her name gave her an edge, saying, “You think it’s that easy? OK, sure.”
However, the “Sister Act” star did highlight two figures that she holds near and dear. “Alfre Woodard, and, I have to say, Debbie Allen too, those were the two women who kept me bolstered,” Goldberg explained.
As far as why she feels the Black community never fully embraced her, she had this to say. “I looked too odd, and I knew lots of white people, and apparently you’re not supposed to. And, my God, I might have married a couple of them,” she says facetiously. “It’s only in the last 10 years have people been like, ‘No, it’s really good, man, you’re all right.’ Like, thank you?”
While she may not harbor any ill will towards those who might’ve come to their own conclusions about her, Goldberg added in her recent interview that she has no issues, saying, “I saw it, I see it.” She added, “I see it. I’m aware of it. I’m glad you’ve evolved. But just don’t do it to somebody else, because it’s kind of dumb. And that’s the problem with not having that connection with other people because the thing that you know as an artist is that we’re all trying to do the same thing, we’re trying to make our art better, and so why not support folks?”