Caryn Elaine Johnson was born in Manhattan, New York City, on November 13, 1955, the daughter of Emma Johnson (née Harris; 1931–2010), a nurse and teacher, and Robert James Johnson Jr. (1930–1993), a Baptist clergyman. She was raised in a public housing project, the Chelsea-Elliot Houses, in New York City.Goldberg described her mother as a "stern, strong, and wise woman" who raised her as a single mother with her brother Clyde (c. 1949 – 2015). She attended a local Catholic school, St Columba's. Her more recent forebears migrated north from Faceville, Georgia; Palatka, Florida; and Virginia. She dropped out of Washington Irving High School.She has stated that her stage forename ("Whoopi") was taken from a whoopee cushion: "When you're performing on stage, you never really have time to go into the bathroom and close the door. So if you get a little gassy, you've got to let it go. So people used to say to me, 'You're like a whoopee cushion.' And that's where the name came from."About her stage surname, she claimed in 2011, "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," and "I just know I am Jewish. I practice nothing. I don't go to temple, but I do remember the holidays." She has stated that "people would say 'Come on, are you Jewish?' And I always say 'Would you ask me that if I was white? I bet not.'" One account suggests that her mother, Emma Johnson, thought the family's original surname was "not Jewish enough" for her daughter to become a star. Researcher Henry Louis Gates Jr. found that all of Goldberg's traceable ancestors were black, that she had no known German or Jewish ancestry, and that none of her ancestors was named Goldberg. Results of a DNA test, revealed in the 2006 PBS documentary African American Lives, traced part of her ancestry to the Papel and Bayote people of modern-day Guinea-Bissau of West Africa. The show identified her great-great-grandparents William and Elsie Washington, who had acquired property in northern Florida in 1873, and mentions they were among a very small number of black people who became landowners through homesteading in the years following the Civil War. The show also mentions that her grandparents were living in Harlem and that her grandfather was working as a Pullman porter.According to an anecdote told by Nichelle Nichols in Trekkies (1997), a young Goldberg was watching Star Trek, and on seeing Nichols's character Uhura, exclaimed, "Momma! There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!" This spawned Goldberg's lifelong Star Trek fandom, and she eventually asked for and received a recurring guest-star role as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In the 1970s, Goldberg moved to San Diego, California, where she became a waitress, then to Berkeley, where she worked odd jobs, including as a bank teller, a mortuary cosmetologist, and a bricklayer. She joined the avant-garde theater troupe the Blake Street Hawkeyes and gave comedy and acting classes; Courtney Love was one of her acting students. Goldberg was also in a number of theater productions. In 1978, she witnessed a midair collision of two planes in San Diego, causing her to develop a fear of flying and post-traumatic stress disorder.