In his moving new memoir, Born a Crime, Comedy Central star Trevor Noah, 32, paints a picture of his unorthodox upbringing in South Africa. The product of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss father, Noah was forced to be shuttled back and forth from Johannesburg to Soweto, where his parents resided separately. Segregation was built into these communities. Especially in Soweto, a township of the city of Johannesburg, where Noah writes “99.9%” of the citizens were black. He was the .01%—a light-skinned child who appeared as an outsider in his own community. The outsider label is one Noah has carried with him ever since he was announced as Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show.
It’s been a little over a year now since Trevor Noah took the daunting position of replacing Jon Stewart. In that time, Noah’s iteration of the show has struggled to find an audience; viewership has waned while former guest correspondents like Jessica Williams and Samantha Bee have left for greener pastures. Or, at least, that was the recurring narrative up until 10 days ago, when Noah had Blaze/YouTube conservative commentator Tomi Lahren on the program.
The conversation has since become folklore. For 26 minutes, Noah and Lahren sparred on everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to President-elect Trump’s ascendency. The interview—now a viral sensation—is less of an exchange of ideas than it is two people delivering impassioned monologues.
What’s significant, though, is the attempt made by Noah. For better or worse, he was trying to listen to his opposition, rather than berate them. This rarified gesture—to talk instead of scorn—has catapulted Noah into the spotlight. Though, that’s not a completely positive thing: the public opinion turned on Noah after he was shown getting drinks with Lahren and even more so when Lahren Instagrammed cupcakes allegedly sent to her by Noah. The Daily Show host claimed the first photo had been deceptively edited, and that he didn’t personally send Lahren cupcakes, but the sentiment remained. Many feel Noah wasn’t just listening to his opposition—he was brazenly coddling a blatant racist. Nonetheless, the whole episode has inadvertently made Noah a central voice in the ongoing conversation we’re having on race, President-elect Trump, the future of this country and the people who inhabit it.
We spoke shortly after the taping of Wednesday night’s Daily Show. Despite the apparent fatigue over the subject, he was engaged and optimistic, eloquent on the matters of racial tensions in America, his unusual childhood in South Africa, and the responsibility he must shoulder entering Trump’s presidency.
After your Tomi Lahren interview, people seemed surprised, and later angered, by your patience and fairness. Where does that come from?
It’s because I often believe that people exist within the shell that they create, or within the shell that they’ve been taught to create; the people inside that shell can’t always be reached. The craziest and most fascinating story for me is when I went to Robben Island [where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned]. I heard the stories about how Mandela and another leader of the struggle, Robert Sobukwe, had to be separated from the prison guards because they were able to convince the guards to change their views on not just the government, but on racism as a whole. Those stories fascinated me because I realized that when you think about it, racism doesn’t stand up to contact well. I don’t mean artificial, superficial contact, but rather contact in the space of people meeting and talking. That’s why segregation is often one of the tools that is needed for a racist structure to exist. When the people live with one another, they are less likely to possess those thoughts about a group of people because they understand that individuals exist within that group.
I heard you talk about this on “The Breakfast Club” earlier this week and it reminded me of this quote from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
I haven’t read it.
Well in it, she writes in regards to racism, “Each moment is like this—before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen.” Do you think people like Lahren are only going to change their minds if racism gets worse? If it’s impossible for even them to deny?
Well, you know what the tough thing is? There are so many different reasons people use to excuse it, so I don’t know if showing people racism changes them in any way, because they don’t see the people behind the acts. They don’t see the people that are the victims. That’s oftentimes why it’s so successful, because it’s easier to get people to turn a blind eye to what they perceive as something being done to a group who deserve it, as opposed to other human beings who they see like themselves. Think of it with regards to Syria. Everyone knew about the war in Syria, everyone knew about the bombings taking place. This is something that was on social media, but seeing that little boy in the ambulance got people so riled up, people who were never before, because they saw a little boy, and everyone in their minds could relate to a child. The same goes for the refugee crisis in Europe. When the body of a child washed up on the shore, all of the sudden, people who had never seen it as a crisis took it as a crisis, because there was a personification of what was happening as opposed to a statistic or a number or a group of people. That’s something that I find sometimes: It’s not people seeing it that’s going to change them, it’s people seeing the people that it’s happening to and experiencing them as human beings. That is what can help shift the dial in the right direction.
You’ve said “racism is a disease,” so are you trying to be the cure?
Oh, no, I think I’m trying to be one of the people who is working towards finding a cure. I see all of us as scientists, if we choose to be in this world where we’re trying to find cures. In most cases in science, you find that it was just the curious people who discovered many of the great things that we’ve got in the world. I was born in a country that was forged through racial segregation, so I’m fascinated by race as a whole. I think of myself as someone who is constantly trying to figure it out. What are the different methods we can try? I like to consider myself a part-time scientist whose hobby is studying this racist disease to figure out how we can work to cure it.
You’ve admitted you don’t have the answers. That’s been your mantra for the past couple of weeks. But is there going to come a point where your job, in which you sometimes face off against people like Lahren, mandates you have some answers?
I think so, but I don’t know when that time will come. I will not try and create answers or falsify my findings for the sake of appearing to have answers. I think often when you’re trying to discover something, knowing what you don’t know is as important as knowing what you know. If I can, through process of elimination, get closer to my goal, then that’s as good to me as finding an answer. I just keep asking the questions of this world I live in, about the systems I observe.
You mentioned “my goal” in that answer. What is that?
I guess I have many goals. My global goal is to leave my world in a better place than when I found it, and that could be as big or as small as someone sees my role to be.
Since we’re talking about the theoretical future, 10 years from now, what would you like to see in this country?
I’ll put it to you like this: in South Africa, we grew up in a world where being black was—and is still, in many places—seen as being inferior. Being black was seen as something that no one would aspire to. Being black was seen as being less than. When I set out to do my comedy it was a mishmash of what I consider now a lot of rubbish, but at the time it’s who I was. That sort of comedy is a snapshot of the time that you were living in. What happened is over the years I grew, I learned, I tried to inform myself and change what I was talking about and how I was talking about it. After doing ten years of comedy, I’ll never forget one day when I was visiting South Africa, a little white kid came up to me and said to me in Zulu, “Trevor, I’m your biggest fan. Thank you so much for your comedy. You’re the reason that I learned African languages.” I didn’t set out to have that as my goal, but here I was with this kid, and his parents were telling me how they can’t speak any African languages because they never thought they’d need to. They were in a country that told them that those are the languages of the primitive people. Yet here was this kid, who in his world was proud to own a piece of South Africa, and that piece once told to him to be inferior. So, it wasn’t a goal that I’d set out to have, but it was something that I achieved. If I can achieve small things like that, then I will be happy with the life I’ve lived.
You’re fostering a dialogue with anyone willing to participate, but is there a breaking point here? A time where talking is no longer enough?
I think there’s always time for talking. Remember, talking doesn’t negate any other form of activism. While Martin Luther King was marching, he was also giving speeches. While Nelson Mandela was writing, he was also speaking to world leaders. I think we can do that on all levels in our lives. While you are trying to protest and move toward a world where climate change isn’t an issue any longer, you can do small things like recycle your plastic bottles. That’s just what we do or what we should be trying to do as people. It’s the same thing for me. I will always be talking. It doesn’t matter what I’ll do in addition to that, but I will always be talking. If I’m not talking, then I’m not listening.
You spend a significant portion of your new book talking about your mother, who had “14 cousins and lived in a hut.” You say she persevered in part because she didn’t want you to live with the “black tax”—the burden of dealing with problems steeped in the past. Do you think that’s still part of your job?
Definitely. It’s one of the legacies of any type of oppression. That is, you have generations that are so far below the line of where they should be, that every generation that immediately excels or experiences success has to now go back and bolster the previous generation. I was lucky though. My mom said, “That was the one thing I won’t burden you with. When you start, you can start from zero, then you can make everything from there for yourself.” That’s really something that has impacted my life positively.
Do you think you started from zero?
Yeah, but I think we went up a long way. Zero, for me, is not a bad place. Zero, for me, is a place where you’re not burdened by debt, you’re not having to work for a family that is not one that you created. Zero for me is working from a place where you have zero in your bank account, you have no education, all you have is what’s in your head, and then you go, “Okay, this is the zero for me.” For others, zero may be a different place, but I think I started from zero and then worked up. I don’t ever take it for granted, though. My mom worked up from negative 50 and then she put me at zero, so that’s how I measure my life.