A Comedian Walks into an SSA Event...

(This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)

"I had no idea I was white," said comedian and Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, who was invited by the School of Social Service Administration to speak at the University.

Trevor Noah eventNoah is South African and was born to a Swiss father and Xhosa mother in the waning years of Apartheid, a time when intimate relationships between blacks and whites in South Africa were a crime. In addition to forcing his family to keep him hidden from the authorities, being mixed race even influenced how his family related to him. Noah didn’t become aware of that influence until later in his childhood. “I didn’t think of the special treatment as having to do with color, I thought it had to do with me being Trevor. If my grandmother didn’t beat me when I was naughty, it was because I was Trevor. If I couldn’t go outside without supervision, it was because I was Trevor. There were no other mixed kids, so I had no point of reference.”

Noah went on to tell the story of his grandmother complaining to his mother that she couldn’t discipline him because she didn’t know “how to hit a white child.” Noah’s grandfather insisted he sit in the back of the car because, as Noah recounted, “Mastah must always sit in the back seat.”

Noah’s visit was held on March 18 at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools’ Gordon Parks Assembly Hall and was attended by 578 members of the University community. The event was one of several Noah has done since the November 2016 publication of his best-selling book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, a collection of personal stories about growing up in South Africa. The event was moderated by SSA Postdoctoral Scholar Shantá Robinson, PhD, whose research focuses on the role of social identity in the educational experiences, career aspirations, and outcomes of students who are traditionally socially marginalized.

Both Noah’s book and his conversation with Robinson frequently returned to the theme of identity—the identities that are thrust upon us by family, community, and government; the identities we form and choose for ourselves, or at least try to; and the techniques we use to shift between those identities.

Noah’s mother, a strong-willed and independent woman, insisted Noah learn English, the language of advancement in South Africa, as well as the language of the many churches they attended. They even developed a habit of conducting long, legalistic arguments about everything from household chores to the nature of God’s will in letters that they wrote in English. Taking a cue from his mother, Noah also became fluent in Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, and Afrikaans, which allowed him to successfully negotiate potentially charged situations created by South Africa’s overlapping ethnic and racial groupings. “My color didn’t change, but I could use language to change your perception of my color,” said Noah. “Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, to some degree, I was you.”

Noah’s ability to see things from different perspectives also informed his comments when the conversation diverged from the specific contents of his book. At one point, Robinson asked him why people with racial privilege often seem to have a hard time owning that privilege. “It’s very difficult for some people to accept that they have privilege when in their world they are suffering or poor,” replied Noah. “If you tell a white person that they’re privileged but this white person grows up in a poor neighborhood and they have no access to education or to healthcare, how do they feel privileged? And feeling is more important than reality. I see poverty in America and much of what we consider poverty here would seem like luxury in South Africa. But that doesn’t mean it’s not poverty.”

The 90-minute conversation included readings from Noah’s book and questions from pre-selected members of the audience. Afterward, a large portion of the audience queued up to take pictures with Noah.

Funding for Noah’s appearance and public interview by Robinson, PhD was provided by the Pastora San Juan Cafferty Fund that was established at SSA to examine Race and Ethnicity in American Life.

— Mark Sheehy