A familiar tone sounded on my smartphone. An email arrived. I glanced and saw that it was from the public library. I had been on a waiting list for a book. It was now available. As soon as I could, I went online and had the copy sent to my reader. I couldn’t wait to begin Trevor Noah’s biography, Born A Crime.
South African born Trevor Noah is a stand-up comedian. After John Stewart retired from The Daily Show on the Comedy Central Network, Noah became the host. When he began, his humor was a bit sophomoric. But over the months, he became deeper and more insightful in his comedic critique of current events. He often compared current events with the life he knew growing up in South Africa.
Noah was born during the Apartheid rule of South Africa. This system of institutional segregation was woven into every aspect of South African life for approximately 50 years. By being born mixed race, to a black African mother and a white European father, Noah’s birth was a crime in the Apartheid system. Both of his parents should have been jailed and he should have been placed in an orphanage. But his mother was creative in working around the system.
Most striking to me about Noah’s writing is his clear understanding of the dynamics of oppression. Apartheid legislated different rights for each group based on their skin color. There were major groupings like white, black and mixed race. But even within these groups, there were something like subgroupings. Perhaps most bizarre to me was this: an official could change your racial designation so that a person who was clearly black could be designated white. Asians didn’t have their own grouping. Instead, Chinese were black but Japanese were white. What made Apartheid so effective was that groups were taught to distrust each other and learned to hate each other. For decades, members of the various groupings spent their time working against other groups effectively keeping each other down. Black speakers of one language would work to oppress black speakers of another language, and so forth. Organizing together to stand against the oppression was very difficult because people were trained to want to be designated as “white.”
I remember during the years of the Apartheid regime knowing about the systematic oppression. I boycotted companies doing business there to help be part of the resistance movement. But I never realized until reading Noah’s book how finely crafted the oppression truly was.
As I thought about the experience he described, I considered our current political context in the United States. A few friends have commented to me that they were getting tired of hearing about “identity politics.” I did my best to listen to their concerns but my liberal perspective was trained to think about the uniqueness of each group in society. Yes, African-American rights were important to overcome racism. Native-American rights needed to be restored to overcome centuries of genocide. There are Muslims, Jews, immigrants, trans people, and the list goes on and on. Then it became clear: our thinking in the United States is focused on the rights of individual groups. While these groups aren’t taught to hate each other as in Apartheid, they are kept separate and don’t work together. Rather than advancing the cause of the common good of all, we focus on one group or another, often at the exclusion of the others. We miss the vital sense that all the “minority groups” together make up a majority of the country.
Keeping people separated into small groups which were antagonistic toward each other is what made the Apartheid system work. It’s also what enables right-wing people with money to maintain control of the country today. As long as “rural whites” see themselves as different from “inner-city blacks” who are both different from newly arrived immigrants, then those in power are able to rule the masses and take advantage of them. People in Appalachia chanting “Build the Wall!” only serves to strengthen the power base of wealthy oligarchs who will do nothing substantive for economic development.
In the case of Noah’s biography, Born A Crime, I think that we Americans have a chance of better understanding the politics of “divide and conquer” at home by reading about how it worked in another country and culture.
© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.