Authors: Trevor Noah
One afternoon I was playing with my cousins. I was a doctor and they were my patients. I was operating on my cousin Bulelwa’s ear with a set of matches when I accidentally perforated her eardrum. All hell broke loose. My grandmother came running in from the kitchen.
“What’s happening?!” There was blood coming out of my cousin’s head. We were all crying. My grandmother patched up Bulelwa’s ear and made sure to stop the bleeding. But we kept crying. Because clearly we’d done something we were not supposed to do, and we knew we were going to be punished. My grandmother finished up with Bulelwa’s ear and whipped out a belt and she beat the shit out of Bulelwa. Then she beat the shit out of Mlungisi, too. She didn’t touch me.
Later that night my mother came home from work. She found my cousin with a bandage over her ear and my gran crying at the kitchen table.
“What’s going on?” my mom said.
“Oh, Nombuyiselo,” she said. “Trevor is so naughty. He’s the naughtiest child I’ve ever come across in my life.”
“Then you should hit him.”
“I can’t hit him.”
“Because I don’t know how to hit a white child,” she said. “A black child, I understand. A black child, you hit them and they stay black. Trevor, when you hit him he turns blue and green and yellow and red. I’ve never seen those colors before. I’m scared I’m going to break him. I don’t want to kill a white person. I’m so afraid. I’m not going to touch him.” And she never did.
My grandmother treated me like I was white. My grandfather did, too, only he was even more extreme. He called me “Mastah.” In the car, he insisted on driving me as if he were my chauffeur. “Mastah must always sit in the backseat.” I never challenged him on it. What was I going to say? “I believe your perception of race is flawed, Grandfather.” No. I was five. I sat in the back.
There were so many perks to being “white” in a black family, I can’t even front. I was having a great time. My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Misbehavior that my cousins would have been punished for, I was given a warning and let off. And I was way naughtier than either of my cousins. It wasn’t even close. If something got broken or if someone was stealing granny’s cookies, it was me. I was trouble.
My mom was the only force I truly feared. She believed if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. But everyone else said, “No, he’s different,” and they gave me a pass. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I knew my cousins were getting beaten for things that I’d done, but I wasn’t interested in changing my grandmother’s perspective, because that would mean I’d get beaten, too. Why would I do that? So that I’d
better? Being beaten didn’t make me feel better. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies. I went with the cookies.
At that point I didn’t think of the special treatment as having to do with color. I thought of it as having to do with Trevor. It wasn’t, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is white.” It was, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor.” Trevor can’t go outside. Trevor can’t walk without supervision. It’s because I’m me; that’s why this is happening. I had no other points of reference. There were no other mixed kids around so that I could say, “Oh, this happens to
Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. “The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.”
Whenever the kids in the street saw me they’d yell,
“The white man!” Some of them would run away. Others would call out to their parents to come look. Others would run up and try to touch me to see if I was real. It was pandemonium. What I didn’t understand at the time was that the other kids genuinely had no clue what a white person was. Black kids in the township didn’t leave the township. Few people had televisions. They’d seen the white police roll through, but they’d never dealt with a white person face-to-face, ever.
I’d go to funerals and I’d walk in and the bereaved would look up and see me and they’d stop crying. They’d start whispering. Then they’d wave and say, “Oh!” like they were more shocked by me walking in than by the death of their loved ones. I think people felt like the dead person was more important because a white person had come to the funeral.
After a funeral, the mourners all go to the house of the surviving family to eat. A hundred people might show up, and you’ve got to feed them. Usually you get a cow and slaughter it and your neighbors come over and help you cook. Neighbors and acquaintances eat outside in the yard and in the street, and the family eats indoors. Every funeral I ever went to, I ate indoors. It didn’t matter if we knew the deceased or not. The family would see me and invite me in.
“Awunakuvumela umntana womlungu ame ngaphandle. Yiza naye apha ngaphakathi,”
they’d say. “You can’t let the white child stand outside. Bring him in here.”
As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didn’t know any of it had anything to do with “race.” I didn’t know what race was. My mother never referred to my dad as white or to me as mixed. So when the other kids in Soweto called me “white,” even though I was light brown, I just thought they had their colors mixed up, like they hadn’t learned them properly. “Ah, yes, my friend. You’ve confused aqua with turquoise. I can see how you made that mistake. You’re not the first.”
I soon learned that the quickest way to bridge the race gap was through language. Soweto was a melting pot: families from different tribes and homelands. Most kids in the township spoke only their home language, but I learned several languages because I grew up in a house where there was no option but to learn them. My mom made sure English was the first language I spoke. If you’re black in South Africa, speaking English is the one thing that can give you a leg up. English is the language of money. English comprehension is equated with intelligence. If you’re looking for a job, English is the difference between getting the job or staying unemployed. If you’re standing in the dock, English is the difference between getting off with a fine or going to prison.
After English, Xhosa was what we spoke around the house. When my mother was angry she’d fall back on her home language. As a naughty child, I was well versed in Xhosa threats. They were the first phrases I picked up, mostly for my own safety—phrases like
“Ndiza kubetha entloko.”
“I’ll knock you upside the head.” Or
“Sidenge ndini somntwana.”
“You idiot of a child.” It’s a very passionate language. Outside of that, my mother picked up different languages here and there. She learned Zulu because it’s similar to Xhosa. She spoke German because of my father. She spoke Afrikaans because it is useful to know the language of your oppressor. Sotho she learned in the streets.
Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once, and the shopkeeper, right in front of us, turned to his security guard and said, in Afrikaans,
“Volg daai swartes, netnou steel hulle iets.”
“Follow those blacks in case they steal something.”
My mother turned around and said, in beautiful, fluent Afrikaans,
“Hoekom volg jy nie daai swartes sodat jy hulle kan help kry waarna hulle soek nie?”
“Why don’t you follow these blacks so you can help them find what they’re looking for?”
he said, apologizing in Afrikaans. Then—and this was the funny thing—he didn’t apologize for being racist; he merely apologized for aiming his racism at us. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I thought you were like the other blacks. You know how they love to steal.”
I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”
It became a tool that served me my whole life. One day as a young man I was walking down the street, and a group of Zulu guys was walking behind me, closing in on me, and I could hear them talking to one another about how they were going to mug me.
“Asibambe le autie yomlungu. Phuma ngapha mina ngizoqhamuka ngemuva kwakhe.”
“Let’s get this white guy. You go to his left, and I’ll come up behind him.” I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t run, so I just spun around real quick and said,
“Kodwa bafwethu yingani singavele sibambe umuntu inkunzi? Asenzeni. Mina ngikulindele.”
“Yo, guys, why don’t we just mug someone together? I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
They looked shocked for a moment, and then they started laughing. “Oh, sorry, dude. We thought you were something else. We weren’t trying to take anything from you. We were trying to steal from white people. Have a good day, man.” They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.
I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.
As apartheid was coming to an end, South Africa’s elite private schools started accepting children of all colors. My mother’s company offered bursaries, scholarships, for underprivileged families, and she managed to get me into Maryvale College, an expensive private Catholic school. Classes taught by nuns. Mass on Fridays. The whole bit. I started preschool there when I was three, primary school when I was five.
In my class we had all kinds of kids. Black kids, white kids, Indian kids, colored kids. Most of the white kids were pretty well off. Every child of color pretty much wasn’t. But because of scholarships we all sat at the same table. We wore the same maroon blazers, the same gray slacks and skirts. We had the same books. We had the same teachers. There was no racial separation. Every clique was racially mixed.
Kids still got teased and bullied, but it was over usual kid stuff: being fat or being skinny, being tall or being short, being smart or being dumb. I don’t remember anybody being teased about their race. I didn’t learn to put limits on what I was supposed to like or not like. I had a wide berth to explore myself. I had crushes on white girls. I had crushes on black girls. Nobody asked me what I was. I was Trevor.
It was a wonderful experience to have, but the downside was that it sheltered me from reality. Maryvale was an oasis that kept me from the truth, a comfortable place where I could avoid making a tough decision. But the real world doesn’t go away. Racism exists. People are getting hurt, and just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And at some point, you have to choose. Black or white. Pick a side. You can try to hide from it. You can say, “Oh, I don’t pick sides,” but at some point life will force you to pick a side.
At the end of grade six I left Maryvale to go to H. A. Jack Primary, a government school. I had to take an aptitude test before I started, and, based on the results of the test, the school counselor told me, “You’re going to be in the smart classes, the A classes.” I showed up for the first day of school and went to my classroom. Of the thirty or so kids in my class, almost all of them were white. There was one Indian kid, maybe one or two black kids, and me.