Born a Crime' and Call Me by My Names: the Impact of Trauma and Identity

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Government Control in Born a Crime and Teng's Story
  • The Portrayal of Childhood Trauma 
  • A Struggle to Fit In and Belong
  • Conclusion
  • References


Trauma can be thought of as deep distress rooted to unforgettable emotional scarring. Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born A Crime” gives insight on what it’s like to grow up as “coloured” individual during the South African apartheid. Noah is the illegal product of a black mother and a Swiss father born in South Africa during the apartheid movement; in an attempt set by the government in an attempt to separate the country’s people based on the colour of their skin. Noah’s conquest to fit into a racist and discriminatory society causes him a great deal of distress and leads to confusion towards the world as he seeks to understand the apartheid was ever created. Similarly, Fiona Teng battles the pressure of conformity to western society and searches for her unique identity in her essay “Call Me by My Names: A Story of Shame, Trauma, and Liberation in a Chinese Name.”

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Government Control in Born a Crime and Teng's Story

Instead of working for the people who call the country home, the government works to separate based on the colour of their skin through apartheid policies. Noah describes the South African apartheid as “a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control” (Noah Page 19). The system is designed to make sure that groups of people are at constant conflict with one another leaving no time to pose a threat to the government. The apartheid attempts to emphasize the minuscule differences between groups of people and to create fear against those who are different. While Noah is someone who struggles to fit into the norms of society, he observes that the differences between groups of people are minor and that people who speak different languages are still people. For this reason, he feels as if people who are different should not be exploited or be made feared of. Similarly, Teng’s family has a difference in language and culture than that of those Teng’s peers. Teng’s essay informs the reader about the hardships and the trauma people immigrating to the U.S. For one, Teng explains that after years of attending school in the U.S., she feels as if “befriending the dominant culture of whiteness offered the difference between surviving and crumbling” (Teng). Teng is unable to express her true self or practice her cultural activities as she fears being judged or being labeled as someone different. Feeling incomplete and fear of judgement leads to Teng being unable to express herself. This causes her to flee to a metaphorical confined box designed to keep her safe from the world. A paper by Nelson, Charles A., and Leslie J. Carver found that due to a child’s brain developing dramatically during their younger years, “the developing brain is particularly vulnerable to the harmful physiological effects of stress” as it leads to both physical and behavioural changes in the brain. During Teng’s presentation Teng describes her “heart pounding and body fidget” when deciding which name represents her individuality (Teng). The situation makes Teng feel stressed and as a result she develops negative memories and feels anxious about the situation.

The Portrayal of Childhood Trauma 

During the apartheid movement, it is illegal for white and black people to have a child. For this reason, Noah is literally “Born a Crime” (Noah 24). Like Teng, Noah is also forced to spend the majority of his time hidden. Noah’s mother Patricia loves Noah deeply but lives in constant fear that the authorities will forcibly take Noah away from her. Patricia has her own “search for belonging” (Noah 48) as Noah explains she was the unwanted middle child in her own family. Patricia was forced to work on the family’s rural farm in Xhosa and would often not be fed. Many years later, even after working day and night, Noah’s family is unable to escape the traumas associated with poverty. Trevor describes that his mother would “take the clay from the riverbank and mix it with water to make a grayish kind of milk [that] she’d drink… to feel full” (Noah 49). Knowing this his mother has gone through such difficult challenges in life and has food insecurities and causes suffering and psychological stress to Noah. Noah describes the government essentially created a black tax. A scenario where “rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero (Noah 50). Further, a paper by ¬¬¬ Chick, J. Keith supports Noah’s observations. The study found that on average, “Black groups had higher levels of psychological distress than Whites and perceived chronic discrimination was positively associated with distress. Moreover, these experiences accounted for some of the residual racial differences in distress after adjustment for socioeconomic status.” The paper supports that discrimination has a strong correlation to the traumas associated with poverty.

A Struggle to Fit In and Belong

Throughout the memoir, Trevor feels as if “he is too black for the white kids” who all live on in large houses on another side of town and “too white for the black kids” (Noah page 121). Being unable to fit in, Noah feels as if he does not have a place in society and that he is an individual who does not belong. This is similar to how Teng feels about her life new life in the U.S. Being the product of Asian immigrants, Teng has an ethnic Chinese name which she describes as being given “extensive thought, advice and collaboration” before being chosen (Teng). However, an English name (Teng) is also given due convenience for her peers and teachers to pronounce (Teng). In doing so, Teng realizes that by adopting western values, her cultural roots are being forgotten. Teng describes that “Cantonese pop music, once our favourite pastime, now appeared cheesy” (Teng). Teng’s environment and desire to fit into society leads her to feeling the need to dissociate herself from the entertainment of her culture. This is likely due to “popular media readily [presenting] laughable caricatures, offensive limitations and flat stereotypes of Asian American” which deviates to her feeling insecure and changing her interests in effort to avoid being laughed at (Teng).

Moreover, the apartheid system moved native Africans to areas that were unfarmable or slums. Noah states that his grandmother’s town Soweto, was “designed to be bombed” (Noah Page 25) and there were only two roads in and out to make it easy for the government to respond to unrest by exterminating threats from the air. By keeping the victims of apartheid separated, society is able to turn a blind eye to the actions of the government. Noah sees apartheid’s worst, but also understands why people who aren’t coloured support the government’s actions. Noah becomes famous in Soweto simply by having light skin and his grandmother lets him eat as much food as he desires while restraining the consumption of Noah’s cousins. Further, Noah’s grandmother never disciplines him “because [she doesn’t] know how to hit a white child.” (Noah page 40) Even though Noah and his cousins share the same blood, his grandmother still sees him as an outsider rather than a family member. For Noah to be labelled as an outcast and not being able to fit into his own family, causes Noah to feel distressed.

During his time in high school Noah states “[he] was everywhere with everybody and at the same time [he] was all by [himself] (Page 141) Noah feels as if he never fit into society as he has to keep his past and parents a secret. In doing so, Noah is not able to feel as if he belongs and has a place in society similar causing him trauma. Teng feels anxiety and stress due to fitting into society. Immigrating from Hong Kong to the U.S. Teng is forced to adopt an English name. She feels as if English names are a joke due to “the lightness and humor with which English names are casually chosen” and how “extensive thought, advice and collaboration that a child’s Chinese name is chosen” (Teng.) Teng feels as if “For twenty-two years I had been conditioned to regard my Chinese identity starting with my name as a source of embarrassment and inadequacy” (Teng). Like Noah, she feels out of place as they both fail to fit into the designated groups of people.


The two stories show the traumas discrimination has on people and society in their similar while unique way. Due to the colour of Noah’s skin, he suffers from traumatic events in his entire life. Noah realizes that he must always be on edge and cautious as the reality of the situation is being a coloured man in South Africa can lead to danger. By writing his memoir Noah is able to offer insight and perspective into what life is like growing up as someone who is coloured and as Noah found success later on life, to offer hope to those currently struggling day to day. Teng’s essay gives insight into the battle immigrants face in attempting to fit into society and the importance of staying true to your cultural heritage.


  1. NELSON, CHARLES A., and LESLIE J. CARVER. “The Effects of Stress and Trauma on Brain and Memory: A View from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.” Development and Psychopathology, vol. 10, no. 4, 1998, pp. 793–809., doi:10.1017/S0954579498001874.
  2. Salaam, Amirah, et al. “Call Me By My Names: A Story of Shame, Trauma, and Liberation in a Chinese Name.” ZINE, 14 Aug. 2017,
  3. Williams, David R et al. “Perceived discrimination, race and health in South Africa.” Social science & medicine (1982) vol. 67,3 (2008): 441-52. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.03.021
  4. Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. First edition. Spiegel & Grau, 2016. 

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