Born a Crime: Segregation and Policies Against Black People

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Racism has always differentiated between people according to their colour. It either makes them inferior or superior to one another. Many people in history such as Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela revolted against the system of the society to eliminate any policy or message that differentiates a race by their physical feature. In the memoir Born A Crime by Trevor Noah, he talks about the struggle of black people that have been oppressed over the years by white Europeans who enforced laws that took up most of their rights.

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Trevor Noah’s celebrity status also gives him a unique ability to draw readers into learning about the history of South Africa and in discovering and understanding its past which in turn, is crucial in how racism and race function. Noah’s memoir harnesses 'the ambivalent emotional currents underlying the cultural fascination with both life narratives and celebrity” to tell not just his own story, but also the tumultuous story of a specific nation. The incidents that Noah narrates in the first few chapters highlights the way in which these dramatic moments are used to give a personal insight into the realities of life in South Africa. Much of the day-to-day tension and violence Noah experiences result from tensions between different non-white groups rather than from white colonial powers that continue to dominate and oppress the non-white population.

At a time where the apartheid era reigned over the African population. Trevor Noah opens his memoir with a copy of the Immorality Act, which in turn gives life to criminal penalties for everyone and anyone who has “illicit carnal intercourse” with someone of another race in South Africa. The Act of Immorality is considered to play a fundamental role in Noah’s existence owing to the fact that it’s the precise reason Trevor Noah was “born a crime.” Noah’s sort of illegal beginning is just one of the many stories that he recollects about race and identity in his memoir “Born a Crime.”

“The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart from hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.” These are the opening lines of the memoir, demonstrating just how destructive and divisive apartheid was for the South African people. The white government used apartheid to control the black majority, getting them to fight against one another instead of coming together to fight a common enemy. These different groups, such as the Black and colored people, would then become preoccupied with power struggles and tensions, while the white colonial powers could more easily continue to maintain authority. As a result of racial separation and that of focusing on difference and mistrust, the non-white groups in South Africa weren’t able to gain any power or influence.

Opening his memoir in such a way that it articulates a central premise: that the apartheid relied on creating divisions between people so that the white colonial powers could more easily continue to maintain authority. By focusing on such distinctions, the apartheid government encouraged individuals to see one and another as that of someone fundamentally different, and therefore the ones not to be trusted upon.

While Born a Crime tells a very personal story of Noah’s experience growing up during apartheid, and post-apartheid, in South Africa, Noah makes a point of explaining the history of apartheid, dating back as far as the 17th century when Dutch and British settlers colonized South Africa. Between each chapter, the book is broken up with brief asides offering a somewhat more accessible understanding of how apartheid was created, the various divisions (based on tribes, race, ethnicity, language, etc.) that existed, and the flawed and hypocritical nature of the system itself.

Noah is able to further underscore his experience navigating the intricacies of apartheid in that he was mixed race, having a black mother and a white father (ultimately classified as “colored”), which was illegal. Noah explains, “Race-mixing proves that races can mix — and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.” Primarily raised by his black mother while he himself was classified as colored in a world built on segregation, Noah grew up in a unique and challenging situation in terms of his identity and where he fit in to society. At times he details how he was an outcast and a loner, and how he simply did not fit in with his relatives, at school, or the neighborhoods he grew up in; at other times he highlights how he was able to embrace his lack of cultural identity to be a “chameleon” of sorts.

“Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different.’ The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.”

While Noah grew up during apartheid and was as much a victim of it as anyone, Patricia refused to submit and raise him under apartheid and the belief that he was subject to the limitations of it. Once, Noah asked his mother, “Why didn’t we go to Switzerland?” and she answered, “This is my country. Why should I leave?” Noah’s defiance of apartheid was born of hers. Just as his mother chose not to live a life entirely dictated by apartheid and found ways around it, Noah chose not to be the outcast that apartheid told him he was. Instead, as he did with language, he found ways to fit in, he found his place. “I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.”

The memoir’s first episode shows him, his mother and his baby brother being endangered not by white men, but by black men who belong to a different tribe. Communal tensions between the Xhosa and Zulu play out in the heat of Trevor’s mother’s argument with the bus driver, one which depicts the minor intra-racial differences between the two Black African tribes. Upon such an encounter with the Zulu driver, the episode sheds light on the overwhelming atmosphere of danger and violence that Noah’s family are forced to deal with it in the aftermath of the apartheid, one of the many toxic consequences that colonialism and apartheid brought along. Bringing about such power struggles between the different black African groups who were simultaneously oppressed by the white ruling elites. The incident is one in which they could all have been killed; Noah doesn't shy away from admitting that reality, but he also doesn't dwell on it. While the apartheid ends when Noah is quite a young child, his early life in a way is more impacted by the indirect fallout of violence and power struggles between different Black African groups rather than direct conflict with white individuals.

While the geography of Johannesburg is more than just significant: the churches are placed in disparate neighbourhoods for the undoubted reason that the different racial groups were forced to live apart. The differences between the three respective churches also reveal stark differences among the three main groups in question. The white church shows the centrality of education where the white culture alone, enjoys the privilege to access it, which also points out to how surprising it is for Trevor to out-Bible quiz the more advantaged white kids at the church. Whereas the black church depicts as to how suffering and poverty are defining features of a black’s experience under the apartheid.

In reality, the Apartheid regime’s deepest weakness is namely that racism is simply false: people from all groups are primitively capable of loving one another and that race does not act as a natural boundary between the communities. The attempt in angling mixed-race people into a distinctive category further shows that racial groups are hazy, socially constructed categories rather than true facts of nature. Patricia’s fearlessness helps her yet again in defying the very laws designed to manipulate her through the use of fear and violence, reflecting the absurdity of a system that defines human life based on race rather than on common humanity. Patricia recognizes the birth certificate—official government business—as a farce and obstacle, and her bluff easily succeeds precisely because apartheid is based on the illusion that race is a true, biological, determinable trait. While the fact that she cannot even be seen with Trevor in public shows how totalizing and draconian the apartheid regime is.

Soweto is ground zero for the apartheid regime’s oppression of blacks: it seems more like a war zone under occupation rather than a normal suburb and its frightening structure illustrates just that its architects were well aware of the violence they were willing to perpetuate in order to maintain white authority. This works as much on the macroscopic level of Soweto as a whole as it does on the level of Trevor’s individual family, which must hide him considering it as literally being against the law for them to coexist in the same place. While the author is somewhat astonished to realize that there could have been yet another way out of his childhood confinement, his mother clearly trusted her own strength enough to always consider their difficulties surmountable. Indeed, she sought to show Noah that it is possible to defy even one of the most oppressive governments in history and come out unscathed. Precisely for the very reason that the apartheid government did nothing for black South Africans, keeping them confined in neighbourhoods like Soweto where success meant not leaving Soweto but rather in transforming it (and their lives) for the better. Furthermore, the driveway clearly captures this image of aspiration; even if people never get to the point of buying cars, the hope of possibly achieving one in the future keeps them going and creates a paradoxically “magical” atmosphere in the township. Thereby uprooting South Africa’s native peoples and forcing them into such homelands where the apartheid has marked its enduring legacy of identity confusion.

Although the apartheid treats racial difference as the primary means to divide people and linguistic difference as a secondary one, Trevor sees that it is actually reversed in most people’s day to day lives: black people feel foreign with the way they speak English and sooner or later it becomes evident that Trevor manages to relate with the people who think he is “coloured” by speaking in their respective languages which singles out their racial differences. While the white world sees Trevor as that of mixed race, his black family in Soweto alternatively see him as white. Being brought up as a visibly light-skinned child in a family where every other person was Black not only gave Noah privileges but also a sense of isolation. In this sense, by being mixed-race, Trevor gets access to how it feels on both sides of unequal race relations; this privileged understanding well positions him to fight these same inequalities. One incident where Trevor accidentally breaks his cousin’s eardrum while playing; his grandmother beats everyone but him, claiming, “I don’t know how to hit a white child.” She is indeed afraid that he will bruise and turn “blue and green and yellow and red.” Trevor’s grandfather sees him as white, too, even calling him “Mastah” somewhat acting like his chauffeur. Though Trevor is “way naughtier than the rest of his cousins,” he gets off easy when he makes trouble—except for with his mom. Still, he understands “how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks.”

Language, Noah argues, is a much stronger unifying force than colour. On the street, when anyone asks him where he is from, Trevor simply responds in the same language and accent. When a group of Zulus chat about their plans to “get this white guy,” he turns around and proposes in Zulu that they “just mug someone together.” They apologize—they “thought you were something else.” He “became a chameleon.” This episode is remarkable not only because Trevor shows he is no “white guy” by speaking Zulu, but also because he is actually Xhosa, the tribe with which the Zulu share the strongest rivalry after apartheid. Because he has no particular, discernible ethnicity at all, Trevor easily transforms into whatever is convenient in any particular context. The sharp division between the white and black students shows that educational inequalities start early in South Africa, with Trevor likely only in the advanced classes (which exacerbate this inequality) because he got to attend an expensive private school for free. This brings about one of many instances in which Trevor ends up literally caught between black and white.

Noah throw light upon the apartheid’s “fatal flaws,” mainly upon its illogic: for instance, Chinese people are classified as “black,” but Japanese people are considered “white” because the South African governments wants to import Japanese products and stay on good terms with the Japanese government. The fact that Chinese and Japanese people end up in opposite categories shows that these categories are actually constructed to serve the government’s own self-interest rather than based in any distinguishable biological reality.

Meanwhile in a soccer match, a security guard beat a cat to death on live television like “any sensible black person” would (because it was a witch), one in which created a massive outcry among the white animal lovers, where the man “had to pay some enormous fine.” In the aftermath of the event, Noah points out that “white people had spent years seeing video of black people being beaten to death by other white people” and yet now they are furious at the violence. While “in South Africa, black people have dogs.” It depicts the degree to which the separation between blacks and whites in South Africa is based in conjunction with a difference in cultural mind-sets. As for the blacks, it is nothing but “sensible” to kill a cat and as for the whites, this is animal cruelty though it is perfectly fine to kill blacks. In fact, whites see animals as more deserving of rights than black people, shows that racism in part functions through a breakdown in empathy and social recognition toward “other” groups.

Just like it uses “divide and conquer” to keep Xhosa, Zulu, and other native populations at one another’s throats, apartheid gives coloured people selective privileges in order to make them focus on their comparative high status relative to blacks (and not their oppression). The apartheid government makes these people “almost-whites” in order to ensure they align with the existing system rather than side with blacks. And that the coloured community is incredibly racist, having been taught “that it was black people who were holding them back.” With the result that makes it “weird” for Trevor, who is “coloured by complexion and not by culture.” Because coloured people have developed a distinctive culture yet remained defined during apartheid by their relationship to blacks (as superior) and whites (as inferior), they cannot make sense of Trevor, who is at once whiter and blacker than them, plus insufficiently coloured.

In a place and time in which identity was strictly defined by the divisions of apartheid, this is ultimately not a story of finding identity within apartheid. But rather, is Noah’s journey of creating his identity despite apartheid. In the contempt of growing up with a lot of challenges and restrictions, Noah has gone on to be incredibly successful.   

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