All joking aside, Trevor Noah has something to say about race. In interviews with President Obama, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Washington Post’s own Wesley Lowery, the “Daily Show” host has spoken frankly, provoking discussion on a subject he knows about intimately. Growing up under apartheid in South Africa, the child of a black mother and a white father, Noah defied categorization: He was mixed-race, but not “colored,” a specific ethnic distinction in South Africa. Noah’s experience offers a unique perspective on navigating racial division, a subject he explores at length in his fascinating and heart-rending memoir “Born a Crime.”
In an email interview, Noah talked about race, discord and what his mother — and Nelson Mandela — might have to say about it all.
Q: Since the election, many people worry about returning to a more divided, discriminatory period in this country. Where and how can we find hope and unity amid these challenging times?
Hope and unity are not things that you find. They are things you have to make.
Q: Growing up in South Africa, how were you able to put aside the negative messages in your culture to achieve so much?
I was lucky in two ways. First of all, I received only positive messages from my family. My parents, my grandparents, everyone around me loved me and gave me a strong foundation of self-worth. That counts for a lot more than people think. Secondly, because of the peculiarities of apartheid’s rules, I was able to slip through racism’s cracks a bit. I am mixed-race but I was raised by a black mother and identified as black. Most mixed-race people in South Africa are identified as their own race, “colored.” Since people saw me as colored, the insults and slurs hurled my way were the insults and slurs typically hurled at colored people. Since I identified as black, [not as colored], those slurs didn’t mean anything to me, and therefore didn’t hurt me.
Q: Your memoir celebrates your mother, a woman who raised you mostly on her own, putting herself through school, pushing back against a society that devalued her and a husband who drank and abused her. What was the most valuable lesson you learned from her?
My mother dealt with an incredible amount of pain in her life, but she always taught me to never be bitter. “Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” That lesson has served me well. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
Q: In your recent Op-ed piece in the New York Times you wrote “we can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us.” What is your inspiration for that idea and how can we put it into action?
That is the way Nelson Mandela dealt with white people on a political level, and it’s the way my mother always dealt with racism in our personal lives. My mother was defiant and held her head up high and took no disrespect from anyone, yet that same sense of self-confidence allowed her to treat even the most racist people with friendliness and a smile. She saw racism as something that afflicted a person, and not as the nature of the person himself. When she started her own real estate business, she went out of her way to hire racist white contractors and pay them well — to her, nothing neutralized racism faster than kindness and respect and a good paycheck from a black employer. I saw it work dozens of times. How one puts that idea into action depends on the circumstances of one’s life. You start where you are and you go from there.
Q: How can we “break bread” with [conservative political] commentator Tomi Lahren and people who agree with her views?
You just do it. I’ve done it. It’s not easy. It takes patience, but it’s something you just learn how to do. When Nelson Mandela was in prison on Robben Island, the warden had a rule that no guard could be assigned to Mandela for more than a few months at a time. That was because every white person who spent time with Nelson Mandela would come away with too much respect for him and too many questions about the injustice of apartheid.
Q: You also told the Times, before the election, if you could require the president to read one book, it would be yours. Do you feel the same way about the president-elect?
I would love it if the president-elect read a book. Any book. Or perhaps a security briefing.
Q: Do you think he should watch your show, too?
Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t.
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