Racism: “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime is an autobiography written by comedian Trevor Noah, where he reflects on his childhood under the racist laws of apartheid. It is thrilling to follow his experience because it showcases the horrors and unfairness of racism. He talks about being a chameleon among African people as a child of a black woman and a white man. He belonged to no group and tried to find his place in the world as a mix-raced person. The book explores his identity, the places he did not feel different, and reviews his life in detail, which can teach a person to be more understanding, socially responsible, and tolerant.

Firstly, in his book, Noah talks about ‘being a chameleon’, which is an exciting part of the book. He is a person of color, which was considered illegal during apartheid. Yet he thought of himself as a black person because of his upbringing and the knowledge of several different African languages (Noah 40). As written in the book, he stayed the same color, but the perception of his color changed instantly when he changed the language he spoke. It was the benefit of knowing several African languages – he could respond to a robber in his native language, which instantly made Trevor a part of the robber’s culture, and that is why he was never robbed (Noah 42-43). However, the cost of that knowledge and the power to fit in almost with any group was the difficulty of finding his native identity. He did not know who he was, because he always had to choose sides ‘black or white, he did not realize his national identity because he belonged to Xhosa just as much as he belonged to the Swiss community.

As mentioned in the title of a book, Trevor was ‘born a crime’; he was living evidence of the ‘crime’ his parents committed under a racist regime. He was ‘too white’ to be considered black, and at the same time, he was ‘too black’ to be considered white (Noah, 44). However, there was one place where he felt like race did not matter and he was accepted. It was the Maryvale school, where children did not get teased because of the color of their skin, they were instead teased for general things like being too smart, too dumb, too skinny, or too fat (Noah 44-45). In that place, he felt as if he was accepted, which changed as he entered the new school H.A. Jack Primary, where he again became different. Black kids and one Indian kid recognized him, but he was still an anomaly, an exception, a crime (Noah 44-45). Although he felt like an outsider most of his life because of his skin color, he learned to live with those feelings and accept his identity.

Trevor Noah was a multilingual child with English as his first and primary language. In his book, he explained how under apartheid different languages resulted in greater oppression and division. For example, white people were discouraged from learning African languages because from early childhood, they were taught that those languages were beneath them (Noah 44). If one wanted to be employed somewhere of high prestige, one had to know English; otherwise, there was no chance to work in prestigious establishments. African languages and their language-bearers were also divided by different schools and believed that other words are enemy ones (Noah 43). When Trevor spoke to others in their native language, they viewed him as a person from their tribe’, as their own, and that is how he and his mother escaped various challenging situations throughout their life.

Language plays a rather important part in creating and sharing culture because the culture is often transferred through the tongue. A language has been created in a specific locality to preserve and pass down the culture of the people who are speaking it. One can observe the historical examples of how the national identity of some nations was ruined by destroying their native language first (as in the case of Romansh language, which people try to restore). A word can create unity because if one can understand the language another person speaks, primarily if this occurs in a foreign country, they feel like family or close friends. At the same time, if one language is demonized, using it in public can completely change the perception of another person.

As a bilingual person, I can share some advantages and disadvantages of knowing two languages. For example, when I speak to the other person, I can use the words from another language, as sometimes I can forget the most straightforward word in the needed language. It helps to understand a person from another country; it can be a great conversation starter that would interest many people. It would be easier for me to learn another language than for a person who can speak only one language. However, there are several disadvantages, for example, I can struggle to speak at an appropriate level in a professional setting. In addition, sometimes I can forget how to talk at all because, although I try to keep in mind and recycle both languages, I will always be better at one and worse at the other.

Speaking about the incidents I remembered the most in the book Born a Crime , it was an episode in the very beginning, where the mother was forced to throw her son out of the moving car to save his life. The man driving them was cursing the family for nothing and threatening to rape the mother and do worse to the children (Noah 16). That was when Patricia decided not to accept her fate calmly, but she made a choice, which saved her life and the lives of her children. After this situation, I started to look at that woman with admiration, because that episode not only showcased her inner strength, but she was wise enough not to make her children panic ahead of time. As the autobiography progressed, there were many similar stories, which showed her strength and will, but this one made the most significant impact on my mind.

There are many characters in Born a Crime; however, the one who exemplifies Francian Values the most is Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah Trevor’s mother. First of all, as Lourdes is a community of learning, Patricia teaches her son English, to read, to write, to understand the world around him. She showed him the truth and tried to make him know that the world is big and following one’s dreams is necessary (Noah 51). As Lourdes is a community of reverence, Patricia recognized and respected all human beings, their dignity, and their worth. As much as she was strong, she saw the better in prostitutes, gangsters, and robbers. Patricia’s heart accepted Jesus, and that is why she was incredibly respectful, even though she could talk back to anyone to protect her dignity. As Lourdes is a community of service, she challenged her son to help those in need. Even in her childhood, Patricia gave everything to the children who had less than her. She tried to help everybody, which is why I think she is the best example of Francian values’ human embodiment.

This book teaches that living in a diverse community is more comfortable than living in a society when one person is unique. For example, the reader can observe how Trevor was treated in an all-black neighborhood, where he was exceptional. Older people were afraid of giving him proper punishments; they believed his prayers were better-heard because he prayed in English; he was a miracle, an abnormality (Noah 40). However, when his environment became more diverse, people stopped thinking that he was not normal and accepted him. If more diversity were implemented globally, people would forget about racism as they would stop judging a person based on one’s race. After all, different races would not be considered an abnormality. It became a part of my way of thinking as it should because the distinction of races ultimately creates more racism and unfairness.

To conclude, Born a Crime teaches the reader about integrity, being kind, and being open to everyone despite his physical traits, such as race. It also teaches one to be ethical and not to divide people into white, black, and people of color. Lastly, it teaches one to be socially responsible, like the mother of the main character. Patricia gave everything she could to her son, including proper education and a sense of morality. She had a responsibility as a parent and gave everything she could to all three of her children, even if that meant that Patricia herself would suffer from abusive relationships. Her social responsibility paid off at the end of the story when her son helped her pay for her treatment. She was responsible for him, and he responded with his responsible behavior towards her.

Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood . Hachette UK, 2016.

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In an article about his book Born a Crime, an illustration by Ellen Budell

Trevor Noah's memoir mixes humor with biting social commentary. (Illustration by Ellen Budell, Benedictine College)

Pages x june 26, 2020, trevor noah says it best in his memoir ‘born a crime’: racism is stupid, in this memoir, the comedian uses his personal experiences in south africa and the u.s. to outline the fundamental irrationality behind racism — and why it continues to flourish., by tess mcgrinder, university of north carolina at chapel hill.

In his memoir “ Born a Crime, ” Trevor Noah details growing up half-Black, half-white in apartheid South Africa. He patches together childhood memories, marked by those with his mother, whose willpower and love for her son take unique forms and prove to be inexhaustible and, at times, even harsh.

Trevor chronicles his awkward years — sprinkled with embarrassing school dances, pimples and infatuation — with sharp wit and perfected self-deprecation. He captivates readers with his relatability and his skillful way of unearthing irony from even the darkest situations.

Yet, his mastery of comedy is only part of what makes his autobiography so good . To say the book was defined by his humor would be to neglect his underlying messages to readers. When rules or ideas did not make sense to Trevor, he challenged them, especially when dealing with the racism he  witnessed.

Racism was present within the diabolical and governing force in South Africa under apartheid, and remained pervasive after the regime’s termination. Racism does not make sense. It does not make sense in the United States; it will never make sense, anywhere. And Trevor Noah has a lot to say about it .

The Spectrum of Race

In “Born a Crime,” Trevor describes the system of racial categorization as absurd and arbitrary. For example, under apartheid, Chinese people were registered as Black, and Japanese people as white. Apartheid, a system designed based on the most “effective” examples of segregation and discrimination around the world, dictated rights and privileges to white people, and suffocating oppression to Black people. 

For those who were biracial, suddenly the system was less clear. People had more rights if they had lighter skin tones, but were still regarded as inferior to white people. They could “upgrade” to white status with certain behaviors and “downgrade” to Black status with others. Thus, to “fall in between” Black and white meant dealing with pressure to sacrifice one’s identity to make limited advancement in society. 

This nonsensical spectrum of race is also omnipresent in the United States. Due to deeply entrenched white supremacy in American society, “whiteness” has been shown time and time again to be a prerequisite for success. Just think about the study exploring racial discrimination finding that a resumé with a “white-sounding” name received significantly more callbacks from employers than a matching resumé with a “Black-sounding” name. Details of this study have been disputed in recent years , but its indication of discrimination in the workforce is unchallenged. The words “too white” or “too Black” are commonly used to diminish individuals’ identities and remind Black people that to embrace their identities is to be at a severe disadvantage in a country run predominantly by old, white men. 

The Language Dilemma

A proud polyglot, Trevor often alludes to his fascination with languages. He quotes Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Shared language unites people. Trevor points out how those who speak differently are seen as “different, less intelligent.” 

Language differences “[reinforce] racist preconceptions.” He’s right. Look at the United States, where English is not the official language but is treated as such. Those who do not speak it are targets of blatant discrimination. Numerous videos online capture just a fraction of the cases in which Americans mock non-native speakers at the grocery store or in the park, or demand they “go back to their country.” Trevor says the uniting power of language, on the other hand, is perplexing to the typical racist. 

When someone looks different but sounds the same, suddenly they don’t know what to believe. Trevor impersonates the imprudent white supremacist who finds himself in conversation with a “white sounding” person of color: “Wait wait [ . . . ]the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he … is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.”

The Broken Law and Order Systems Post-Apartheid

Trevor’s own words best describe the failing law and order system in apartheid South Africa: “ . . . the law isn’t rational at all. It’s the lottery. What color is your skin? How much money do you have? Who’s your lawyer? Who’s the judge?” People may try to argue that the United States has removed the most explicit examples of discrimination and segregation from law, but there is a clear and deep distinction between the experience of white and Black Americans. 

Look at something as simple as traffic stops . In “Born a Crime,” Trevor says that cops, when asked “Why was I pulled over?” would openly respond, “because you’re Black.” In the U.S., Black American’s are 20% more likely to be pulled over by the police. You’d be kidding yourself if you attribute this disparity to some difference in driving abilities between races. Something as simple as the inequality in traffic stops is indicative of a law and order system plagued with racism and prejudice. 

Education’s Role In All This

White people both in power and passively participating in apartheid surely understood the impetus behind the institutionalization of racism. In the U.S., Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, knew all too well the finalized copy of his proud declaration was severely flawed; the term “all” would not include his own Black slaves (his first draft of the declaration denounced slavery; this part was removed by the other Founding Fathers, a decision Jefferson accepted and then exploited, continuing life as a slaveowner). For that reason, white people attempted to block Black people from education, which, they feared, would empower the oppressed to seek out the end to the system that oppressed them. 

Education systems after the “end” of institutionalized racism continue to shield it. Trevor compares the education system in South Africa to that of the United States. In both cases, the history of white supremacy is taught in the past tense: human rights were once violated on all levels, institutionalized racism happened, it was bad, but it’s over, “let’s move on.” 

He points out how in Germany, schools teach students about the Holocaust in serious depth, ensuring they feel the weight of it and they “grow up appropriately aware and apologetic.” Injustices in the U.S. and South Africa — especially those launched by white people against Black people — are skimmed over, and even ignored. Did you ever learn about the Tulsa riots in school? If you did, you are in the minority (if you still do not know what that is, I encourage you to look it up). 

I write this on Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery, and one I did not learn about until this year because it is never mentioned in public schools, nor is it recognized as a national holiday. Flawed education systems allow white people to continue on with life, unconscious to the wicked actions of their race; many white children grow up to blindly deny the existence of racism in our country altogether. Trevor is deeply disturbed by this problem.

“Born a Crime” Is the Next Book On Your List

Many book lists are circulating with the aim to educate aspiring allies of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Born a Crime” is the next book on your list. If you cannot access the book — or perhaps instead of looking for a physical copy — try out the Audible version. Listening to Trevor recount his life is somehow even better than reading it off the page. 


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Home / Essay Samples / Social Issues / Discrimination / Born A Crime By Trevor Noah: Consequences Of Racism And Discrimination

Born A Crime By Trevor Noah: Consequences Of Racism And Discrimination

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  • Topic: Discrimination , Organized Crime , Racial Segregation

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