Trevor Noah on growing up mixed race in South Africa (from BBC's Live at the Apollo, 2013)

Trevor Noah: Good evening. I grew up in South Africa. That’s where I still live, I enjoy it, grew up there during a time known as Apartheid. For those who don’t know, Apartheid was a law in our country that made it illegal for black and white people to interact with one another, you know. This was against the law. And so this world was awkward for me growing up, because I grew up in a mixed family, well with me being the mixed one in the family.

My mother is a black woman, Xhosa woman, born in South Africa. That’s one of the languages with the clicks, Xhosa. Xhosa! So a black woman and then my father is Swiss, but they didn’t care. They were mavericks, fighting the system. My mum was arrested for being with my dad. She would get fined, she would get thrown into prison for the weekend, but still she’d come back and she was like, “Woo! I don’t care! I don’t care! Woo! Can’t tell me who to love! I want a white man! Woo!” She’s crazy my mum, just crazy. And my dad was also like, well, you know how the Swiss love chocolate. So he was in there, you know.

And so – and so they got together and they had me, which was illegal. So I was born a crime, which is something I don’t think they ever thought through, because as a family we couldn’t live together. You know. Like in the streets, we couldn’t even be seen together. My father would have to walk on the other side of the road and he could just wave at me from far like a creepy pedophile. Well, like a pedophile. I didn’t have to say creepy, like a pedophile because creepy implies there’s some other sort of pedophile. There is none. There’s no classy pedophile. There’s no need, like “Afternoon, ladies. Afternoon. Afternoon. No, no, just browsing, just browsing.” He’s so classy! No, he’s a pedophile. Alright…

And, my mum could walk with me. My mum could walk with me, but if the police showed up she’d have to let go of my hand and drop me and act like I wasn’t hers every single time, because we weren’t supposed to exist as a family. So my mum would let go. It was like a little game we played. The police would show up like, “Woo!” She’d be like, “Oh! I don’t know. I don’t know. No, he’s not mine. He’s not mine. No, I don’t know.” It was horrible for me. I felt like a bag of weed. It was a tough time.

And – and the downside of being light was that just that being light I was different. People mocked me, gave me names like mixed-breed, half-caste. I hate that term half. Why half? Why not double or twice as nice? I don’t know. People give you weird names, I just wanted a cool name, you know. I wanted to be black, to be honest. That’s all I ever wanted. Especially since one day growing up, I met an American and he was shocked that in South Africa we had all these titles. And he said to me, “Well, you know, Trevor, if you go out to America, they’ll label you as black.” I said, “Really?!” He was like, “Oh, hell, yeah! Ha ha ha ha ha — yeah, buddy, everybody is black out there. Yeah! You’d be super black.”

Well, that sounds good to me, super black! Yeah. And I made a choice like, “First chance I get to go out to America, I’m going to get a piece of that black.” And I did boarded a flight. It was an 18-hour journey, Johannesburg to New York. I didn’t sleep a wink. I just sat there in my chair like a madman watching every single black American movie I could find. Just sitting there going crazy, practicing like, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! You know what I mean? You know what I mean? Yeah! King Kong ain’t got shit on me! Yeah! Yeah! I’m – sorry? Oh the chicken, please. The chicken. Thank you. No, that’s fine, thank you. Yeah! Put it in your mouth, yeah!”

18 hours of flying, 18 hours of practice. I landed in New York and I was fluent in my black American. Fo’ shizzle my nizzle. I had everything. I had the walk. I had the talk – I was so black, I was even laughing like “Ha! Ha! Ha! Yeah! Ha-ha! Oh, my man! My man! Oh, that’s you? That’s you? Ha-ha!” That for me is the coolest thing in the world. Black Americans are so cool and confident. They’ll make you feel good about yourself just by asking if you are you. It’s magic. They’ll just walk up to you and go, “That’s you? That’s you? Nah, nah, for real, man, this you?!” And you’ll be like, “Yeah, I think it is! Yeah.”

And I was that black. I was super black. I was loving it, until this guy walked up to me. I don’t know him, he didn’t even know me, tapped me on the shoulder in the airport he’s like [Spanish Language]. I said, “What? You’re talking to me?” He said “Yeah, I’m talking to you, man! I’m just saying, we made it, baby. We made it baby, eh?” Now that we’re here, our kind, we got to stick together, hombre.” “Our kind?!” 18 hours of flying and I wasn’t black. I was Mexican.

Mexican. So I started learning Spanish. If not, why not? And then I’ve also started learning German. I learn German to connect with my father. You know. Lost contact with him for many years because of apartheid and so now we’re starting to learn each other, which is taking time, but we’re doing it slowly. I think the language will help me you know, because I don’t think he’s proud of me. He loves me, but I haven’t earned his pride. I think partly because of my job. As a comedian I don’t rank that high in the world of German ‘anythings’. Comes across in the small conversations, like one day we’re having lunch. My dad looks at me and goes, “So, Trevor, what do you do now, eh? You got a job? Do you work?” I said, “Yeah, Dad, I’m a comedian, a stand-up comedian.” He’s like “Oh, yeah, yeah, so the clown, eh? Yeah.” “No. Whatever.”

German’s holding me back. You know. I dream of impressing him with his language. I’ll get to his house one day. He’ll welcome me at the gate, like, “Ah, clown boy!” I’ll be like, “Guten tag, vater.” It’s epic. It’s got that feeling. So I’ve started learning. I learn in different ways. You know, watch German movies, play German speeches on my iPod when I sleep. Your brain remembers things you don’t even know, it’s beautiful. The only hiccup was it turned out I’d downloaded some of Hitler’s speeches. It’s not like Google warned me. Don’t judge me. Google wasn’t like, “Oh, not those ones!” No, it just let me download everything and so I learned some of his nuances, not his philosophies. It’s just I’ve been told that when I speak German sometimes I sound distinctly Hitler-ish, which I found out in Germany, which is not the best place to find out that you’ve got Hitler vibes. I would have rather found out at home. And, actually, it’s funny now, not so much then.

I was in Cologne, Germany, beautiful area, I’ll never forget. I was walking around and I went into like a little sandwich shop, like one of those Subways where you make your own sandwich and I walked in. The woman was really nice to me. She was like, “Guten tag. Kannst ich sie helfen?” I looked at her and I thought, confidence, Trevor. Confidence! I said, “Guten tag! [German Language] Und ein Pepsi Cola drinken, bitte!” And she shat herself. I’ll never forget the look on her face. She went pale, she looked me straight in the eye and she said, “Der schwarze Hitler!” Which means the black Hitler. I was so happy. Yeah, because she said Hitler, but at least she said I was black. You guys have been fantastic. Thanks for having me.


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