Trevor Noah On Police Targeting People Of Color: “There Is No War”
In September, Trevor Noah will have completed a year as the only millennial host at Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a gig he still admits he was never ready for. Before facing criticism for taking over the reins after long-time host Jon Stewart stepped down, Trevor Noah, 32, made his debut as an on-air contributor, offering his outsider’s perspective on culture in the United States. “I never thought I’d be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa,” he quipped, with a sort of distinguished charm we’ve now come to love. “It kind of makes me a little nostalgic for the old days, back home.”
Noah, who moved stateside circa 2011, was born in Johannesburg to a black mother and a white, Swiss father during apartheid. In a social climate currently riddled with anti-black rhetoric, Noah most notably garnered headlines for tackling police violence from behind his late-night desk.
“Did you guys see that shooting that happened two days ago?” Noah asked in the wake of the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “Because don’t worry if you missed it. There was another one yesterday… Two videos in two days of police fatally shooting two black men who, when you watch the video, did nothing to warrant them losing their lives.”
This month, Noah and his crew—the “Best F#@king News Team”—will take their satire and political savvy on the road to cover both the Democratic and Republican conventions, offering viewers a first-hand account. As a non-U.S. Citizen (therefore unable to register to vote in the election), the stand-up comic is keenly aware of his naiveté in American politics, which, as far as he’s concerned, aligns nicely with that of its citizens. “I think everyone should admit they know nothing about how American politics works,” he cracks over the phone, “because if they did Donald Trump wouldn’t be leading and wouldn’t be the Republican nominee.”
Ahead of the conventions, Noah uses his jester point-of-view to navigate racial disparities in America, “emotional” success, and the impending war zone that awaits should Trump win the upcoming presidential race.
VIBE: As someone who “knows almost nothing about how American politics works,” what do you hope or expect to learn while covering this year’s convention?
Trevor Noah: I think everyone should admit they know nothing about how American politics works because if they did Donald Trump wouldn’t be leading and wouldn’t be the Republican nominee. So I think the thing I hope to learn most by going to the conventions is understanding how, on their side, they allowed a man who doesn’t represent the party at all to become the face of the party. That’s pretty much why I’m excited to be going to the conventions.
Who are you most rooting for, and why?
It’s tough right now. Right now I’m still in the wonderful position of being a court jester where I don’t need to “root” for anyone. I do know that if Donald Trump becomes president of the United States, you’re going to be in a place where you’re in uncharted territory and that territory may be a war zone. But, other than that, I’m lucky enough that because I cannot vote and I do not need to vote, I am in the position where a jester should be and then that is I’m looking in from the outside, just giving you the honest opinion of all your options and right now those options are Hillary and Donald.
What would you say to Trump if you found yourself standing next to him?
What would I say to him if I found myself standing next to him? Uh, I would say “Hello,” first and foremost. I’ve been taught to be polite in my culture, so I would greet him. And then I would say to him—the biggest question I would ask him is “Are you for real?” Because I genuinely don’t think he is.
Do you think that your opinions on race in America have a more resonating affect because you are from South Africa?
I don’t know that it has a more resonating affect. I do know though that we share a struggle, we share a cause, we share a history in some way, shape or form. You know, America and South Africa have had very similar beginnings and so I understand a lot of the sentiments, I understand a lot of the feelings, and so strangely enough I feel at home in this conflict. So, in terms of it resonating, I would hope it would resonate because people feel like it is coming from a genuine place that is authentically connected to theirs and that’s probably the biggest reason.
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What cultural aspects from South Africa do you think America could benefit from?
I think it’s getting to the place where you are not politically defined, but rather defined as groups and as individuals and as a society. You know, it’s strange to me that people here describe themselves, increasingly so, more and more, just as Republican and as Democrat and that defines your point of view. Whereas, back in the day, and even if you read the statistics and you look at it like—America used to be a place where you could be dating someone who was a Republican and you could be with someone who was a Democrat if you were a Republican. You could go either way because it was just a point of view on how to get to the same place whereas now it has become something that defines people. ‘I cannot be friends with that guy. He’s a Republican,’ ‘I cannot be friends with that person. They’re a democrat,’ and that is something that we don’t have in South Africa, thankfully. You know, if you were a supporter of one party, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot be in any conversation with people from another party and that’s one thing I think America could benefit from.
You grew up in Soweto, which is linked to the discovery of gold. As a member of mainstream America, what are your thoughts on the country’s obsession with wealth?
I don’t think it’s just America’s obsession, I think it’s the world’s obsession. It’s just America was one of those countries that was driven by it. No one who is still here today was from here, like everyone was brought here because of that wealth. Everyone was brought here in order to mine that wealth in different ways. So I think because America fundamentally is based on an idea, because America is a place where capitalism is so celebrated, the up-side is that it is a world where people can do—anything is possible. The sky is the limit. The down-side is that you have a place where sometimes people are only aiming for the wealth, people are only aiming for that and that becomes the definition or the defining characteristic of the country. You know, where everyone is just trying to get rich. Everyone is just trying to be richer than the other people around them.
Whereas when you go to Europe and other countries around the world, there is also a certain sense of “What is your emotional success?” “What is your personal success?” “Is your family intact?” “Do you have enough time off?” “As a mother, can you raise your kids?” “Can you take time off of work?” In places like Switzerland, they actually force you to take time off to go and be with your family. They don’t allow you to be a workaholic because they realize ironically it goes the other way around: the more you work, the less effective you are at work. And America hasn’t understood that because the goal is just to be on that “Top 10” list. Who has the most money, who is making the most money who’s doing—it’s the actors, it’s the singers, it’s the CEOs. And so because the nation itself was founded on that, the pursuit of happiness—life, liberty and the pursuit—the wealth is a thing that people perceive as being that liberty and because that is one of the only ways you can achieve that true liberty it becomes a defining characteristic of a country when it really shouldn’t be.
Thank you for that. That was incredibly enlightening. In your opinion, how should we tackle police brutality against black and brown peoples, and what do you think needs to happen in order for real change to occur?
I think, first and foremost, the police force needs to admit that it has a problem. People take for granted that, we are just talking about police shootings, but the police relationship with black and brown people in America is a larger conversation. Yes, shootings and deaths are extreme examples of that interaction, but we cannot deny the physical abuse. You cannot deny the way people are spoken to. You cannot deny years and years and decades of that. And you know I understand the conversation on the other side where people go “Oh, well, black people need to be more respectful of the police and you cannot deny,” yeah, but if you look back—I was watching the OJ documentary the other day and you realize this has been going on for such a long time, it’s just that now black and brown people have the tools to show that they are not crazy. They have the tools to bring people into the conversation. And I think that’s what needs to happen. That the police force just needs to admit that they have a problem.
Now, the problem is not saying that you are bad people. The problem is saying that you are working within a system where you spend the bulk of your time firearms training and only something like eight percent of the time studying how to deescalate and negotiate in a conflict situation. But, if you think about it, that’s mostly the situations that you’re going to be in as a policeman. You should be spending more time figuring out how to deescalate things and less time figuring out how to shoot your gun. And that’s not the fault of the policemen, that’s how they’ve been trained. You need to understand that, from the top down, that there is something wrong. And until that happens, nothing can change. It will seem like there is a war and there is no war. The truth is it’s an oppression. To imply that it is a war means that either side has a chance of winning this and that’s not true. Black people cannot go up against the police, and that is not what they should be doing. The police are there to protect its citizens and all Americans are its citizens.
So, the most important thing is just for people to keep talking, it’s for people to keep tweeting, it’s for people to keep the conversation going. But from the other side as well, people must be careful that they do not attack the very people that are trying to help in the conversation. And I understand where that comes from, but I see so many black and brown people saying to white people, “Hey, stay out of the conversation,” “Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” “Hey you, white celebrity that’s trying to chime in, why don’t you shut up,” and it’s like, if you keep doing that, you do realize you will not have the groundswell that you need to move the conversation.
When gay people were fighting for the right to marry and equal rights, they weren’t chasing straight people out of the conversation because they realized that you do need those in power to give you the power. No one can deny that. And people can be headstrong about it and say “We’ll take the power,” but, if you look throughout history, not many times has the taking the power led to the most progressive movement where the gains are realized. So I think it is a situation where it needs to be addressed from the police side, but those fighting and those understanding in the movement from black and brown people need to realize that you have to welcome the help of others, even if they may not be articulate in giving you the help.
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Going back to what you called “emotional success,” what does success look like to you?
Success to me looks like getting to a place where I can afford to pay for my food and the food of others. Getting to a place where I can use my platform and my position to improve the lives of others because by improving the lives of others you immeasurably improve your own life. I don’t know why we’ve forgotten that or we just don’t know that in society. It’s a strange world that we live in and I’m guilty of it, too. We all do it. We think if we build ourselves then that’s the most important thing, but if you build those around you then everything gets better. So, for me success is getting to that place, but also forging genuine relationships along the way. Meeting real people, maintaining my friendships. I’m still lucky enough to be friends with people that I’ve known for 15 years from back home.
It’s understanding that you exist beyond all your achievements and your accomplishments. You, as an individual, need to be accomplished because if it all gets taken away today—I guess I quote Whitney Houston when she says “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity,” and that’s part of the emotional success for me is being in a place where I’m not defined by what I’m doing, but I’m defined by who I am.