Summary: This clip features a set from stand-up comedian Trevor Noah's show at the Apollo Theatre in London. In his humorous commentary, Noah illustrates how meanings ascribed to race are socially constructed, and how social mechanisms--such as laws--function to create, reproduce, and reinforce socially ascribed meanings of race. Noah begins by talking about his experience growing up under apartheid, the South African law that made it illegal for white and black people to interact. Born to a black mother and white father, Noah recounts the legal consequences his parents faced for their relationship (with Noah as the evidence of that relationship and thus a liability for his parents in public). Noah also addresses the stigma he felt as a result of these very real legal dangers, offering a particularly compelling description of what the stigma felt like: "It was horrible. I felt like a bag of weed" (when his parents had to "drop" him any time authorities or would-be snitches came by). Growing up, Noah was also teased by others and called derogatory names like "mixed breed" and "half caste." Noah reflects on these names: "I hate that term 'half'. Why not 'double'?" Noah's critique highlights a common conceptualization of race, the presumption being that mixed race constitutes some form of dilution. Viewers are encouraged to take Noah's question seriously: Why is the notion of mixed race so often depicted as a "thinning" or "watering down" of some sort? Why aren't multiracial identities described as an augmentation? Pushed further, why are they presumed to constitute some type of meaningful transformation in the first place (i.e., "half" or "double")? What are the implications of such presumptions? As Noah continues to describe his own story and racialization experience, he further illustrates another dimension of the social construction of race, as race takes on different meaning in different social contexts. In South Africa, Noah longed to be considered black. He was told that, in America, people would think of him as black, as any (known) African ancestry tends to constitute "blackness" in the United States. Of course, this American racialized phenomenon has its own long legal history in the so-called "one-drop rule." Yet, upon arrival in the U.S. and much to his bewilderment, Noah is mistaken for Mexican. Here, viewers can see how race means different things in different contexts: In South Africa, Noah wanted to be "more black." In the U.S., he was told that he'd be "super black." Noah studied performances of American blackness in hopes of acquiring this super black status. However, upon arrival, Noah was deemed neither American black nor multiracial South African. Instead, he was perceived to be Mexican. The clip usefully illustrates some of the fluidity, complexity, and consequences of different racial formation systems.
Submitted By: Margaret Austin Smith