“There’s many assumptions I’ve made about America that I’ve realized were wrong,” said Trevor Noah toward the beginning of his 2013 stand-up special, African in America. Slightly heavier than he is now and sporting a leather jacket and baggy jeans, this was Trevor Noah before he became the third host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and, by extension, the latest purveyor of a pervasive, noxious type of moderate liberalism.
“For one,” Noah said in the special, “I thought people spoke English here.” He paused, allowing for a few bouts of laughter. Then he flashed a smile. “Far from it. It’s just what Americans have done with the language you guys have, just, wow. You’ve done something, you’ve put 22's on the English language. It’s got rims — it’s pimp my language.”
Then Noah launched into an anecdote about meeting a woman who wanted him to look at something. “She was like” — here Noah began wagging his head from side to side — “Oh my god, look over thurr!” he exclaimed, using African-American vernacular. It was a cringeworthy moment, indicative of a troubling reflexive tendency toward anti-blackness that Noah often seems blithely unaware of. And although he has moved away from this sort of overtly racist humor, his recent work as host of The Daily Show has shown that Noah still doesn't quite grasp the reality — the frustration, the difficulty, the literally life-and-death stakes — of the black American experience.
That special wasn’t even the first time Noah has made jokes at black Americans’ expense. When he was tapped as the first African comedian to ever perform on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2012, he used the historic moment as an opportunity to marvel with melodramatic wonder at black American names: “It’s almost like they lose their minds with the Scrabble pieces while giving birth.” The jokes were embarrassing enough that, three years later in a 2015 GQ interview, Noah apologized (kind of): "I hadn't fully understood the African-American experience. I hadn't read the books; I hadn't met the people; I hadn't traveled the country," he assured writer Zach Baron.
A presidential election and various high-profile police shootings later, as host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah in 2016 wants to assure us that he is informed. But his sensibility on the program throughout the general, relentless shitshow of 2016—the escalated hate crimes, the vitriolic hate speech, has been one of indefatigable agreeableness and detached amusement. Why can’t we all just get along? He always seems to be asking, genuinely puzzled. From his Nov. 30 interview with conservative pundit Tomi Lahren to his New York Times op-ed on Monday — he espouses a wan, trite call to moderation that works as a book promotional strategy (his memoir, Born a Crime, came out on Nov. 1), but sandpapers over the very real, consequential effects of racism. It's a mistake he can't afford to make. The results of the election have already begun to exacerbate. Hate crimes in New York City are up 35% compared to last year. Such ideas also demonstrate a breathtaking amount of naïveté, which makes sense when you consider his background.
Ironically, nuance has never been Noah’s comedic strong suit. Stand-up comedy is still a young art form in South Africa, and in a country so divided and diverse, broad jokes and generalizations are a unifying source of humor. Noah’s sharpest comedic asset has always been his uncanny ability to do accents; his impression of a drunk Nelson Mandela, as seen in his 2009 comedy special The Daywalker, is hilarious in its startling accuracy. When I first started watching Noah’s stand-up in 2009, it was that ability to effortlessly switch from a Nigerian oga to his mother’s Xhosa accent that made me watch him. (See him mock South Africa’s national soccer team here.)
As an Nigerian immigrant who moved to America when I was 11, there was surely a bit of overcompensation at work in me, too. I wanted so desperately to feel connected to the continent, my memories of which I feared were fading. Noah’s sheer pan-African ubiquity in the late 2000s — he hosted award shows, he was the face of one of South Africa’s biggest cell phone companies, he was always on MTV Base — made him one of Africa’s biggest comedic stars. He was like Russell Peters in that way: another brown comic adept at trafficking in broad generalizations that are first thrilling, because of who’s in on the joke, but quickly grow tired and stale.
When he performed for my university’s African and Caribbean Students Association in 2011, the tiny room was filled with African immigrants, some of whom were students and others who had just heard about the show by word of mouth. We all laughed appreciatively at how bombastic Nigerians are and how Kenyans are like this and Zambians are like that. There was a sense of deep camaraderie in the room — the feeling that as Africans of various stripes living in America, we were being seen.
But then he made a fat joke and the room went dead. A sense of foreshadowing, perhaps.
Trevor Noah’s American breakthrough happened rapidly. He had appeared on Jon Stewart's Daily Show only three times before he was tapped to replace him in March 2015. Before Noah even began the job, he was roundly chastised for some old, unfunny tweets about fat women and Jews, among others. But Noah was quick to put those things behind him: “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian,” he tweeted later that month. Instead, he decided to embrace his perspective as an outsider. As the biracial child of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father, he occupied a liminal space in his home country. “I’ve lived a life where I’ve never really fit in anywhere,” he told an interviewer in a 2011 documentary about his life, Born to Walk. And so his foreignness and his biracial identity became the primary lens through which he would approach his comedy in America.
Indeed, his outsider perspective appeared to be an asset to the executives who hired him. “He is a student of our culture. But he looks at it from a very different perspective." said Michele Ganeless, then the president of Comedy Central, in that 2015 GQ profile. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the benefits of black immigrants (in his case, West Indian) adopting an outsider approach in a 1996 New Yorker essay: “In American history, immigrants have always profited from assimilation: as they have adopted the language and customs of this country, they have sped their passage into the mainstream. The new racism means that West Indians are the first group of people for whom that has not been true. Their advantage depends on their remaining outsiders, on remaining unfamiliar, on being distinct by custom, culture, and language from the American blacks they would otherwise resemble.”
It’s a strategy that Noah benefits from. As a light-skinned black man, he reads as black to Americans, but his foreign accent marks him as just Other enough to appeal to white people’s prejudices (conscious or not) about sophisticated, harmless, "good" black folk. But because of his blackness, they believe it gives him inherent authority to speak about race in America.
There's an arrogance in that outsider perspective, an assumption that there's an innate advantage in not being from any particular place. Noah’s primary mode on The Daily Show has been lecturing. Consider his condescending admonishment to anti-Trump protesters a few days after the election that they “don’t become the hate that they are protesting against.” His jokes often feel broad and undercooked. See his ill-advised Nov. 2 segment claiming that Hillary Clinton is living the black experience. (“Think about it: She always rolls in an Escalade, she’s spent most of her life in government housing, and her baby daddy’s got side-chick issues.”)
This kind of chiding behavior came to a head with Noah’s first truly "viral" bit, a meandering interview with 24-year-old Tomi Lahren, who hosts a nightly web series on Glenn Beck’s conservative website The Blaze. A woman who routinely rages against the "victimization" of black people and once said of police shootings of unarmed black people, “If the victim was unarmed, it wasn’t for lack of trying,” Lahren's videos have gotten millions of views on Facebook and YouTube.
The interview was hailed by critics as one of Noah’s best segments to date but is disappointing when watched in full. Noah’s first question to Lahren is “Why are you so angry all the time?” It suggests that perhaps if Lahren packaged her anti-blackness in a more polite, civil tone, it would be less damaging. When she makes dubious claims such as “I don’t see color,” Noah responds with obfuscating jokes: “What do you do at a traffic light?” When she states (falsely) that black people are 18 times more likely to shoot a police officer, Noah doesn’t push back. The ultimate purpose of the interview remains unclear.
Noah seems, in fact, to be taking on the mantle of angry truth-teller very reluctantly. He admitted as much in an op-ed for the Times published on Monday: “When I took over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart in 2015, I was surprised to learn that my job as a late-night comedy host was not merely to entertain but to eviscerate — to attack, crush, demolish and destroy the opponents of liberal, progressive America.” He explains that Stewart never took kindly to the "eviscerator" label, which is true. Stewart’s reputation as a vocal liberal diehard has always been overblown.
Then Noah writes, “Instead of speaking in measured tones about what unites us, we are screaming at each other about what divides us — which is exactly what authoritarian figures like Mr. Trump want: Divided people are easier to rule. That was, after all, the whole point of apartheid.” That was the point of apartheid? Not white supremacy?
There’s a deep irony here. Noah calls for nuance when his own interpretation of apartheid is astonishingly simplistic and lacking in historic fact or context. When Noah asks minorities to “break bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us,” he’s transferring the onus of responsibility for eradicating racism onto the marginalized. And that’s the biggest problem with Trevor Noah — his consistent need to placate, his cloying belief that everything will work out if liberals and conservatives just sit at a metaphorical dining table and hash things out. It’s the luxury of his vantage point as a successful black foreigner, the miracle of his own birth, that lets him believe such solutions are feasible.
As Vann Newkirk III writes in The Atlantic about the pervasive claims among certain social science writers that calling racist people racist is counterproductive: “The labels of racism and bigotry can impose a social cost on bigoted actions, policy preferences, or speech, regardless of whether hearts or minds are changed. Stigma can be useful.” Shame has power.
Noah’s views wouldn’t be so frustrating were it not for the fact that, with the cancellation of The Nightly Show and the departure of Jessica Williams, Trevor Noah is now for better and for worse, the black voice in late-night political comedy — a platform that still holds influence; viral clips can drive the news cycle and challenge pundits and politicians. (Consider how much Tomi Lahren’s profile has risen as a result of her appearance on the show.) But as long as he peddles such cloying, dismissive rhetoric, Noah's power is harmful. Perhaps the most useful thing Noah could do is go back and take his own advice: Learn more about the African-American experience. Read the books. Meet the people.
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Tomi Obaro is a senior culture editor for BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Tomi Obaro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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