Under Apartheid, Trevor Noah's Mom Taught Him To Face Injustice With Humor (2024)

Trevor Noah — who took over hosting from Jon Stewart in 2015 — remembers watching The Daily Show on CNN in South Africa. "It looked like a news show and it had the same colors as CNN and the ticker," he says. "I just worked under the assumption that it was part of the news programming. ... I thought that Jon Stewart was a news anchor who didn't take his job seriously." Getty Images hide caption

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Under Apartheid, Trevor Noah's Mom Taught Him To Face Injustice With Humor (2)

Trevor Noah — who took over hosting from Jon Stewart in 2015 — remembers watching The Daily Show on CNN in South Africa. "It looked like a news show and it had the same colors as CNN and the ticker," he says. "I just worked under the assumption that it was part of the news programming. ... I thought that Jon Stewart was a news anchor who didn't take his job seriously."

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Growing up in South Africa with a white father and a black mother, Trevor Noah confronted prejudices on both sides. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that both white people and black people would express fear and biases to him. Then, he says, "I'd have to explain to them, 'Hey, you can't think like that. You can't hold these views, because you're generalizing everybody.' "

His experience growing up enables him to see both sides of an issue — which helps when it comes to creating political satire on The Daily Show. "I've understood multiple experiences simultaneously," he says. "That's something I've always done and I continue to do till this day: I try and see the perspective of the other side."

He adds that while the pressure of creating a daily television show can be intense, those pressures pale in comparison with those he knew growing up in Soweto during apartheid.

"When I think back. ... Not 25 years ago, I was living in basically a very elevated hut with no running water or indoor sanitation. I can't trick myself into getting stressed by First World problems," he says. "Things are going great. Things are going very, very well."

Interview Highlights

On his mother being jailed on and off for having a relationship with Noah's father, who is white

My mom opposed the system as a whole, so she never let that stand in her way, and I think I have a lot of my mom's demeanor. Even when she told me the story she was never angry, she just went, "It's a stupid thing, and so I refused to listen to it."

She never came at it from a place of anger. If anything, she defied it and she didn't give it the credibility that it was trying to create in the world. So that's something that I inherited from my mom — that in my family we're not quick to anger, if anything, obviously there are moments where you find things ridiculous or ludicrous, but not quick to anger, rather find a way to laugh about it or to minimize it using humor. ...

As much as there were the people on the forefront fighting, really every movement is also underwritten to a certain extent by the people who undermine the restriction or the laws that restrict people by just refusing to adhere to those laws.

On growing up in Soweto during apartheid

It was wonderful; it was electric. Even today Soweto is a beautiful community; everyone knows everybody's names, there's just a sense of togetherness. And I think because everyone was going through the same thing, it was a shared experience. It didn't feel like it was suffering.

You knew that there was a cloud hanging over a nation, but there were lots of moments of joy within that time period. The streets were dusty, there weren't many tarred streets. The houses were very modest, because the government would allocate land and that's where you could live. So everyone found a way to make ends meet.

There were seven or eight of us at one point living in a one-room house or two-room house at some point. We had outdoor sanitation, every four or five houses would share one toilet outdoors, and then you would have one faucet outdoors that you could go and get your water from.

But this is how everyone lived, and because everyone was doing it, then it's normal. I'm very lucky in that I never look back at it as a tough upbringing because it was the only upbringing I knew, and everyone was doing it with me. Essentially it's like being in a very stringent fitness class — if everyone is suffering together it doesn't seem so bad.

On the way his family coped after his former stepfather shot his mother

When someone gets shot in the head and suffers no brain damage and is alive and needs to go through no surgery and a bullet completely passes through the head, then you almost have to concede. Who was I to say "I don't believe in miracles" when I've seen this happen in my life?

We laughed about it, we joked — that's really the hallmark of my family is a few days afterwards in the hospital — my mom was the person who cracked the first joke. I was crying by her bedside and she said to me, "Don't cry. Look on the bright side: Now you're officially the best-looking person in the family."

We've overcome a lot because of laughter. I think that's why I love comedy so much, it's because it's the thing that has kept my family going through every single type of adversity.

On being aware of cultural differences in comedy

It's a process of trial and error. You work through the material, you talk to the people. It also helps to live here, which is something I could only do with time. So for instance, in America there's a huge sensitivity around "fat." If you say somebody's fat, because there's been a culture of fat-shaming and there's clearly an epidemic, partly because of the food and just because of the lifestyle and so on that this is no longer being seen as a choice thing anymore.

Whereas where I'm from, you would be teased more for being skinny. Fat and thin were two sides of the same coin; it was never something that could be held over anyone. ... It's not judged as much, it's just a statement of a fact. ... These are small land mines that you pick up as you go from one place to the next; you go, "OK, this is sensitive here but it's not sensitive there."

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On the criticism he received for a tweet from 2014, in which he retweeted: "When a woman is loved correctly she becomes ten times the woman she was before," and then commented: "so she gets fat?"

I'm not surprised by the response to any comedy taken out of context. Comedy is all about context. If you think about the things that you say to your friends or to people you know, if a stranger hears them they would think you're the most horrible human being in the world. When you know someone, that's when it becomes comedy. That's exactly what comedy is: It's a familiarity that is combined with you breaking down a commonly held belief.

So, what was ironic about that tweet that you're reading is that was me and my girlfriend at the time. That's something that no one even bothered to check. You go, "Who was he messaging?" I was speaking to my girlfriend at the time in public, and we were both fat at the time. We had gained a lot of weight, we were both happy, we were both lazy, and so we were joking about it. But people don't bother, they go, "You were fat-shaming a stranger on the Internet!" This is not a stranger, this is somebody that I live with and somebody that I love. ...

With the change in social media and sharing and videos and so on and sound bites, we now live in a world where people are part of conversations that they originally weren't really, so you're now overhearing everything that everybody's talking about and you're not part of the conversation.

On advice he received from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow about dealing with the intensity of daily television

The quickest thing you have to learn is your best show only lasts for a night and your worst show only lasts for a night, and then you're back doing it tomorrow.

Under Apartheid, Trevor Noah's Mom Taught Him To Face Injustice With Humor (2024)


What lessons did Trevor Noah's mom teach him? ›

In addition to encouraging Trevor to read, Trevor's mother also encouraged him to talk about the world in which they lived. She helped him establish his own ideas and taught him how to think critically by interrogating him about various topics and pushed him to think more deeply about those topics.

How did Trevor Noah's mom treat him? ›

She is dedicated to showing Trevor the possibilities that seem out of reach for someone of their family's class status, not to mention race, in South Africa—she does this by encouraging to read voraciously, teaching him English as a first language, and taking him on trips.

What does the dialogue between Trevor and his mom reveal about them as individuals? ›

- The dialogue may reveal Trevor's level of respect and communication style with his mom. - It might also give us clues about Trevor's emotions, concerns, or struggles based on his tone and choice of words.

How do Trevor and his mom fight apartheid? ›

Trevor and his mother both fight apartheid's insistence that blacks only ever speak their ethnic home language by using six different languages to traverse a variety of social contexts and build exactly the kind of interethnic connections that threaten apartheid's strategy of “divide and conquer.” They do not choose ...

What is the most important lesson that Trevor learns from his mom? ›

Patricia chose to give birth to Trevor as an act of protest against apartheid and raised him on her own. Most importantly, she wanted Trevor to be free to go anywhere, to do anything and be anyone. She gave him the tools to do this as well. She taught him English as his first language and read to him constantly.

Why does Patricia tease Trevor? ›

She felt Trevor was lucky when he fell ill on a Sunday since he could be healed at church by Jesus. When Trevor had his hair braided he started getting more attention from girls and began dating. Patricia teased Trevor for spending more money on his hair than she spent on hers.

What did Patricia teach Trevor about adult relationships? ›

Patricia spent a lot of time teaching Trevor how men should interact respectfully and effectively with women. Noah wishes he had learned more from his mother about how to be a boy and how to talk to girls, but Patricia insisted that Trevor learn about more adult interactions.

What sacrifices did Trevor's mother make in order to make sure that she was able to give her son different experiences of the world? ›

She worked long hours and sacrificed her own needs to make sure that her son had everything he needed. Her hard work and determination to provide for her family were an inspiration to Trevor and taught him the value of hard work and perseverance.

How did Trevor's mom teach him to be a man? ›

How did Trevor's mom teach him to be a man? She disciplined him when he was disrespectful. She made him acknowledge her and give her attention. She talked to him about sex and dating.

Why did Trevor's mom choose to have him? ›

Trevor Noah's mom is Patricia Noah. She chose to give birth to Noah as an act of protest during apartheid and raised Noah primarily on her own. Trevor Noah's mom taught him to be assertive, creative, and independent.

What does Trevor have in common with his mother? ›

The two share a strong sense of humor, which they use to get through difficult situations. Although his experiences as a mixed-race person shaped him, Trevor learned to empathize with others by witnessing his mother's relationship with his abusive stepfather Abel.

How did Trevor's mom react to the violence? ›

Answer & Explanation. 6. In "Born A Crime," Trevor Noah's mom reacted to the violence and rioting after Nelson Mandela's release by continuing her daily life without showing fear. She took risks and showed courage, like when she threw Trevor and herself out of a minibus to escape a threatening driver.

What do we learn about Trevor's mom's personality? ›

We learn that Trevor's mom is very stubborn and religious because she is determined to get to church even though their car is broken down and instead catches the minibus to get to church. Page 11: • Trevor shares about his relationship with his mom.

What shocking news does Trevor's mother tell him? ›

Trevor was shocked to learn that his mother had, in fact, paid for Trevor's lawyer. Patricia explained that she was so hard on Trevor because she loved him, and that the world would try to kill him.

What was the difference in the reasoning behind Trevor's discipline with his mom verses at school? ›

The difference in the reasoning behind Trevor's discipline with his mom verses at school is that his mom's discipline was always motivated by love. She wanted what was best for him, and she knew that discipline was sometimes necessary to help him learn and grow.

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